Swinging a plastic beach pail and sporting a pair of sherbet orange 3-D shades, Horace Ho-Shing Ip doesn't look as if he's at work. But he is. A professor of computer science at City University of Hong Kong, Ip, 50, prances around a dark lab to demonstrate his Paint Splash programa simulation that allows kids to throw virtual paint against a screen.
In an increasingly pixelated world, you'd think the last thing kids needed was another Xbox or Wii. But Paint Splash isn't a game. It's therapySmart Ambience Therapy (SAT), to be preciseone in a series of programs Ip designed with input from art therapists to help children overcome the effects of abuse.
Abused children are often withdrawn children. Ip had never considered using virtual reality to help them, but in 2002, he held a public exhibition of a virtual-paintbrush program he was working on and was surprised to see that emotionally closed kids took to it, using their bodies to create ebullient paintings. The kids' parents were shocked, but perhaps they shouldn't have been.
Since the 1990s, virtual reality has aided medicine by allowing victims of phobia or post-traumatic stress disorder to confront simulations of their fears: an oversize tarantula, a balcony on the 77th floor. Paint Splash was a natural outgrowth of those therapies.
Another program in the SAT product line helps abused kids confront aggressors by letting them shove away approaching grizzlies. A third teaches aggressive kids to reach out and touch virtual ribbons that dart away from jerky movements but glide toward smoother ones.
SAT has won a gold medal at Geneva's Salon International des Inventions, but Ip's success is evidenced best when kids come to use the lab. Many of them begin by covering the screen in black. "By the end," Ip says, "they're throwing blue. Art therapists will tell you, 'That's calm.'"
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