"What would it be like to find yourself suddenly unable to speak? Unable to understand what other people say? Unable to read or write?"
So starts the new video from a research team at City University London dedicated to researching aphasia, a condition that affects one third of people who survive a stroke. In aphasia, areas of the brain involved in language processing have been damaged, making it difficult to speak, write, gesture, and use numbers and symbols.
The team at City University London have created an online multi-user virtual world set on an island called EVA Park that lets people with aphasia practise communicating. Each person in the virtual world is represented by an avatar. People with aphasia can meet their communication support worker on the virtual island and role play asking for a hair cut at the virtual hairdresser, ordering dinner in a virtual restaurant, or having a meeting in the virtual conference room.
The avatars of the EVA Park team, in the virtual world.
"Aphasia is very common," said Dr Celia Woolf, research speech and language therapist and one of the project leads. "Around 400,000 people in the UK have acquired aphasia."
The profound effect that aphasia can have on people's lives often goes unrecognised: "It's a hidden disability unless you interact with someone," said Dr Woolf. "Language underpins so much of what we do: TV, radio, social interaction... It's not a cognitive impairment. A person with aphasia still is rational and has decision making abilities. It's a bit like finding ourselves in a country where we can't really speak the language. It's incredibly frustrating, it's happening in our own language and all the time."
It's not all work on EVA Park, there are magical and fantastical elements: elephants roaming around that can be ridden, a mermaid in the bottom of the lake and a mirror ball that the avatars can touch and it makes them dance. This playfulness comes partly from the input of the co-designers of EVA Park, people with aphasia who worked with the team to create the virtual world.
"These elements spark conversation," said Dr Woolf. "There's a genuine motivation to communicate."
Results from the study have been extremely promising, with significant improvements in everyday communication in people who have used the virtual world once a day for five weeks, as compared to a control group. "We're very pleased to have got such positive results," said Dr Woolf. "And people generally loved it. They really liked the quirkiness of it."
The team hope to be able to test more formal speech and language therapy sessions in EVA Park soon. "It's such a different way of going about carrying out therapy." said Dr Woolf. "Taking technology that's already out there. I find it quite exciting."
You can watch the team's short video on EVA Park here.