Video game makers create simulation to help fight Ebola

SEATTLE - Video game makers are now joining doctors and nurses in the fight against Ebola.

Dozens of game developers came together to create a germ of an idea to fight the deadly virus during a "hackathon" at the Living Computer Museum in Seattle's SODO district.

Typically, a hackathon pits teams against each other to build a software tool. This time, there was no competition.

The collective goal was to develop a virtual reality simulation tool that would help healthcare workers heading to Africa prepare for treating Ebola patients.

"The goal is to put you into the world of an Ebola camp," says Tim Reha, who worked on the prototype tool.

It was an all-volunteer effort. Developers worked long hours over two days using donated Unity 3D software, and their experience creating virtual but realistic worlds.

There was just enough money to buy them food.

"This is one of those situations where they need it now, and maybe the checks will come later, but we can't make our decisions on what to build based on those checks," says Shift Labs CEO, Beth Kelko, who sponsored the event.

Clinicians know the protocols to treat Ebola, but many heading to Africa are unaware of obstacles they'll face working in cumbersome protective suits in a hot, humid environment, says Kate Hurley.

"There's the loss of visual acuity, the loss of movement, the loss of dexterity," says Hurley, a clinic nurse manager from Montana who spent weeks treating patients in Sierra Leone and served as an advisor to the developers.

The developers decided to build a prototype tool that would help prepare frontline emergency workers do their job in one of the many West African clinics being built specifically to treat Ebola.

They used architectural plans of the US-sponsored hospitals being built in Liberia, photos from on the ground, and experienced Ebola responders like infectious disease physician Dr. George Risi as resources.

"The humidity is so high that condensation built up on your face shield, you couldn't see. I couldn't wear my eyeglasses at all," says Risi, who accompanied Hurley to treat patients in Sierra Leone.

Risi says the training of healthcare workers to be safe for themselves while rendering good care is one of the biggest challenges.

"They are creating a simulation that is going to be very, very close to the mark," says Risi.

In 48 hours, the volunteers came up with a first-person simulation tool that could be used in conjunction with a virtual reality headset for users to navigate through clinics, and practice on virtual patients before making a potentially deadly mistake.

"They just did a phenomenal job of being able to illustrate that experience," says Hurley of the final product.

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