USA — Avatar Project Seeks to Help Military Amputees

FORT DETRICK, Md. — 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.”

So dur­ing AVESS’ sec­ond phase, to begin soon, ADL will devel­op a vir­tu­al envi­ron­ment on Sec­ond Life Enter­prise, an updat­ed ver­sion of Sec­ond Life, using a pri­vate, secure serv­er.

Com­par­ing the con­cept to what movie­go­ers saw on the big screen in “Avatar,” Fish­er said she sees tremen­dous ther­a­peu­tic val­ue in enabling amputees to define their avatars as they choose, and to immerse them­selves in those char­ac­ter­is­tics as they inter­act with oth­er avatars.

Some may elect to reveal their ampu­ta­tions in their avatars, assign­ing them pros­thet­ic limbs to match their own. Oth­ers may choose not to, pre­fer­ring to use the vir­tu­al world as a tem­po­rary escape, as depict­ed in the “Avatar” movie when Jake’s avatar was able not only to walk, but also to fly among the beings in the mag­i­cal land of Pan­do­ra.

But for users in the lat­ter cat­e­go­ry, Fish­er said, she expects many to reveal their true char­ac­ter­is­tics as they become more com­fort­able com­mu­ni­cat­ing with oth­er peo­ple in the vir­tu­al envi­ron­ment.

For some, the trans­for­ma­tion may come as users come to accept them­selves and their new appear­ance – some­thing Fish­er said is dif­fi­cult enough in a hos­pi­tal set­ting, where mil­i­tary amputees are sur­round­ed by oth­er peo­ple who look like them, but even more so as they try to rein­te­grate into their com­mu­ni­ties.

Fish­er called AVESS a promis­ing new devel­op­ment at the Army’s Telemed­i­cine and Advanced Tech­nol­o­gy Research Cen­ter, which is over­see­ing the pro­gram for the Army Med­ical Research and Materiel Com­mand.

“Our man­date is to explore new tech­nol­o­gy and how it can sup­port ser­vice per­son­nel,” she said. “This is an excit­ing project for [the research cen­ter], because it will let us define what we see as a poten­tial­ly effec­tive way to pro­vide anoth­er form of sup­port to mil­i­tary amputees.”

Alice Kruger, pres­i­dent of the non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tion Vir­tu­al Abil­i­ty — which is col­lab­o­rat­ing with ADL on the project — shares Fisher’s excite­ment about the doors AVESS will open to enhance wound­ed war­riors’ qual­i­ty of life.

“For indi­vid­u­als with dis­abil­i­ties, vir­tu­al worlds are a pow­er­ful way to con­nect with oth­ers, to access peer sup­port and to par­tic­i­pate in activ­i­ties that might not oth­er­wise be pos­si­ble,” she said. “This project will estab­lish the best way to adopt this tech­nol­o­gy for the unique needs of the mil­i­tary amputee com­mu­ni­ty.”

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)