Gaming Technology Meets Elder Care In Europe

Verve project uses gaming and virtual reality technology to support treatment of people with chronic neurological and mental health disorders.

Gary Flood, Contributor

January 8, 2013

5 Min Read

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There are two surprising things about Verve, a 4.6 million Euro (about $6.02 million) project to investigate how gaming technology can help vulnerable older Europeans, that shouldn't really be surprising at all. One, it's using gaming technology to help seniors. Two, it's a European project where the collaborators actually seem to like each other and are making real progress as a result.

Just why are these features of the project, a research initiative of computer scientists, academics and healthcare professionals from Italy, France, Ireland, Spain, Germany and the United Kingdom funded by the European Commission's Seventh Framework research program, surprising, then? It may be that the idea of developing new tools using game technology to support the treatment of people at risk of social exclusion, either because of fear and apathy associated with aging or because of a neurological disorder, sounds like a fantastic idea.

But for whatever reason, gaming -- as both a market and a culture -- is still seen as a minority interest by the majority of Europeans, really the domain of males, teenagers and/or the possibly socially inadequate. But the reality is very different from that perception; for example, of the 25 million Germans who regularly play computer games, 11 million are women, said the German Trade Association of Interactive Entertainment Software (BIU). In the U.K., according to a 2011 study, the gender balance is even more equal, with 51% of men and 49% of women identifying themselves as game players. Then there's the age issue: The same research found that no less than one in three regular British gamers say they are in the 45 to 65 age bracket, with the report concluding gaming is now definitely a mainstream activity.

[Learn more about how technology is transforming patient care. See 5 Healthcare Tools To Boost Patient Involvement.]

But the Verve team isn't looking to expand the skill sets of determined older Fruit Ninja masters. Instead, they are looking to build therapeutic tools based on what they find useful from personalized virtual reality environments, 3-D Web graphics and serious computer games to help vulnerable people carry out daily activities in a fulfilling and dignified manner.

The plan is to create computer-generated human personalities -- avatars -- that look and speak like believable humans, and place them in computer games to model everyday scenarios such as cooking and shopping that citizens with Alzheimer's, mental health issues like phobias or fear of falling (very common in older people), or other challenges can play with to learn or re-acquire core skills. Some of the main technologies Verve uses include XML3D (an integration of interactive 3-D graphics into Web browsers); XFlow and other related technologies to create a common visualization platform; hardware acceleration using interfaces like CUDA or OpenCL; and image-based capture and display, supported by graphic information system technology.

"We're looking to see if we can solve specific clinical problems by employing existing technology from the entertainment sector that's never been applied to clinical issues," explains one of the project's managers, Richard Reilly, professor of neural engineering at Trinity College, Dublin.

So if using game technologies and approaches to help vulnerable adults turns out to be not that surprising, once you think about it, why is it notable that Verve's 10 partners are actually making real progress, and at the halfway point of this three-year initiative fully expect to deliver real outputs, e.g., some realistic games by the end of 2014, possibly even commercial versions sometime in 2015?

Here's the "dirty little secret" about Europe all Europeans know, but not that many North Americans seem to: there's really no such thing. In reality, despite the Common Market being started as long ago as 1957 and the so-called European Community coming into official existence 20 years ago, Europe -- which as a trading entity, if not a full-fledged federal polity, stretches from the west coast of Ireland to the borders of Russia -- has 27 independent member states, 23 official languages plus six semi-official ones (including Catalan and Welsh), and as it stands, no fewer than 11 currencies.

That complexity means common European projects can be hideously bureaucratic, poorly integrated and too often include participants there more for tokenistic than practical reasons. "I was very skeptical about all this, as it did seem like the usual disparate bunch of Europeans," said Brian Gannon, business development manager from Belfast, Ireland-based software firm Kainos, one of the lead technical partners. "Often in these big consortia you have lots of overlap between the partners."

But Gannon, a PhD in computer science and economics, says things are different with Verve, compared to the many other cross-border activities he's taken part in. "This one's worked very well as the aims have been well structured, the chosen participants all have relevant things to bring to the table, and it's been very well managed and governed." English is the only language so far used in discussions, he said, though when eventually deployed the avatars will of course speak Spanish or Italian as needed.

He said Verve's tight organization's been confirmed by its paymasters, too: "When you do one of these projects, you get a project director from the [European] Commission -- a minder from Brussels. His latest report on our progress was very complementary about how we'd all gelled as a team here." That's a tick in the box confirmed by Reilly: "Language and culture differences, all too often the barriers to progress with European cooperation, really haven't been a factor so far."

It's too early to say if Verve really will help sufferers of chronic medical issues get back on track with tricks and insights borrowed from computer games. But it's refreshing to see this sort of innovation being attempted -- and by Europeans working together successfully for once, too.

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