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Research: Virtual Reality Medicine

News Story

Seidenberg Professor Jean Coppola, Anthony Bonifacio ’17, and Alexa McKenna ’17—AKA Team DiscoVeR—have designed a virtual reality app that can have a considerable impact on the medical field.

In the 21st century, digital technologies and innovations are often coined “disruptors,” given their ability to fundamentally alter the scope of established industries. Yet while this term may sound negative, disruptive technology can oftentimes save lives—or greatly improve the quality of life for many.

Through developing a virtual reality app to greatly assist the rehabilitation of post-stroke patients, Team DiscoVeR is seeking to do just that.

“DiscoVeR started when I was approached by my professor with a project that Burke Medical Rehabilitation Center was working on. Burke wanted a virtual reality app to aid with studies of post stroke patients,” says Seidenberg student Anthony Bonifacio ’17.

The professor Bonifacio is referring to is Seidenberg’s Jean Coppola, who also serves as the coach of Pace’s mobile app team. At the time, Coppola was working with Dr. David Putrino, Burke Rehab’s Director of Telemedicine and Virtual Rehabilitation, to develop potential projects for mobile app students. Putrino recommended the aforementioned project to her—a virtual reality app designed to help post-stroke patients—which, due to the vast medical improvements it would be able to afford, was an idea Coppola sought to pursue further.

“About 15% of post-stroke patients have a vision challenge…the world looks tilted,” says Coppola. “When they go into the hospital for rehabilitation, they have to use very expensive equipment and slowly but surely change the degrees of the environment to rehabilitate. With this app, the patients do the same thing essentially, but wear the virtual reality goggles and determine how many degrees they’re off—and the app can slowly change the vision of what they’re seeing.”

Coppola noted that the app would be groundbreaking for two reasons; one, it enables the elimination of the expensive machinery; and two, post-stroke patients, for whom transport is often an issue, would be able to rehabilitate from their homes.

To further execute the vision for the app, Coppola enlisted the help of two Pace students—Bonifacio, a computer science major, to tackle development, and Alexa McKenna ’17, an entrepreneurship major, to handle the business side. 

As McKenna notes, the partnership was quite effective.

“Anthony had his concept and a lot of the development side done, so I worked with his idea and came up with a pitch presentation, pitch book, PowerPoint, the marketing research.”

The duo’s means of collaboration was also quite representative of how work is conducted in the 21st century. Since they hailed from different campuses—Bonifacio studies in Westchester, while McKenna is earning her undergraduate degree in NYC—creating a successful app required quite a bit of expert coordination.

“We would meet up once a week through teleconferences, conference calls to discuss what we were doing,” says McKenna. “We got the wireframes (still images of the app) and PowerPoints done through e-mail, and since Professor Coppola was on both campuses, we could meet with her physically.”

“It was a really fun experience,” she added, “because you were working independently, but knew your teammate was there.”

By spring of 2016, the app was ready for presentation at the Westchester Smart Mobile App Development Bowl, an annual contest that challenges students to create an app that will improve the quality of life for people age 65 and older. Bonifacio and McKenna’s hard work was rewarded at the competition, as Team DiscoVeR took home the top honor in the “Digital Catnip Creativity” category.

 “It was nice to branch out and do a regional competition to see what everyone else is doing—to see trends, and see how people are starting to work on and develop apps,” says McKenna.

In the coming months, Team DiscoVeR will look to build upon the momentum from the Westchester Mobile App Bowl, and perhaps enter more competitions. And while Bonifacio continues developing the app as part of his honors thesis, McKenna will seek to publish the research she’s conducted as part of Team DiscoVeR. In the long run, the duo hopes that their continued efforts will one day lead to real-world use.

“Getting the app to working quality so Burke rehab could also use it, that’s the ultimate goal,” says McKenna.

While there is still more work to be done, Bonifacio considers working on Team DiscoVeR one of the most worthwhile experiences of his young career—one that has helped him considerably in terms of preparation for the professional world.

“This was my first big project and at times things got pretty stressful, but I'm pleased at how far things have come. Working on this app has prepared me for a future of working in a team where participants have different roles, and also time and project management,” says Bonifacio. “It really gave me a feeling of accomplishment, something that wouldn't have been possible if I was never approached by my professor to take on this project.”

As the continued success Team DiscoVeR demonstrates, it is projects like these—positive disruptions—that can result in real-world impact for generations to come.