Ringling College Student Helps Put VR to Therapeutic Use

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Pictured: Ringling College student Joseph Janssen stands amongst VR faculty with a headset on to demonstrate the new technology's application to cancer treatment.

Last Friday, Ringling College presented the current state of its Virtual Reality department’s collaboration with Moffitt Cancer Center. The project, which began in 2019, centers on the “gamification” of the patient experience as it relates to those seeking MRI-guided radiation therapy for cancers in the abdomen and chest. And for Ringling College VR student Joseph Janssen, the wunderkind who spearheaded the design of the VR experience, the project provided an opportunity to see just how far VR can go beyond video games and entertainment.

The primary challenges to overcome revolved around the requirement that a patient stay still during treatment. “As a patient breathes in and out during their therapy, a tumor and the surrounding tissue can shift,” says Janssen, “so the goal of the design is to train them to hold their breath and encourage stillness.” That stillness ensures that the radiation therapy can reach its cancerous target with greater accuracy. Greater accuracy means less surrounding healthy tissue is affected by the treatment.  

The VR training regimen will see the prospective patient wear a VR headset in a designated training room at Moffitt Cancer Center, where they will lie down and be coached through the process. On their VR headset, several training environments are displayed that provide calming cues to take deep breaths before holding it for 25 seconds. That amount of time seems simple enough for a held breath, but when anxiety and ill health are involved, a patient’s ability to calmly hold their breath for half a minute is drastically reduced.  

To that end, Janssen had an opportunity to work directly with the patient advisor whiel supervised by the lead research doctor on the project. “I was really grateful to have contact with so many stakeholders,” he says, “and in the end, it’s all about the end user.” In this case, the patient advisor also helped the team come up with fresh ideas for the visual components of the VR module. “Our first thought was a blue sky to simulate open space,” he says, “but the patient advisor gave us the idea of doing a golf environment.”

It’s that level of real-world feedback that the college ultimately sought when it formed its INDEX initiative (INDustry EXperience). “We really want to get our students involved in real-world opportunities,” says VR interim department head Morgan Woolverton, “and Joseph’s sense of adventure was just exemplary and a perfect fit for this project.”

Pictured: Ringling College student Joseph Janssen stands amongst VR faculty with a headset on to demonstrate the new technology's application to cancer treatment.

Learn more about this research project here

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