EIT Digital-backed VR platform lets NDD teens socialize virtually

Young people struggling with the isolation of neuro developmental disorders can practice their social skills and receive online therapy through XR4A, a virtual reality platform that is being developed with EIT Digital support.

Learning to socialize comfortably, a challenge for any teenager, can seem overwhelming for young people with neuro developmental disorders (NDD), which include conditions like autism, ADHD and other learning disabilities. The pandemic exacerbated the isolation faced by these children and made the demand for telemedicine and virtual solutions more urgent, although the need in this area existed long before COVID-19.

The number of children diagnosed with some form of NDD is increasing dramatically (e.g. in 2018, the US-based Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported the rate of kids diagnosed with autism raised 181% since 2004). According to Elio Salvadori of Fondazione Bruno Kessler (Italy), "the demand for psychoeducational therapies is increasing at a similar rate, while specialised centres and professionals are not increasing as quickly, and they are mostly concentrated in urban areas. Thus, it becomes harder for most children and their families to have access to the care they need".

Connecting with therapists virtually

FBK, Reply (Italy) and iED (Greece) are involved in a consortium which is developing a solution to this challenge. The XR4A platform immerses teens wearing a virtual reality (VR) headset in a serious game designed to improve their social and emotional skills.

"For many children with neuro developmental disorders, socialization is extremely important to improve their relational skills," according to Salvadori. "XR4A allows them to get in touch, socialize and create meaningful bonds with other teens in an immersive multi-player experience. They also have therapeutic benefits, as they are joined and supported by their therapists within the VR scenarios."

XR4A As XR4A users engage with others in role-play, their stress status is tracked by wearable sensors. The sensors feed data to software that uses machine learning to constantly improve the way the platform detects potentially stressful conditions during the game. Therapists can use this data to assess the session and to make informed decisions about the best therapeutical approach for each of them. More importantly, this specific feature empowers the therapist to handle the session with teens connected from home (or through a hybrid approach with only few of them in presence).

"The users are always in close contact with their therapist during the game. If the therapist detects a stressful condition of a teen or whenever one of them feels uncomfortable, they can visit a special virtual resting room inside the game to relax and rejoin the game when they are up to," Salvadori said.

The possibility to interact with their peers and the therapist from remote is a major benefit of XR4A. "It expands the geographical reach of therapists and care facilities, which is crucial for remote and underserved areas," Salvadori explained, "even though the platform is not intended to fully substitute the therapies in presence."

Launched and nurtured through EIT Digital

XR4A is being developed by a consortium of partners who were brought together by EIT Digital. Salvadori, a senior researcher at FBK whose son was diagnosed with Asperger's syndrome, is acting as project leader of this Innovation Activity. As a parent advocate who watched the pandemic increasing his son's isolation, he saw the need to create a telemedicine solution for children with NDD. EIT Digital made that possible.

"Without EIT Digital, XR4A would be only an idea, and its consortium wouldn't have proceeded with the development of a VR-based serious game that is so impactful to NDD teens, their therapists and their families," Salvadori said. "EIT Digital has been a catalyst for the XR4A project in terms of funding, experience, and networking opportunities."

EIT Digital interim CEO Federico Menna emphasizes that "XR4A is a perfect example of what innovation means for EIT Digital: connecting players from academia, research and industry across Europe, developing new digital solutions addressing societal challenges and supporting their go-to-market efforts through venture creation and scaling. All this by bringing European values into technology and achieving social and economic impact at European level. We are very proud of what the XR4A team is doing for young people and their families!"

The XR4A partners united in an EIT Digital Innovation Factory project are using EIT Digital support to improve the minimum viable product they have developed and to achieve clinical assessment of XR4A through experimental pilots in Italy and Greece. The platform will be then commercialised by the startup "MEEVA", a spin-off of Fondazione Bruno Kessler that will use the support to help launch a funding round that can bring in the investment needed for market access and product development. "By the end of the EIT Digital Innovation Factory project, the partners hope to see MEEVA growing and scaling up into a successful business," Salvadori said.

XR4A partners and MEEVA cofounders expect commercialisation to help them achieve their ultimate goal: "promoting better and more inclusive health for young European citizens with neuro developmental disorders to ensure they have a better life as adults," according to Salvadori. "This includes increased job opportunities and a more autonomous life."

Are you planning to launch or boost a digital tech start-up and need support? Check out the EIT Digital Innovation Factory and get in touch with us to discover opportunities for collaboration!

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Co-Funded by the European Union