New professor develops virtual reality 'edutainment' for healthcare professionals


Professor Minhua Ma makes her mark in the games industry developing virtual reality solution

Researchers and practitioners in the burgeoning area of ‘serious games’ are using video game-based technologies such as virtual reality – more widely associated with entertainment – in order to make breakthroughs in many aspects of healthcare and education.

A leader in the field is the University of Huddersfield’s Professor Minhua Ma, co-editor of a substantial new book on the subject and the chairman of an international conference that will bring together experts from around the world.

A computer scientist by training, Professor Ma was introduced to serious games during doctoral study that led to her developing virtual reality games to help with the rehabilitation of stroke victims. She has since published a large number of articles and books, the latest being the edited volume Virtual, Augmented Reality and Serious Games for Healthcare 1 . It has contributions from almost 100 global experts and is aimed at healthcare professionals, scientists, researchers and students.

Professor Ma’s contributions to the 568-page book includes an introduction – written with co-editors Dr Lakhmi C Jain and Professor Paul Anderson – which states that serious games are now a multi-billion dollar industry and they have primarily been used as 'a tool that gives players a novel way to interact with games in order to learn skills and knowledge, promote physical activities, support social-emotional development and treat different types of psychological and physical disorders' such as Parkinson’s disease, autism, cystic fibrosis and other chronic respiratory diseases.

She has also contributed two chapters – one co-authored with Professor Anderson and Dr Matthieu Poyade - on using a haptic-based VR system for dental education and the other co-authored with Dr Andreas Oikonomou and others on gaming physiotherapy for children with cystic fibrosis.

The book has six sections, covering topics that include serious games in medical education and healthcare management, nursing training, healthy behaviour and how virtual reality can play a role in neuropsychology. There are also sections that cover applications in motor rehabilitation and how therapeutic games can be used to treat a wide range of diseases.

Professor Minhua Ma

Professor Minhua Ma

Augmented reality

An innovative aspect of the book, says Professor Ma, is its examination of the healthcare role of the relatively new technology of 'augmented reality', also known 'mixed reality', which takes actual real-world footage and mixes it with computer-generated imagery. For example, an interactive augmented reality was developed for Parkinson's disease patients to practise tasks in an immersive environment where they could interact with both real-life items and virtual objects using their bare hands. There are also location-based games – combing the real-world location with computer gaming elements – that encourage people to be more physically active.

The book also emphasises the role of virtual reality in the field of pain management by the creation of a soothing, immersive environment. High-quality sound as well as visuals is important here, stressed Professor Ma.

Professor Ma joined the University of Huddersfield’s School of Art, Design and Architecture as director of internationalisation in 2014. Her previous post was Professor of computer games technology at Glasgow School of Art’s Digital Design Studio. Her arrival at Huddersfield meant she could offer the university as the venue for the Sixth International Conference on Serious Games Development and Applications (SGDA), which has previously been held in a number of European countries.

Professor Ma will chair the 2015 event, which takes place on June 3-4 and which for the first time will be held jointly with the annual GameDays Conference , bringing a very wider range of researchers to the University of Huddersfield.

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The role of serious games in healthcare will be one dimension of the conference. It will also cover topics such as ‘edutainment’ – the use of computer games for education and training – which is the biggest single application of the technology.