Aiming for the bull’s-eye

Researchers at the University of South Carolina are developing a game that will help aphasia patients in their treatment.

Millions of people order fast food through a drive-thru each day and take nothing away from the experience other than the warm bag handed to them at the window.

But for Philip Floyd, a therapy patient at Roper Hospital, the drive-thru became a way to measure his speech progression as he battles aphasia, a language impairment that causes patients to have problems articulating their words.

“I used to have to repeat myself at the drive-thru, but now they understand me the first time,” said Floyd, who suffered a heart attack in June 2014 and a stroke two weeks later that led to his aphasia.

A video game being developed at the University of South Carolina will help those who suffer from the condition, which is usually caused by stroke and plagues at least 1 million people in the United states. About 14,500 South Carolinians were hospitalized in 2014 due to stroke, and 2,385 residents died from stroke that year.

Floyd hasn’t tried the game, but said he’s “all in” for the technology and plans to learn more about it.

The computer program features multiple games that allow patients to repeat words on their own time, without the help of a caregiver or speech language pathologist.

The words have to be said rhythmically. And since aphasia can cause difficulties in speaking, listening, reading and writing, saying words in a pattern can help patients speak in complete sentences.

Gamers score points based on how well they pronounce the words, said Dirk den Ouden, a communication sciences and disorders professor at USC.

For example, one of the games requires the patient to hit a bull’s-eye. The better a player pronounces the word, the closer the arrow gets to the bull’s-eye.

One of the ways the game may be different from others is that feedback is given immediately rather than at the end with a summary score.

“This was the hardest challenge in building the program,” den Ouden said. “The game compares the speaker’s utterance to a library of words that it knows. It then finds the closest match and immediately provides a rating that reflects how close the utterance is to the target word.”

Researchers, which include faculty and students, ran pilot studies in 2013 and 2014. The studies involved 20 aphasia patients over a two-week period. They found that the time it takes to play the game can produce positive results, but that it takes longer than two weeks to start seeing those results.

There are still some kinks to work out, like getting the speech recognition technology to work effectively in real time.

As a result, there’s no firm time line for when the game will be ready for public and clinical use. But once it is ready, den Ouden says it will be available on smart phones and tablets. “It is very exciting to be working on this project because it is so multifaceted,” he said. “It is creative, as the game environment needs to be attractive to players.”

During a recent therapy session, Floyd said he’ll be following the progression of the game. USC is his alma mater.

“I’m all for technology and I love anything that’s going to help us in our treatment,” he said.