Researcher studying whether world of ‘Second Life’ can help amputees adjust to their prosthetics

[From the South Florida Sun-Sentinel; more information is available from Nova Southeastern University]

Research team in Second Life

[Image: This screen shot shows the avatars of the research team members in an area of the private Second Life island where amputees will be able to meet virtually as part of the study. (Photo courtesy Nova Southeastern)

Amputees navigate virtual world in NSU study

By Nicole Brochu, Staff writer
December 19, 2013

A Nova Southeastern University researcher is studying whether the virtual reality world of ‘Second Life’ can help amputees adjust to their prosthetics.

Video games don’t have to be just for fun. The hope is that they can also be life-changing for those with disabilities.

Thanks to a nearly $1 million government grant, a Nova Southeastern University researcher is studying whether the virtual reality world known as “Second Life” can help amputees adjust to their prosthetics by practicing certain moves on the computer.

“The ultimate goal is to teach amputees how to self-manage their chronic conditions,” said Sandra Winkler, a faculty researcher and assistant professor for the Department of Occupational Therapy in Nova Southeastern University’s College of Health Care Sciences. She was awarded a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ Agency for Healthcare Research & Quality.

Many amputees struggle with secondary medical conditions like phantom pain and overuse of the remaining limb, Winkler said. Research has also shown many don’t feel confident or comfortable enough to use their prosthetics. The study is designed to help them overcome such challenges.

In January, Winkler and her team plan to begin recruiting 96 amputees from around the world through veterans’ hospitals, vendors, support organizations and other groups. Half of the participants will be randomly chosen to access an “island” created just for them on “Second Life,” a computerized universe similar to the online game website, “World of Warcraft,” where users design their cartoon-like avatar and navigate a world with activities, games and other interactions. There, the amputees will be able to virtually experience riding a jet ski, diving in coral reefs, climbing stairs or sitting in an armless chair while using their prosthetics.

The exercises should help them better visualize how the prosthetic limbs are supposed to work, Winkler said, adding that the peer groups common to “Second Life” are also expected to provide the emotional assistance that many amputees find lacking.

“Patients will be able to enter our virtual island and simulate what it is like to once again use their missing limbs,” Winkler said. “This has the possibility to make life better for so many amputees, and all they will need is an Internet connection.”

The “Second Life” world will also allow them to test out different models of prosthetics in a virtual shop, attend educational seminars and engage in forums where they can anonymously discuss daily challenges. About one in five of its users is disabled in some way, said Alice Krueger, founder of Virtual Ability, the company subcontracted to develop and manage study participants’ presence on “Second Life.”

The other half of the study’s participants will take an online self-guided course with video tutorials and other e-learning tools on prosthetics. Both groups will take pre- and post-tests to determine the difference in their prosthetic use, sense of independence, self-confidence, desire to learn and their physical and emotional health, Winkler said.

Their use of the two platforms will be studied for a month, with a follow-up questionnaire sent to them five weeks later.

The study comes as research in other parts of the country has shown that video games have therapeutic benefits for patients with cancer, diabetes, asthma, depression, autism, stroke-related challenges and Parkinson’s disease.

One longtime user of “Second Life” expects Winkler’s study participants to see results from their time in the virtual-reality world.

“In effect, ‘Second Life’ was my trial ground for learning to be disabled in an able-bodied world,” said the Cambridge, England-area user, who goes by the pseudonym Sue Bailey in “Second Life.” (All users are given anonymity, Krueger said.)

Seriously injured in a car accident seven years ago, Bailey is paralyzed from the chest down and uses a wheelchair.

“Emotionally, I think it will be really interesting [to see] how people respond to seeing themselves walking around with prosthetic limbs, AND sharing with others in the same boat,” Bailey said through the chat function in “Second Life.”

“Peer support has been unbelievably important for me here.”


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