Distracting patients with virtual reality

A young woman wears a virtual reality headset.

Distracting patients with virtual reality

Cancer survivor develops a simulation game to help patients manage pain
June 17, 2016

When he was 17 years old, Henry Lo was diagnosed with lymphoma, which meant that he spent most of his time either at home or in the hospital undergoing chemotherapy. He missed the social interaction he was used to at school and tried to fill that void by reading, surfing the Internet and playing Xbox. Lo found that focusing intensely on one of these activities made him feel less pain from the treatment. Today, Lo is free of cancer and is turning his experience and his newly minted degree into helping other patients.

Lo recently graduated from the Interactive Arts and Technology program at Simon Fraser University (SFU). Together with fellow SFU grad Janice Ng, he created a virtual reality game for teens, Farmooo that is based on his experience: distract the brain from pain by zeroing in on a task. The game, a farm simulation that allows patients to explore farmland, plant, water and harvest carrots in a short amount of time, overloads the brain with cheerful and colourful images, decreasing its ability to process pain and lessening the patient’s awareness of pain. While the game is meant to be relaxing and happy, the farm setting extends a metaphorical message as well: one of growth and prosperity, and encouraging patients to keep fighting.

Farmooo was developed in SFU’s Pain Studies Lab, which was funded by the Canada Foundation for Innovation. Working in the lab gave the students access to the valuable equipment they needed and vital insight and mentorship from Diane Gromala, the lab’s director and an expert on virtual reality. The BC Children’s Hospital has accepted Ng and Lo’s request to do clinical testing with teen cancer patients.

The hospital is planning to construct a new building with a section for pain management, and has shown interest in virtual reality and in Farmooo. If the clinical trials are successful, the hospital may install the game permanently in the facility.