The Italian startup that makes us feel warm in virtual reality. And the one that replaces painkillers

The Italian startup that makes us feel warm in virtual reality. And the one that replaces painkillers

London - Painkillers can be substituted during therapeutic treatments for children. It is possible to feel the touch through digital devices. Can pain really be governed or can the sense of touch enter an imaginary dimension? Every intelligent application of virtual reality opens doors to understanding ourselves, sometimes difficult to imagine possible: in these two cases, it has happened. These are application innovations of virtual reality, developed by two Italian startups: Softcare Studios and Weart. Two of the 40 companies chosen to represent made in Italy innovation that met in London last May for Smau Italia RestartsUp. Softcare Studios is experimenting with a game called Tommy to replace medicines during childhood therapeutic treatments, including invasive and chemotherapy. Weart is one of the first developers in the world who has aggregated the sensations of touch and warmth to the virtual experience, opening it to additional applications with respect to the current use of virtual reality devices today.

Tommi, l application that helps children to cope with pain Use virtual reality experience instead of drugs, in order to avoid or limit the need to administer sedatives and painkillers. In other words, Softcare Studios develops virtual reality experiences for non-drug pain management in hospitalized patients. The cofounders Valentino Megale (ad) and Cristian Currò (director operated o) arrived in London to participate in an appointment of Smau, the event dedicated to innovation in Italy organized in collaboration with Ice, the agency for internationalization and the promotion of Italian companies abroad. It is an important appointment: the participation of the startup is the result of the six years of work since Softcare Studios was born. Cristian Currò says:

“Our journey begins in 2013: we met online, but we come from the same city, Reggio Calabria. We started working on 3D printers and we felt we wanted to participate in an association to support those who could not afford prostheses for people with disabilities "

Valentino Megale continues:" At the end of 2016, together with some colleagues of the association, we participated in the first hackaton in Italy of the German pharmaceutical company Merck KGaA which had launched the challenge on how to help patients without the use of drugs. We came in second and participated in a two-month startup acceleration program in Germany. There we realized how to carry on the idea that once we returned to Rome it was translated into Softcare Studios. The project we presented to the hackaton is called Tommi ". An application, or rather a virtual game developed with 3D ions that is literally administered during a session of about 30 minutes. Tommi is dedicated to pediatric patients, aged 6 to 13 years. "Under the age of 6 the viewer is too big for the head of the child who is in a delicate phase of development from a sensorial, emotional and cognitive point of view - explains Megale - Instead, over 13 years the scenario of the individual who must be targeted well: if we administered that content to a sixteen year old, he would ask us for a more complex and engaging content. So Tommi is a compromise between two needs: the user experience, because the child must be hired, he must like what he does, and ensure the medical procedure is carried out, without interruptions or safety problems ".

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Tommi explanatory video - Softcares Studios

The use of Tommi is intended for a hospitalized medical patient subjected to painful, invasive, stressful medical treatments. “We started with oncological pediatrics, that was our very first focus: supporting the child to help chemotherapy, the long hospital stay, the fear of drugs. And now we are moving on to 'pain management', pain management ". Specifically, the game is used during blood sampling or in delicate interventions such as vascular access, almost reaching the pre-surgical stage. For now Softcare has experimented this application at the Buzzi Hospital in Milan, in collaboration with Fatebenefratelli and Sacco:

"The first results have been positive, as shown by a study on the reduction of the need to sedate pediatric patients subjected to positioning of the Picc. Now we have started an experimentation in 6 Italian hospitals (Turin, Genoa, Naples, Milan, Brescia), led by Asst Fatebenefratelli and sponsored by BD, which will involve a total of 200 children ”, concludes the CEO of Softcare.

Meeting Valentino and Cristian, two young professionals who propose a reality so imaginative that it touches the sensitivity of the little ones, it is difficult to imagine the string of approvals that they had to overcome to gain the trust of the medical staff and the families of the patients. "Parents are often happier that their child does not start a pharmacological path - specifies Currò - and in any case their ok comes after that of the ethics committee of the hospital and the medical staff". On health, especially of the little ones, we never joke. Especially when the issue of suffering is at stake.

