Virtual Solutions for Real World Problems

By Morgan Spehar

Imagine standing on a boat, the waves moving you back and forth and up and down with just enough force that it is almost impossible to concentrate on anything but the movement. In people with Mal de Debarquement Syndrome, or MdDS, this sensation can last for months or years at a time on dry land, and the longer the sensation persists, the less likely it becomes that the disorder will resolve itself.

MdDS is a vestibular disorder, which means it affects the parts of the brain and inner ear that control eye movement and balance. The Vestibular Disorders Association reports that MdDS is often caused when someone is exposed to unfamiliar movement, such as the rocking of a boat, and then the movement is taken away. It’s possible to temporarily regain balance by receiving treatment in a special chamber that utilizes patterns of lines and lights to realign eyesight.

Because it is incredibly uncommon, treatment is expensive and difficult to find, but developments that have made certain technologies cheaper and more accessible mean that help could soon be coming from an unlikely place.

Reilly Zink, a down-to-earth senior in Media Arts and Studies with an enthusiasm for spending time in a VR headset or in front of her phone and computer screens, helped develop a virtual reality application that could treat MdDS from the comfort of a patient’s home.

Reilly Zink, a senior Media Arts and Studies student in the Honors Tutorial College. Photo courtesy of Reilly Zink. 

In her sophomore year at Ohio University, Zink took an independent study with Chang Liu, a professor in electrical engineering and computer science, and started helping with a project that was attempting to use VR to restore balance to the lives of people with MdDS. 

“He told me about his project that they were doing and I [told him], ‘I can recreate that a lot easier, using a game engine that I use in media called Unity Game Engine,’” she said.

Liu agreed to let Zink in on the project, and she spent the semester creating her own version of the project in a medium that was much more visual than the program Lou and the his graduate students had been using to create the application.

“I spent basically that entire year, January to December working on this project,” she said. “I went all the way through, I developed an application, then multiple versions of the application. There were things we needed to change because not everybody’s used to VR.”

The application took the patterns of lights and lines that have helped people with MdDS regain their balance and made them accessible from a smartphone. When the smartphone was hooked up to a virtual reality visor, it could simulate the experience of being in a treatment chamber without disrupting the life of the person being treated. 

As Zink was developing the application, she had to remember that most of the people she was creating the app for would have never used VR before because outside of the treatment, the light and movement in most VR applications can trigger MdDS. 

“It’s kind of backwards logic,” she said, “because they need to be immersed in this space and light that would usually negatively affect them…That’s why it has to be as simple as possible.”

Toward the end of her involvement in the project, Zink helped write a research paper to be submitted to the LifeTech conference in Japan in 2019 and set up interview questions for the people who would be testing the app. Unfortunately, Zink said the project has stalled until more funding can be found, but Zink said that testing had begun to see if the technology was feasible to work long term. 

“In the future it could definitely be an application that could be given out by doctors and downloaded on the phone of the person that need[s] it,” she said. “I think it would be very beneficial to…be able to go about their normal life, say, ‘Oh I’m feeling this imbalance again,’ and do the treatment for however long [the imbalance] lasts.”

Zink working with a VR headset. Photo courtesy of Reilly Zink.

Zink mentioned that she would like to do something in the medical realm once she graduates. She initially stumbled upon virtual reality at OU as a way to combine computer science and visual media, and is now looking for a graduate school with a program that matches her interests. Because the technology surrounding immersive media is so new, it’s proving difficult for her to find a higher degree.

“Virtual reality and augmented reality are just starting out in the college world,” Zink said. “I think that’s awesome, but that also means there might not be classes for what I want to do.”

Right now, Zink is working on her senior thesis for the Honors Tutorial College. She’s creating a game that makes it fun for individuals with cognitive disabilities to learn more about spatial awareness and strategic thinking. 

When talking about her thesis project, Zink smiled and said, “I just think it’s really cool to help aid people in some sort of way, using this fun form of media that’s now emerging.”

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