FORT DETRICK, Md., April 28, 2010 – In the blockbuster movie “Avatar,” Jake Sully, a former Marine who lost the use of both legs in combat, climbs into a vessel that magically restores his body when he assumes a new, 10-foot-tall avatar identity.
A new project being funded through the Advanced Army Medical Technology Initiative promises to bring some of that same technology to real-life wounded warriors to promote their rehabilitation and help to ease their reintegration into society.
The Amputee Virtual Environment Support Space project aims to create a virtual world in which military and veteran amputees can swap information and provide the peer support many lose when they leave military treatment facilities, explained Ashley Fisher, a program manager at the Army’s Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center here.
The project will provide wounded warriors a specialized version of the popular “Second Life” computer simulation game, Fisher said. Users will log onto the program through their computers to create an avatar of themselves -- essentially a virtual being, complete with the physical characteristics they assign it.
The avatar will be able to interact with other registered avatar beings – fellow amputees, caregivers, even friends and loved ones – in a virtual world that’s unencumbered by the restrictions of time, distance or disability.
As AVESS develops, users also may be able to check in with their professional caregivers, asking questions, getting information updates, and even seeing online demonstrations of the best way to do a physical therapy exercise or adjust a prosthetic device.
The Telemedicine and Advanced Technology Research Center awarded a contract to ADL Co. last fall to assess the program’s feasibility and identify the best way to deliver it to military amputees.
“We tasked them with coming up with a roadmap, letting us know what was possible in developing a virtual world for amputee veterans, and letting us know what issues there are in terms of privacy, access, authenticating who was coming into the environment, all those types of issues,” Fisher said.
In wrapping up the first phase, the company created a demonstration environment using a standard Second Life platform. “So we did a walk-through of that, and got to see what the capabilities were,” Fisher said.
The first phase also demonstrated the need for a secure server to deny access to unauthorized players and participants known as “griefers,” who just want to annoy or cause trouble for the other players.
“We wanted to avoid that, because we really did want the veterans to be able to go in and express the issues they are having with the people they know are going through the same thing,” Fisher said. “And also, we needed it to be secure, because we want to try to bring families, and possibly even children, into the world, and we can’t really do that on the regular Second Life platform.”