SFU Surrey students create game to ease discomfort of young cancer patients

The calming game for cancer patients ages 12 to 18 will have them growing carrots and tending their virtual farms while receiving treatment.

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SURREY — A pair of Simon Fraser University students have developed a virtual reality game called Farmooo to help young cancer patients relax during their chemotherapy.

“Farmooo is a VR game that is intended to help teen cancer patients get distracted during chemotherapy treatments and so they will focus more on the activities inside the game, rather than the medical treatment,” said Janice Ng, 23, who with fellow student Henry Lo, 24, developed it.

They are both working on bachelors degrees at the Surrey campus, at the School of Interactive Arts and Technology.

The calming game, aimed at cancer patients ages 12 to 18, will have the patients growing carrots and tending their virtual farms while receiving treatment.

“The game helps young cancer patients by shifting their mindset into the game, rather than their physical surroundings, through immersion,” Ng said. “Put their minds inside the game instead of their surroundings, like maybe needles and stuff.

Lo draws on personal experience, as a cancer survivor. He was in Grade 11 at Fraser Heights Secondary School when he suddenly had difficulty breathing and walking, was diagnosed with lymphoma and underwent chemotherapy.

“I was quite suddenly needing to be in the hospital for extended periods and realized that those can be long days for kids,” he recalled. It’s his aim to develop more games and software that will help ease the discomfort of not only cancer patients but their families as well.

“The idea behind how it works, it is to saturate patients’ minds with wonderful and cheerful sensations that their mind is less prone to painful sensors.”

Meantime, Farmooo will be tested later this spring at BC Children’s Hospital.

Lo and Ng drew inspiration from other games such as Pain Squad, a two-dimensional farm simulation called Farmville and Gardening Mama to develop their game, which will have patients perform tasks through simple hand movements.

Professor Diane Gromala, their supervisor, likened the pain-distracting concept to having children watch television with the dentist works on them.

They hope hospitals will be using it by year’s end.

The game runs on a screen that displays 70 frames per second so the patient doesn’t get dizzy.

“We test the heck out of our technology to make sure people who are sick don’t get more sick,” said Gromala, who is a pioneer in virtual reality technology and holds a Canada Research chair in computational technologies for transforming pain, at SFU.

“The team wanted to do something that offers benefits and meaningful values for the game and VR industry,” Gromala said. “Through their research, the students discovered that most pain research has involved adults rather that teenagers and youths. As Henry learned firsthand, after harsh chemotherapy treatments patients often experience pain and boredom when they are stuck in bed, where discomfort can be more extreme at a younger age.”

Gromala also works with VR companies in Seattle, as well as Stanford University, and designs VR games for children at Boston Children’s Hospital. She likes the direction Ng and Lo have taken with Farmooo.

“It think it’s a really hopeful approach,” she said. “You’re growing things for the future. They intended it. They spent a lot of time conceptualizing what kind of game they should create.”

tom.zytaruk@thenownewspaper.com

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