Firsthand Technology, Inc. has received a phase 1/phase 2 fast track Small Business Initiative Research (SBIR) grant totaling $3.4 million from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), though the National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research (NIDCR) and the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities (NCMHD), to research the effectiveness of computer games to change the oral health habits of children.
Firsthand and the department of Dental Public Health Sciences (DPHS) at the University of Washington are developing a multiplayer, stereoscopic 3D action game to engage children ages 8-12 in the world of bacteria and biofilms, with the goal of improving oral health habits.
The game will be the centerpiece of a hands-on, interactive museum exhibit with its public debut at the Pacific Science Center in Seattle in early 2010. Later, the exhibit will be converted into a travelling exhibit to be experienced in science centers across the U.S. as well as around the world.
Dr. Peter Milgrom, DDS, is a professor at the department of Dental Public Health Sciences, adjunct professor of Health Services at the University of Washington, director of the Northwest/Alaska Center to Reduce Oral Health Disparities, and founder of the Dental Fears Research Clinic at the University of Washington. He explained, "The U.S. is facing a national oral health crisis. Americans have changed their eating habits from three square meals a day to all-day snacking, consuming an annual average of 156 lbs. of sugar per person.
"In 2004, there was a 28% increase in tooth decay compared to the previous decade(1) — much of it in children going untreated. Approximately 40% of all school absences can be attributed to dental problems, equal to 52 million hours annually. This is especially an issue because people are carrying less dental insurance than medical insurance.(2) For low-income groups, this is of particular concern since Dental Caries, the disease known to cause cavities, is epidemic and striking disproportionate numbers of poor and minority communities."
"We're fighting these issues head-on," stated Howard Rose, President, Creative Director, and Principal Investigator at Firsthand. "Games for health are part of the emerging field of Serious Games. As such, we're working with specialists to gather the latest research in oral health practices, microbiology, and cognitive psychology to learn the best dental habits for improving health and quality of life.
"These are skills that kids can build for themselves, even if they don't have dental insurance. We're targeting sub-populations with the highest incidence of oral health problems by making the game in both English and Spanish. And we're making an immersive educational game experience that we believe will be a fun and unique event for kids."
Senior oral health consultant and supervisor of the Oral Health Program at the Washington State Department of Health, Joseli Alves-Dunkerson, DDS, MPH, MBA, said, "Efforts to improve oral health literacy are needed to better engage the population groups most effected by caries (such as children and teenagers). The use of technology to raise the oral health awareness of these at-risk populations is highly desirable and needed."
About the Game
"There is a whole world in kids' mouths that they know almost nothing about. We have new information and new and exciting science on the dynamics of tooth decay and its prevention — but we're not just trying to teach kids about this — we believe our immersive game will change their behavior," said Ari Hollander, CEO, technical director and principal investigator at Firsthand. "We are using our experience in Virtual Reality and game design to create a game that meshes the physicality of the Wii with the engagement of stereoscopic 3D movies."
The message is reinforced throughout the exhibit with additional games which use the same compelling characters and themes, focusing the player on a deeper understanding of various oral health topics.
Additionally, an extensive website featuring online 3D games and activities will help share the exhibit's messages with a wider community.
Dr. Jacqueline Pickrell, research scientist in the department of dental public health sciences (DPHS) at the University of Washington said, "At DPHS, we are trying to come up with creative ways to educate both children and adults about oral health. It is important to help children form healthy habits that fit into their lifestyle, ultimately improving public health. Firsthand is doing the same thing, but using tools attractive to kids today — interactive games."
To measure how well the game succeeds in encouraging better health habits, the DPHS is leading an extensive research program, including a randomized control study. Additionally, the exhibit will be rigorously tested and evaluated to measure the quality of the museum experience.
Ron Sims, King County Executive and President Obama's nominee for Deputy Secretary of Housing and Urban Development said, "Improving the situation calls for new and innovative ways to reach people with a very simple, but important message that they have the power to dramatically improve their own oral and general health. I applaud the National Institutes of Health for its interest in researching and developing new ways to reach people with this message. I believe this project will help open the door for children to learn and better protect their dental health in a fun and engaging manner."
About Firsthand Technology, Inc.
Based in Seattle, Washington, Firsthand Technology, Inc. designs and develops Virtual Reality, real-time 3D and serious games for therapy, research, education, and business. The company was started in 1995 to take the best Virtual Reality technology practices out of the lab and into the real world. Recent projects include VR therapy for Iraq War veterans with PTSD, pain control systems for burn patients, and a training simulator for administering oral injections. For more information about Firsthand, please visit www.firsthand.com.
1 U.S. health surveillance 1999–2004 has documented a decrease in national oral health compared to the previous decade, with tooth decay increasing 28%. Approximately 40% of all school absences can be attributed to dental problems, equal to 52 million hours annually.
2 According to Business Week in 2008, about 50% of the population has dental insurance, compared with 85% with medical benefits.