A walk in the (virtual) park

Alyn Hospital receives VR system to help autistic children.

Senserum CEO Yotam Bahat watches over Josh Marks as he tries out a new system designed to expose autistic children to stimuli in a safe envornment. (photo credit: ROCKY BAIER)
Senserum CEO Yotam Bahat watches over Josh Marks as he tries out a new system designed to expose autistic children to stimuli in a safe envornment.
(photo credit: ROCKY BAIER)
When Josh Marks slipped on a pair of HTC Vibe Virtual Reality goggles, he found himself in a virtual playground complete with a fantasy space slide, swings that gave the feeling of movement and computer-generated children.
The new VR system was designed to help autistic children and was donated to Jerusalem’s Alyn Orthopedic Hospital and Rehabilitation Center by Josh and his family as part of Josh’s bar mitzva. The donation is the latest in three generations of charity from the Marks family to the facility.
“My late mom was a cofounder of the Southport Friends of Alyn,” said Nicky Marks, Josh’s mother. “So I grew up always hearing the words ‘Alyn Hospital.’” As a kid, Nicky visited the hospital from her home in Southport, England. She now brings her own children there.
Southport is a tiny seafront town that “no one knows about,” according to Nicky.
The family raised NIS 20,000 to donate to Alyn Hospital. To raise the money, Nicky ran in four marathons, Josh’s aunt swam and Josh donated 20% of his bar mitzva money.
The VR system, designed by start-up company Senserum, helps to expose autistic children to stimuli in a safe environment. It is housed in a large room, empty except for a desk, a computer and the VR goggles wired to a computer.
“The reasoning behind the development of the playground was to give children with autism the ability to interact with children in a controlled environment,” said Naomi Gefen, the deputy director general of clinical services and an occupational therapist.
“[It] enables them to practice social skills where they won’t be pushed away or not taken seriously.”
Josh is autistic, so the donation was a perfect match for the family.
“It’s perfect because originally it was designed for children with autism, which is exactly what Josh has,” said Josh’s brother, Daniel Marks. “That’s why it was so special.”
“[The system] gives them abilities that they don’t have in the real world,” Gefen said.
Gefen can program the system to show a balloon over a patient’s head and have a child push themselves out of a wheelchair to touch it. When they reach the balloon, they see it pop.
Eventually, Alyn therapists hope to use the system for physical therapy in addition to occupation therapy.
The creators of Senserum, CEO Yotam Bahat and CTO Doron Weiss, trained the therapists at Alyn to use the system.
They designed it to have 12 levels to slowly introduce new elements, isolating singular elements with each level. This flexibility helps the therapists in tailoring the system to the needs of each child.
“As therapists who work with children that are going through rehabilitation, it’s our challenge to find the modalities that they connect to,” Gefen said. “Some of them are in rehabilitation for a very long time and if they have to do the same thing all the time it becomes tedious and they won’t cooperate.”
For Josh’s family, this is just another part of their legacy, adding to donations such as ambulances and respiratory rehabilitation equipment.
Surrounded by family and friends as he tried out the system in a large empty room, Josh continued a movement that will help kids with disabilities for many years to come.