Inside the Research Process: Iterative Brainstorming for VR Exergames

Tuesday, August 27, 2019
by Games Institute

The Intelligent Technologies for Wellness and Independent Living (ITWIL) Lab develops interactive systems that provide rehabilitative support for aging populations. ITWIL researchers created virtual reality (VR) Exergames in collaboration with physical and occupational therapists from Schlegel Villages in Waterloo to be used by people living with dementia in long-term care homes.

John Muñoz, a postdoctoral fellow of the lab, has been running iterative brainstorming sessions to develop the next version of the VR Exergames for older adults living with dementia, which will build on top of the virtually recreated farm-like activities by incorporating game mechanics and integrating novel standalone VR hardware.

Before the ITWIL researchers are ready to develop, they need to have a strong, thoughtful, and robust foundation for the game concepts that integrate the health care requirements provided by the Schlegel therapists and specialists. Each brainstorming session is critical for the lab’s overall research process and helps bring them closer to being ready to develop Version 2.

Brainstorming board: sticky notes

Brainstorming sessions are time demanding and require resources so it’s crucial that Muñoz prepares well for each session. He considers these four steps to be essential for running a successful brainstorming session:

  1. Get the right (e.g., multidisciplinary, proactive, highly motivated) group of people to work together
  2. Articulate the purpose of the session (e.g., clear, concise and adjusted to the workshop’s length)
  3. Establish a process that will guide the participants to generate the right ideas
  4. Provide the health care requirements so the participants are aware and can use them for idea generation

Getting the right group of people to work together requires an understanding of the stakeholders and the variety of perspectives that can, and should, inform the research directions. Muñoz wants a good mix of people coming from medical and caregiving backgrounds, as well as people with VR, game user research, or physical therapy experience. He also likes to welcome people from other disciplines, like psychology, kinesiology, or engineers (e.g., electrical, system design), who can push the conversation in unexpected directions.

Group of people learning about the session
The first part of every brainstorming session is an introduction to the purpose. Muñoz discusses the work of the ITWIL Lab and then explains the potential of VR Exergames as positive health care interventions for people living with dementia. Then, he outlines the progress of the research (i.e. what previous brainstorming sessions have developed), and concludes by articulating the focus for the present session.

Muñoz develops a process ahead of time for how the session will run: for example, in the session that took place on August 9, he broke the group into groups of three, gave each section a topic, and then brought everyone back together so each section could pitch their ideas to one another.

When I am dividing the group into smaller sections, I make sure that there is a good variety of perspectives. I want at least one person with medical knowledge or a caregiving background in each group, and at least one person with experience with VR. That way, they all have something different to contribute and can bounce off one another.

- John Muñoz

group working together
presenting ideas

Muñoz makes it a point to take away all access to screens. Instead of using computers, participants are provided with chart paper and markers. Instead of using their phones, they are given toys as props. Muñoz wants to eliminate screen distractions so that it’s more likely participants are playing with the toys and engaging with material objects around them.

For example, for the August 9 session, each section was assigned to one of three activities envisioned in the farm scenario: Fishing/Rowing/Water, Seeding/Harvesting, or Animal Caring. The participants were tasked with coming up with movements that fit within their assigned themes and were asked to use the toys to practice how to translate exercises for people living with dementia prescribed by Schlegel therapists and specialists into potential movements in VR.

During the final stage of his brainstorming sessions, Muñoz brings everyone back together for a pitch competition. He asks participants not to hold back:

I want [the participants] to be as critical as they can be because that’s where the value is for me. If they were only congratulating one another on their ideas, we would miss important opportunities for more idea discovery and improvement.

- John Muñoz

Muñoz says that even though he’s already led several iterations of brainstorming sessions, the project still isn’t ready for development – this is particularly unique for a research project of this scale. Typically, researchers would design and iterate based on feedback and analysis.

Sitting on the ground with toys

For ITWIL’s VR Exergames, the brainstorming process runs much longer. Since these VR Exergames will be used by people living with dementia, they need to have thorough, dedicated attention at every stage. This research needs to be developed slowly and carefully: by the time the ITWIL researchers get to the design phase of the project, they will have already consulted on and thought through hundreds of possibilities and opportunities.

The next step is to bring these game design ideas back to a group of therapists and specialists and get feedback on the fidelity of the exercise adaptation. From there, Muñoz hopes to be able to start the development process with the VR company they are collaborating with to finally, start playtesting the prototypes with therapists and end-users