Finding real help in virtual reality

A new therapy pioneered at TAU uses virtual gameplay technology to help burn victims come to terms with their emotional and psychological scars.

computer 88 (photo credit: )
computer 88
(photo credit: )
Many of the half-million burns treated in the US every year lead to permanent scarring; a physical debility that can leave deep mental scars as well. Now, a new therapy pioneered at Tel Aviv University (TAU) may alleviate the psychological effects of burn injuries and help patients heal faster. Best of all, equipment for this therapy is already available at the neighborhood gadget or toy store. According to the American Burn Association, there were 500,000 burn injuries receiving medical treatment in the US in 2007. More than 60 percent of the 40,000 US hospitalizations for burn injury each year are admitted to the 125 hospitals with specialized burn units. Over one-third of burn center admissions (38%) exceeded 10% total body surface area (TBSA), and 10% exceeded 30% TBSA. Most included severe burns to vital body areas such as the face, hands and feet. That means there are a lot of people, mostly male (70%), suffering major scars and the attendant shame, embarrassment and trauma, not just of the accident itself but of the aftermath: going on living with an appearance that has changed irreversibly. Because self-image is such an important component of the healing process, Dr. Joseph Haik, plastic surgeon and burn specialist at TAU's Sackler Faculty of Medicine and director of the Chaim Sheba Medical Center-Tel Hashomer Hospital's Burn Unit and Department of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, has begun prescribing the Sony PlayStation EyeToy to his patients as an important part of the burn treatment protocol. The EyeToy is a digital camera, similar to a webcam, whose technology uses computer vision and gesture recognition to process images, enabling players to interact with games using motion and color detection. "With our method, patients look into the EyeToy and see their images projected on TV," Haik says. "The game recognizes their gestures and shows them to themselves on screen, helping them adjust to what they look like post-burn. That can help combat depression, improve self-image, and encourage patients to move on when other occupational therapies fail," he explains. A very important aspect of healing is coming to terms with scars on the face, hands and other exposed body parts. Depression and other symptoms associated with severe burns can make a full recovery more painful and difficult than it may need to be. That's why the EyeToy can be so useful in helping patients to take the first step in accepting a new self-image, Haik says. "This game, which projects a person's body into the game, presents their injuries in an original way," he explains. "Getting an early understanding of how a patient looks to others is critical for overcoming self-image problems later on. By showing the patient 'inside' the PlayStation game, we distract them from some of the immediate physical trauma and pain, which they gradually learn to accept through game playing." Haik reported on the therapy in a 2006 study and has presented his approach to the American Burn Association and other associations around the world. New treatment modalities are very much needed, he says, and the technology for one already exists. Intensive occupational and physical therapy is crucial in minimizing and preventing long-term disability for burn patients, but therapists face a difficult challenge in combating the agonizing pain they experience. With the EyeToy, therapists can speed the process of rehabilitation and the return of functional ability, says Haik, who adds that the cost-effective solution also serves to distract patients from burn-related pain. The therapy requires no modification to the PlayStation and all games are contact-less, notes Haik. "Some doctors prescribe virtual reality game play that requires the patient to wear special equipment, putting them at risk for infection. But our approach doesn't require the patient to touch a thing." Haik has used the therapy with his own patients for the past several years at the Chaim Sheba Medical Center-Tel Hashomer Hospital's Burn Unit and Department of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, and is looking toward the start of formal clinical trials.