Video Game Technology Gives Veterans New Lease on Life

At the Army Center for Enhanced Performance at Walter Reed, patients returning from combat use driving simulators to adjust to American roads. Video by Mike Musgrove/The Washington Post
By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 21, 2008

Staff Sgt. Brian Schar got behind the wheel of a white Chevy Colorado yesterday and went for a spin. The vehicle remained snugly parked in a room at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Northwest Washington, despite the large screens in front of the truck, which showed a street-level view of small-town America. Traffic was light.

Schar lost his legs in a roadside bombing in Baghdad 14 months ago. Yesterday, he showed off the new simulator, based on video game technology, designed to help patients such as him get comfortable behind the wheel again.

Soldiers serving overseas are taught a different set of driving skills than the rest of us: Speed up when driving through overpasses, don't use turn signals and don't stop at intersections. Walter Reed's new driving simulator is designed to help bring those instincts back to civilian levels, where the rules of the road take priority.

Physical therapists have been using off-the-shelf video game technology for years, said Ben Sawyer, co-founder of Games for Health, a grass-roots organization that has worked to connect video game developers with health-care professionals. Wii-hab (rhymes with rehab) is the term some early adopters have used, but applications aren't limited to the popular Nintendo system. Some tinkerers have figured out how to make a controller for Guitar Hero that can be played with one hand, for example. Such modified game controllers are useful for amputees seeking to take part in the pastimes they enjoyed before they lost a limb, as well as for patients who need to rebuild hand strength.

Basically, doctor-prescribed hand exercises are dull, but video games are fun. And for this generation of soldiers, video games are familiar.

The software behind the simulator was adapted from Unreal II, a shoot-em-up video game from 2003 about space marines that has nothing to do with driving safety. The Army has used the software guts of this computer game as the underlying software engine that powers America's Army, an action game that the military has distributed for free online as a recruiting tool.

While America's Army was designed to get a player's adrenaline pumping, the driving simulator was designed with the opposite goal in mind. As a patient drives the virtual streets, a monitoring device clips lightly on the ear to measure variations in blood pressure. Its readings are displayed on the bottom left of the screen, and therapists keep an eye on the readings to make sure their patient stays relaxed while going through the actions of merging into traffic or parallel parking.

Relaxation is the point of this exercise. "If you have lower amounts of stress, your recovery will be quicker," said Peter Lee, deputy site manager at the Walter Reed facility that houses the simulator.

General Motors donated the truck that patients started climbing into this week. The automaker typically donates between three and eight vehicles a year for use in hospital simulations, said Joseph Langhauser, a program manager at the company.

According to the indicators, Schar stayed calm and relaxed as he headed down the virtual highway.

"I like it," he said matter-of-factly. "It's a lot better than other simulators I've tried."

The Chicago native, who first tried the simulator when it was under development, is already back on the road outside of the Walter Reed therapy center; he just got a D.C. driver's license and a new car. His new real-world ride is a metallic blue Hummer H3.

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