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SFU students design virtual reality game for cancer patients

Farm simulation game helps with pain management, according to developers

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Stuck in a hospital bed is an odd place for inspiration, but this was the case of SIAT student Henry Lo, who was diagnosed with lymphoma in grade 11.

Now cancer-free, Lo has used his past experience as well as his studies in interactive arts and technology to give back to the community. Along with fellow SIAT grad Janice Ng, who also visited the hospital quite often due to a weak immune system, the two have developed Farmooo, a virtual reality video game for cancer patients. 

Reflecting on the project, Ng said that she and Lo decided to take the course since they both wanted to make a game, but also wanted to create something for a good cause.

Farmooo — developed under the supervision of Dr. Diane Gromala, the director of SFU’s Pain Studies Lab — “is intended to help teen cancer patients get distracted during chemotherapy treatments. . . so [that] they will focus more on the activities inside the game, rather than the medical treatment,” Lo said in a statement to The Peak.

Inspired by popular online games such as Farmville and Gardening Mama, Lo and Ng were able to create this virtual reality game that helps cancer patients “by shifting their mindset into the game rather than their physical surroundings through immersion.

“[Farmooo] saturates patients’ minds with wonderful and cheerful sensations [so] that their mind is less prone to painful senses.”

“Simply, [Farmooo] saturates patients’ minds with wonderful and cheerful sensations [so] that their mind is less prone to painful senses,” Lo added.

Once they came up with the idea, the pair began looking for a supervisor who could assist them in the process. Opting to take a directed studies course landed them with Dr. Gromala, a professor who usually teaches at the graduate level. Dr. Gromala saw eagerness, intelligence, and motivation in both Lo and Ng. Lo recalled how “intimidating” it was to contact her to be their supervisor for the project. But for Dr. Gromala, taking them on was not a problem.

“I consider myself to have a rigorous screening process,” Dr. Gromala said with a laugh. “It was very obvious that they were talented, and had a lot of personal experience to bring to the project.”

Dr. Gromala said that Lo and Ng’s project comes at a special time, with technology continuing to advance each day. Further, she said that this is an excellent example of how SFU is able to engage students, and the community, through its research.

“This is a perfect way for them to give back to the community, to help patients benefit from what they are doing. It can also inspire patients, something like, ‘This game was made by someone who survived!’”

When asked about the future of Farmooo, Lo said he hopes that this project can help draw attention to virtual reality, beyond the scope of gaming or the entertainment industry. Ultimately, Lo would like to see VR being developed in the medical field. Ng echoed that sentiment, explaining that they hope to expand the game to adapt to different mediums and modes of interaction.

“We are currently working closely with BC Children’s Hospital to get our ethics proposal done, [and] eventually we see it being installed in the new hospital,” Ng said. If all of this goes well, Lo said that Farmooo could potentially be available for use by the end of this year.

In reflecting on his time at SFU and the excitement that has come with this project, Lo was thankful that SFU provided him and Ng with the opportunity to have their own “directed studies,” and urged other students to pursue their dreams and passions, and take risks.

“If Janice and I decided to just finish the normal courses and requirements and just graduate, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” Lo said.

“Whether it is career choices, love choices, health choices. . . it is us who needs to work hard for it.”

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