Players take on the form of a dolphin or orca. The swipe of a finger on a touch screen phone or tablet can send the sea creatures soaring in the air or exploring the oceans’ depths in search of a meal.
The team is creating a different game based on similar underlying principles that can be tested in a clinical trial to determine its ability to help patients of stroke recover lost motor function. Participants will play the game to augment traditional therapy. Their results will be compared to a control group that won’t be playing the novel video game to determine who recovers motor function faster.
“I’d been wondering for a long time: Where does the cognitive stop and the motor begin?” neurologist and principal investigator John Krakauer said in an interview with National Geographic in June. “They’re inseparable: Movement is cognition. By studying movement and what it does to people—why they love it, why they’re devastated when they lose it—we can learn so much more about the brain.” Through observation, researchers may discover how movements are learned.
The creators are a diverse group: an artist, a neuroscience and neurology professor, and two software engineers. Together, they married principles of neuroscience and gaming to create a cast of cetacean characters capable of lifelike movements.
Software architect Omar Ahmad and his two colleagues, Promit Royand Kat McNally, logged hundreds of hours at Baltimore’s National Aquarium observing, filming and drawing the dolphins to develop the realistic simulations. “Our simulations have virtual muscles, bones and a functioning motor system that users can actually connect with via their own motor systems,” explains Ahmad. By learning to make these animals move, players might be able to relearn movements that they’ve lost.
The animal avatars are so realistic that the game pulls subjects into a world where they feel as if they are the virtual marine mammals. Researchers hope that by watching users learn how to make the simulations move, they will be able to unlock how movements are learned in the first place.