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Virtual world helping with speech recovery presented at Woburn Safari Park

Speech and language therapists, stroke survivors and their family members discuss Eva Park in the beautiful surroundings of Woburn Safari Park

by George Wigmore (Senior Communications Officer)

In late February researchers from City University London hosted an Open Day at Woburn Safari Park for an audience of 70 people, most of whom were speech and language therapists, stroke survivors or their family members.

The day was about Eva Park.  This is a virtual island created with funding from the Stroke Association for people with aphasia, a language disorder typically caused by stroke. Eva Park is accessed over the internet and contains a number of locations such as houses, restaurants and a hair salon, where people with aphasia can meet and practice their language skills.

EVA Park There are also green spaces and quirky features, like a disco and a planetarium inside a narrow boat, designed to promote fun and stimulate conversation. Users of Eva Park are represented by avatars (moving images of people on the screen), and communicate via speech.

Professor Jane Marshall, from the Division of Language and Communication Sciences,  opened the day with an account of City’s recent research project which evaluated a therapy delivered in Eva Park with 20 people who have aphasia. Results showed excellent uptake of therapy with significant benefits on a test of everyday communication. Users’ views were also overwhelmingly positive.  For example, one said: ‘Wonderful. Well it’s wonderful. Well it’s all my expectations are real’.

 The next presentations were from John Smeijka, who was a participant in the project, and Abi Roper who was one of the support workers delivering the therapy.  John talked about his experiences of aphasia and how Eva Park helped, while Abi outlined some of the techniques she used to deliver language stimulation in Eva Park.

Eva Park presentationSpeaking on the day about Eva Park, John said: “I was invited to take part in the first season which took five weeks.  There were five people like me, with aphasia and five people who were helpers, my helper was Abi. We had group chats on Fridays, we met up in the tree house the topic was current affairs, I read the newspaper first and we talk about that. Abi encouraged me to keep trying to say what I wanted to say. It was a challenge and was really really hard work, but it was amazing.”

The audience then had the opportunity to try out Eva Park at five computer stations and to discuss how it might be used to augment aphasia services. Many were able to meet other project participants who were online in Eva Park. Finally guests were invited to meet Woburn’s real life safari animals, a fitting end to the day.

In her closing talk, Stephanie Wilson, a reader in the Centre for HCI Design, a specialist research centre within the Department of Computer Science, outlined the future plans of the research team.  With new funding from The Tavistock Trust for Aphasia they plan to develop the technology further, so that it can be released to clinical practitioners, and evaluate other forms of therapy delivered in Eva Park.

Speaking about the day, Professor Jane Marshall said:

“It was wonderful that so many service users and providers were able to join us in the beautiful surroundings of Woburn Safari Park to hear about the virtual island that we have created for people with aphasia. We are very excited about the therapeutic opportunities of Eva Park and it was great to see that our excitement was shared by the audience.  We are very grateful to the Duke of Bedford for his generous hospitality and for making this day possible.”

The Eva Park project is a collaboration between researchers in the School of Health and the Centre for Human Computer Interaction Design.

Find out more about Eva Park on the project website and via Twitter

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City, University of London is an independent member institution of the University of London. Established by Royal Charter in 1836, the University of London consists of 18 independent member institutions with outstanding global reputations and several prestigious central academic bodies and activities.