Virtually Fearless

Virtually Fearless

Could there be a future where video games are prescribed by doctors?

Following the senior design project of Bryce Mariano ’15 (web design and engineering major, studio art minor) and Paul Thurston ’15 (computer science and engineering major) a future where video games can heal may be rapidly approaching.

The seniors started their project with the idea of video games for social good, preferably in the area of psychological treatment.

Fortunately, academic advisor and computer engineering Adjunct Lecturer Maria Pantoja was there to help, and after hearing about therapeutic games at a conference came to the conclusion that "developing therapeutic video games beautifully pairs a desire for a career in video game design with the SCU mission of giving back to society."

With the seed for their project planted, Thurston reports, “Our biggest challenge at the beginning was that because we’re engineering students, we didn’t understand the psychology side. We reached out to Dr. Kieran Sullivan [professor and chair of SCU’s psychology department] and through our own research and her feedback, we decided to create a tool to treat phobias such as fear of heights or flying.”

The seniors started their project with the idea of video games for social good.

Their technique uses the Oculus Rift, a virtual reality headset. Mariano, who interned as a graphic designer, worked on the simulation design, while Thurston programmed the controls communication between a computer tablet and the Oculus. He also created a mobile app the therapist uses to control the session.

They started with a fear of heights simulation. As the patient takes in a 360-degree view from atop a building, the therapist can alter the virtual height—backing off or increasing exposure as needed according to the patient’s emotional response. While the team stresses that their tool is for use by trained therapists, Thurston notes that just knowing you can take the goggles off while immersed in the experience may make this form of treatment more approachable for some phobia sufferers.

The project also used open source programs and affordable design. "We hoped to create a platform that would allow others to easily pick up the project where we left off and continue expanding on the library of simulations to treat the widest possible range of phobia patients," said Mariano.

Pantoja appreciates the interdisciplinary experience the project affords the students. "We are really lucky that we can count on the support of the College of Arts and Sciences. The help we are getting from Dr. Sullivan is invaluable. Also, for this project, and for all the video game projects I advise, I call on the expertise of computer engineering alumnus Chris Menezes ’10. Chris works at Disney/Pixar and is providing us with advice on how the video game development process works in the ‘real world’ and how to make games more appealing to customers."

It’s this cooperation between students, alumni, and faculty across campus that’s taking education on the Mission Campus to new heights—in the real and virtual world.