A group of University of Saskatchewan students are working on a video game that could yield huge therapeutic benefits for children with cystic fibrosis.
The game is in development by fourth year students Thomas Bazin, Tyler Spink and Dalton Mainil — who are all working on double majors in electrical engineering and computer science — and is based around an existing cystic fibrosis therapy called positive expiratory pressure.
PEP therapy involves exhaling into a plastic tube and maintaining a certain air pressure inside for a set number of breaths and time. Bazin, Spink and Mainil’s game uses this mechanic as its core aspect.
PEP therapy is important because cystic fibrosis primarily affects the respiratory system. The disease causes severe mucus buildups in the lungs, making it difficult to clear bacteria. Accumulated bacteria can lead to chronic infection and inflammation of lung tissue. There is currently no known cure.
The three students, collectively known as Onatha Studios, have developed three game scenarios thus far with various aspects controlled by the patient maintaining air pressure.
In one, the air pressure in the tube controls the speed of a rocket flying through outer space. In another, the height of the player as they fly through a virtual world and collect prizes is affected. The third scenario has the patient’s jumping and hovering abilities in the game as variables.
The game “uses the actions they do during physiotherapy as an input to control a video game,” Mainil said. “Instead of just doing therapy, they’re playing a game which rewards them for regular and accurate performance of that therapy.”
The trio also developed the game’s hardware, which replaces the existing PEP device’s reading meter by feeding a digital signal to a computer to control the game.
Typically, PEP therapy requires about an hour of a patient’s day and amounts to blowing into a tube, watching a meter and keeping a bar between two lines. As a result, adding an interactive aspect like a video game could help to break the monotony of the process — especially for children.
“These kids are starting therapy as young as five and they have a hard time understanding why they’re doing this and it also falls on their parents to force them to do it, so we wanted to make the therapy more enjoyable,” Spink said.
Spink added that another benefit of the system is that it gives structure to the therapy.
“Parents don’t need to stand over the kids to make sure they’re doing it properly since the hardware can measure and keep track of everything,” Spink said.
The group has been working with physiotherapists in Saskatoon to ensure the game fits the needs of their patients and is compliant with theraputic methods.
“We want to make the games interesting and we’re experimenting with all these types of game mechanics,” Bazin said. “But at the same time, we want to make sure the integrity of the therapy is maintained.”
The game started as the group’s senior design project in electrical engineering. Students select projects from a list which includes suggestions from industry officials or, in the case of Bazin, Spink and Mainil’s game, from a Saskatoon woman who was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis later in life and suggested developing therapeutic methods that kids would find fun.
“When we saw we could develop a video game that could help people, we thought that was really cool and we jumped on the opportunity,” Bazin said.
However, since the group started working on the project a year ago, it has evolved into more than just a school assignment.
They submitted their project to the i3 Idea Challenge hosted by the Wilson Centre for Entrepreneurial Excellence in May and took the top prize of $15,000.
“We got some great feedback from everyone there and all the in-kind services really helped us to get the ball rolling and take our prototype and develop it into something we could market and sell,” said Spink.
Mainil said that they will be putting the prize money back into the project,
The group has no set timeline of when the project will go to market, and said that it is still very much in the development phase. However, they said they will be using their final year in school further refining the game, continuing work with physiotherapists and building business connections for the eventual release.
Photo: David Stobbe