The cover story in the new issue of University of Utah Magazine is about the Therapeutic Games and Apps Lab (The GApp Lab), a part of the College of Engineering’s Entertainment Arts & Engineering video game development program that focuses on medical and education-related games and mobile apps.

Read below to learn how this remarkable center, which also collaborates with the U’s Center for Medical Innovation and the Spencer S. Eccles Health Sciences Library, is developing amazing games to help patients.


Who would ever think that making fish dance could be so much fun? Johnny Staples loves doing it. The 33-year-old with autism is a great fan of the virtual reality game Choreografish, developed in the U’s Therapeutic Games and Apps Lab, aka The GApp Lab. Choreografish is just one of the many therapeutic and instructive apps and games students and instructors in the lab have created to help children and adults deal with issues like cancer treatment, cognitive impairment, and motor skills development.

Choreografish isn’t a game in the sense of skill, strength, or luck determining a “winner.” Instead, Choreografish helps players tune out the often-overwhelming stimuli of the outside world and create a soothing environment they can control, helping them experience a sense of well-being.

Ready, Player One

Staples dons a virtual reality headset, selects a favorite piece of music to accompany his virtual undersea voyage, and holds the consoles that allow him to manipulate the patterns of fish as they swim through the water, around a sunken ship, or even into an octopus garden.

Afterward, he flashes a smile that could light up the Salt Lake City skyline. “It feels very cool being in control [of how the game plays out],” he says. “Whenever I play it, I feel better. It calms me down.” Staples’ mother, Meg, will never forget the first time he played Choreografish. “When he took the goggles off, his face was pure and complete joy,” she says. “I’d never seen that before. As a parent, that memory still chokes me up.”

“It’s great for people who have special needs,” he adds. “If I had the game, I’d probably play it every day.”

Johnny Staples played Choreografish several times during its development, and after each round, GApp Lab engineers, designers, and students solicited his feedback. His suggestions were often incorporated into the game. And Staples now has another idea: “In the octopus garden, I’d like to see them add a yellow submarine and some Beatles songs.”

Roger Altizer MS’06 PhD’13, director of The GApp Lab, and director of digital medicine in the Center for Medical Innovation, loves the idea. “That would be awesome!” he says with a chuckle.

Quick! Someone call Paul McCartney!

Click here to read the rest of the story on the University of Utah Magazine’s site.