4 minute read

Small Town Guys Make a Big Impact With Virtual Reality

If you have ever experienced an injury that has required occupational therapy, think back to how monotonous those visits could be, not to mention the set of exercises the therapist requires to be done at home. Now imagine meeting with an occupational therapist who says that the healing process will not only be enhanced but engaging. Blake Battles and Dillon Hall have been working for almost two years to make this virtual experience a reality for elementary school students in the district who receive occupational therapy. Blake and Dillon are two EAST students at South Side Bee Branch High School who in 2017 began creating a virtual reality (VR) app to help those in need of occupational therapy enhance their hand-eye coordination and strengthen their visual motor integration.

During their first year in EAST at South Side, Blake approached Dillon about working together on a project that was inspired by watching other students at EAST Night Out, in another school district, use an egg carton and a ping pong ball to demonstrate hand-eye coordination.

Blake recounts how the project and partnership originated: “I approached Dillon about forming a partnership and designing our own hands-on project. Mrs. (Julie) Nelson, our EAST Facilitator, suggested we make an appointment with our school Occupational Therapist, Mr. Marcus Hutto. After meeting with Mr. Hutto, it soon became apparent he already had plenty of paper-and-pencil and game-type hands-on activities. While eating lunch in EAST one day, we discussed the possibility of incorporating VR into our project to make it more sophisticated. We decided to make a VR handwriting game. Mr. Hutto suggested doing something involving hand-eye coordination, that would help strengthen visual motor integration. After brainstorming ideas, we pitched the idea of developing a game that included different sports themes, levels of intensity, and various sports equipment that could be used virtually.”

While using the virtual reality headset, Oculus, and Unity, a game design software, Blake and Dillon designed a program to assist students who have trouble with visual motor integration caused by a limited acuity, visual perception deficits, or a poor fine or gross motor ability.

With Nelson’s guidance and support, Blake and Dillon have written and received funding from two grants to help them purchase items they need in the Unity Asset store – a digital store where users can buy plugins to enhance their software design experience. With these purchases, the two students began beta testing in December 2018 with the guidance of Mr. Hutto. Along the way, they have realized that the app may have more significant implications than just for occupational therapy; stroke patients may also benefit from its programming. The app offers varying degrees of difficulty and is designed for a broad population.

Along the journey of development, there were countless times Blake and Dillon encountered problems. They started with what they thought was a simple task: make a ball roll around on the ground. Soon it became apparent that something that sounded simple was not. It took many attempts, but they finally got the ball rolling. “Getting that ball to roll helped us realize that if we could do this, then there were no limits to what we could accomplish,” shared Dillon. Blake shared similar sentiments as he detailed another unique yet humorous struggle. “When we added the Oculus hardware to our project, any item the player would “pick up” would be shot into the air,” he said with laughter. “Weeks were spent trying to figure out how to fix this problem which was driving us insane, but we conquered it.”

Although VR technology has been around for some time, it has become more prevalent in recent years beyond the gaming world. It can be seen in military, academic, or medical settings enhancing the learning and living experiences of many 1 . Mr. Hutto explains his excitement to be a part of this project with Blake and Dillon. “As the technology becomes more integrated into our smartphones and even televisions this – VR is a growing market for both therapeutic and accessibility applications. It is also heartening to me personally to see high school students taking an interest in using developing technology in ways to help people and society.” While Mr. Hutto’s clients continue to test the app, Blake and Dillon continue to look for ways to improve their product and themselves.

“EAST has helped me be a better student and strive to put as much effort in my other school work as I do in this project,” says Dillon. “Grant writing has helped me become a better writer in general and has given me confidence.”

“EAST has helped me in regards to my critical thinking,” says Blake. “I have gone from relying on others and their knowledge of EAST, to sitting down and thinking of every option of how I could develop this better and how the students could benefit from it.”

“I believe EAST has also provided this facilitator with those same relevant, life-changing experiences that are promised to the students,” says Mrs. Nelson. “... I have learned new techniques and how to troubleshoot better.”

Mrs. Nelson described the growth students display after spending time in an EAST environment as astounding. The sophistication of their projects not only helps them but their facilitators and community members as well. What typically starts as a project in the mind of a student, can quickly transform into a path of development for self-confidence, lasting friendships, and an impactful service. Technology is all around us, and EAST students are using it to accomplish great things in their community. These young men want the rest of the world that has not had an encounter with an EAST environment yet to know that if two small-town boys can put in the hard work to accomplish something of this magnitude, so can you!

1 Pullen, J. P. (2015, November 20th)Everything to Know About Virtual Reality. Time Magazine Vol.186 No.21.