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Health Care and Video Games, There’s an App for That

From Utah Policy 

Written by Elenor Heyborne on 26 May 2014.

The Princeton Review ranks the University of Utah’s Entertainment Arts and Engineering program (EAE) among the top five schools in the nation for both undergraduate and graduate programs.

So, it is no surprise when the program turns out winning student teams of video game design and production, or that it can successfully cross in to the medical world by building innovative therapeutic apps.

The Utah Science and Technology Research initiative’s (USTAR) digital media team supports the EAE program with two researchers, Craig Caldwell and Cem Yuskel, to develop and accelerate technology commercialization of digital media research and tools.

The EAE program at the University of Utah (U of U) is an interdisciplinary endeavor between the College of Engineering and the College of Fine Arts Department of Film & Media Arts.  Overlap between the three tracks in the program (artist track, producer track and engineering track) provides a unique environment of collaboration between students. Additionally, top industry professionals from companies like EA and Starcom teach classes and provide one-on-one attention and feedback.

CyberHeist Team 
A team of 13 students from the Entertainment Arts and Engineering: Master Game Studio (EAE:MGS) were winners of the annual Independent Games Festival student showcase. Along with eight other teams, they were chosen from a pool of 350 game entries across the world. The showcase winners’ games were playable on the Expo show floor at the recent Game Developers Conference (GDC) held in San Francisco.

The U of U was represented by their team Hack n’ Hide. The team entered their game “Cyber Heist” which is a two person co-op game in which the duo plays the role of two post graduate students breaking in to a futuristic department of education to eliminate records of student debt. The idea for the game came when Hack n’ Hide realized that between the 13-team members (nine engineers, two producers, a designer and an artist), they had a combined total of more than $750,000 in student debt.

The game was developed to play on a computer platform; however one of the players can play on a tablet device.

“Early on we decided that we wanted to create this game not only for different game-play styles, but also for different devices and platforms as well,” said Christopher Rawson, lead engineer for Hack n’ Hide. “We developed it with tablets in mind, so you can play the hacker interface on your iPad.”

“Cyber Heist” is centered on creating trust between the two players who are different player-types; one is more strategy oriented (the hacker) and the other plays a first person stealth game. The hacker, who has a blueprint of each level of the department of education, communicates to the stealth player where to go, the position of guards, what doors to bust through and how to avoid detection.

“The need to have two players is actually one of the cool things about ‘Cyber Heist’,” said Jake Muehle, lead designer for team Hack ‘n Hide. “It is an asymmetrical game play where the hacker uses a totally unique interface.”

The team showcased the game at the GDC this past March, and had a booth where attendees were encouraged to play-test “Cyber Heist” and ask the team questions. The conference enabled the team to network and market the game to an audience of game lovers and game publishing companies alike. The exposure created a PR wave and introduced the team to several game publishing contacts.

“One thing that sets our program apart is the faculty that we have here,” said Zac Truscott, lead producer for Hack n’ Hide. “We have many professional faculty that come in from the industry; people from Disney, EA or Starcom and other local studios will come in and work with us. The staff that are teaching us are actually people currently doing this type of work, so we leave feeling really prepared to work, and to do so in a team environment.”

The Gapp Lab 
In addition to the award winning video game design and engineering coming out of the EAE program, the U of U is also producing therapeutic games and apps to be utilized in the medical world.

Twenty two students from the EAE:MGS program are selected to work in The Therapeutic Games and Apps Lab (The Gapp Lab), a collaboration between EAE, the Center for Medical Innovation and the Eccles Health Sciences Library. They play an integral part in the research and development, production and execution of interactive, medically focused apps.

Led by Roger Altizer, EAE faculty and director of digital medicine, and Amy Adkins, executive producer, The Gapp Lab was created to provide a space where medical practitioners and game developers in the EAE program could collaborate on projects to change the future of healthcare.

“The Gapp Lab represents a collaboration that can only happen at a world-leading research institution like the U of U,” said Altizer. “By combining efforts from the health sciences campus with non-medical programs, we are able to lead the way in innovative digital health research.”

Projects currently being developed in The Gapp Lab include an electronic health record app where medical records can be stored, an app that teaches college students how to use nano tubes, an app that helps mobilize notifications from hospitals and a web app that helps adolescents with cancer treatments.

According to Altizer, what sets the Gapp Lab apart from other labs developing medical and therapeutic apps is its proximity to world-class researchers, and its successful collaboration between three different colleges on the U of U’s campus.

“Most efforts in the development of medical games and apps either involve clinicians hiring an outside company or a game company hiring medical professionals to consult,” said Altizer. “We believe that the strength of the U of U is having world-class researchers in a variety of areas. By bringing game developers and medical researchers together we can develop medical games and apps that are innovative, highly engaging and clinically validated.”

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