For the fall 2016 semester, Kun Cheng, an Entertainment Arts and Engineering (EAE) graduate student, was the lead engineer developing a virtual reality video game for students with autism through the Therapeutic Games & Apps Lab (or Gapp Lab).

Given the framework provided by University of Utah dance instructor Eric Handman, EAE students under Cheng’s leadership created an interactive VR game that allowed autistic students to control a school of virtual fish while taking dance lessons. The game, Choreografish, helps teach spatial skills for students with autism.
Autism is often characterized by stimulus over selectivity, or the tendency to focus on a minute object rather than the whole picture. Cheng and Gapp Lab’s game worked to address this condition in students in relation to their dance education.

Understanding this increased sensitivity, Cheng’s team aimed to create a calming environment that involved students within autism. “We wanted to give them an environment that doesn’t feel very tense,” Cheng said. “There is no score in that game, there are no requirements. The game is just for creation, for enjoyment.”

The game shows an immersive virtual underwater world. The player wears a headset on their eyes and holds two controllers to control the game. By using the two hand controllers, the user can move a school of fish within the game.

“Choreography is all about movement and music,” Cheng said. “So we just combined the movement — which is the movement of the controller — and enabled control of the shape and speed of the school of fish.”

Cheng added: “There is some music that the player can choose. The player can shape the school of fishes with the music, and they can record their progress. They can create something that is really cool, where they can keep calm in the environment and feel.”

Several students with autism tested Choreografish in the Gapp Lab and provided evaluation feedback. It’s currently in further development at the school of dance at the U.
“Teamwork played an important role in the development of ACEE. This project was the team’s success. My teammates were talented and team players,” Cheng said, crediting Sydnie Ritchie, the team producer, and Jeff Jackman, the artist on the team.

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Find this article and a lot more in the 2017 “Student Innovation @ the U” report. The publication is presented by the Lassonde Entrepreneur Institute to celebrate student innovators, change-makers and entrepreneurs.

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