Stroke survivors on road to recovery with help from ‘Duck Duck Punch’ video game

Austen Hayes (left) and Larry Hodges, the creators of “Duck Duck Punch,” demonstrate the game in a lab at Clemson University.

When Nancy Bunch excused herself to visit the ladies room during church on March 2, 2014, she didn’t immediately come back. The then-62-year-old Eutawville woman had collapsed, and all she could feel were pins and needles.

Bunch had suffered a stroke and a massive brain bleed that rendered her left arm useless. When her therapist suggested she play a video game to help with her recovery, Bunch was initially hesitant.

“I had never played a video game before, never,” Bunch said. “Never was interested.”

But her therapist insisted on introducing her to “Duck Duck Punch,” a virtual reality simulation game made by Recovr Inc., designed to help stroke survivors regain control over their limbs through a series of old school style, shooting gallery-type levels.

The game, which requires players to extend their arm and virtually hit ducks and various other animals on the screen, helps increase motor function of limbs that have been rendered almost useless by a stroke. It centers around the repetition of the arm extension and punching motion, which serves as an alternative to traditional occupational therapy.

The idea was the brainchild Michelle Woodbury, an occupational therapist at the Medical University of South Carolina. The concept of a virtual reality simulator that could help stroke patients on their road to recovery had been rolling around in her head for some time, but, it wasn’t until 2011 when she met Larry Hodges, a professor in the Human-Centered Computing Division at Clemson University, that the idea started to take flight.

Hodges approached two of his students at Clemson University who were in need of a project and pitched them Woodbury’s concept. One of those students was Austen Hayes, now co-founder and CEO of Recovr Inc. Hayes was excited about the collaboration project and the chance to work closely in tandem with Woodbury.

“We kind of struck up a research relationship,” Hayes said of Woodbury. “We brought the technology side to the table and she brought the clinical side to the table.”

The game runs on a fairly simple platform, only using a laptop and Microsoft Kinect. The Kinect helps to measure the player’s movement speed as well as how far they are able to extend their arm while recording the data. The information is then sent to the patient’s therapist for analysis. The game can be customized to fit the specific needs of the patients and can be adapted to their levels of impairment, which for Bunch meant focusing on her left arm.

Before her first day of therapy, Bunch was uncertain that she would be able to move her arm at all, but while using “Duck Duck Punch” for the first time she threw over 150 punches, knocking down ducks and seagulls as they appeared on the screen. Her second attempt had her throwing over 300 punches in succession.

Bunch took to the game like a duck to water, and in just seven days she had enough command over her motor skills to pick up a penny, pencil, paperclip and a can of diet coke.

She said that the game became fun for her, really fun.

“The therapy is hidden within the game,” Woodbury said. “It’s a virtual environment for stroke rehabilitation.”

To amplify the entertainment, the game currently features three levels to keep patients engaged: ducks in space, seascape and an Old West level the team fondly nicknamed “The Good, the Bad and the Ducky.”

“Duck Duck Punch” is currently in two hospitals and two clinics across South Carolina, but Hayes hopes the game will be ready for commercial sale within the year. Both Hayes and Woodbury said they would like to see the game expanded so it will be able to serve more than just stroke survivors.

Woodbury said future generations of the game could be used to help those with cerebral palsy, multiple sclerosis, neurological injuries, spinal cord injuries or brain injuries.

Bunch said she’ll be one of the first in line to purchase it — not just because she enjoyed her first sampling of video games, but because it truly gave her the hope she needed during her recovery period.

“This game goes to show you that mind over matter is powerful,” she said.