Pain treatment from a psychological point of view How our brain evolves over time Putting together a huge amount of MRI data, a team of researchers has photographed the evolution of the brain: from fast growth in the early stages of life to "retreat" in old age Pain has two components: a psychological and a physical one. As Megale explains, “the person feels pain during Tommi's administrations but the pain becomes acceptable. If you reduce the psychological component by monopolizing the patient's attention on something else, he will think much less about pain, so even what is perceived on a physical level will be put in second place. This is the goal of our work ". Currò talks about the perception that the patient can feel: "You don't remember that there is a 7 cm needle entering your body, but you think about something else, you are distracted by virtual reality and you feel a tickle, or in any case something not painful , which is not scary ". The use of virtual reality to manage pain was born in the nineties in the States, which are often precursors of almost science-fiction biomedical techniques. The idea is part of the assumption that drugs have systemic effects that impact on the whole body, while in the case of virtual reality there are no effects, for example, that impact on the quality of the organs. Precisa Megale:

"According to a study that summarizes the results of some experiments on the substitution of virtual reality for drugs, it was shown how anxiety is reduced by 60% compared to ordinary treatment and pain by 40% , even in patients resistant to opioid drugs: in summary, the brain processes less pain ”

Certainly, not all human beings have the same ability to tolerate pain or the same reaction. “From various studies, we have defined how 60% of children are blinders, ie patients who, subjected to situations of pain, stress, anxiety, try to avoid pain by avoiding the stimulus, looking elsewhere. Virtual reality amplifies this strategy because if the child looks for another place to look with virtual reality, she looks much elsewhere. We define another 30% of children as monitors, ie patients who, when they feel pain, have to watch, want to have the situation under control: in their case virtual reality does not work, indeed it can produce more anxiety ". To recognize the subject's reaction, medical personnel must be trained, who will then be able to recognize the type of patient and act accordingly. Side effects of the use of virtual reality such as cyber sickness (nausea or headache) often depend on software that is too heavy for the supplied headset: "We avoided it like the plague from the beginning, adding computing power to our viewer in order to prevent time lag - Megale closes - And we always say not to use the game for more than 40 minutes, because the wearable strains the eyes: in the end it is a question of wearing a computer ". The innovation presented by another Italian startup deals with the potential of wearable virtual reality devices.

Touching a virtual object and amplifying the experience From a revolutionary VR software in real dimension to equally disruptive hardware for the virtual experience. Giovanni Spagnoletti and Guido Gioioso, co-founders of Weart, also presented a new technology at the London appointment of Smau that adds the tactile part to the virtual experience, now centered on audio and video. "Our product is called TouchDiver - explains Spagnoletti - and from a technological point of view it digitizes the virtual experience.

It is in fact an interface that allows to reproduce on the fingertips of the thumb, index and middle three different tactile stimuli: skin forces that allow to distinguish the hardness of an object, the finish of a material (more or less rough) and the temperature of any element (hot or cold: from 18 ° C to 42 ° C). Even the tracking of opening and closing of the fingers.

We take care of software production which therefore allows you to add the tactile layer to the virtual experience ". The goal is to create an interface similar to the real experience. Even, present at Smau, had the opportunity to test Weart's product. And it is true that through this device the warmth, dimension, substance of a virtual object are enhanced, even in a rather evident way.

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Reactions to the use of TouchDIVER - Weart

According to Gioioso, Weart's technology is the first of its kind. “There are no other similar ones on the market: there are wearable devices that are heavy above all for tracking, that is, for reading users' movements in augmented or virtual reality and giving relative feedback such as notification vibrations. On the other hand, there are more complex and effective wearables but they are exoskeletons, with a much more invasive user experience. At the moment, the TouchDiver is the best trade off existing between simplicity and accuracy of the user experience. It is the only one in the world, for example, that allows this effect through a device that can be worn in just five seconds ". The story of the startuppers Giovanni and Guido is also that of young professionals of virtual applications who have now become experts in topics that range beyond their starting skills such as marketing, business models, generation of revenues.

Spagnoletti says: "We studied robotics and automation at the University of Siena and we met during the research doctorate. At the end we decided to bring to the market that technology developed during the years of specialization together with our mentor, prof. Domenico Prattichizzo ". Thus in 2018 Weart was born, with the industrial partner E-Novia. Objective? Focusing on medical and industrial training: “Also thanks to the pandemic, there is a great need to remotely remote various activities, such as assembly in an industrial production line. These trainings are already done today in virtual reality but without the tactile experience something is lost, so with our product the training becomes more effective. One of our first customers was a US medical multinational that uses it to train surgeons ”. Gioioso expands the applicative potential of TouchDiver: "Among our customers there is also one of the leaders in the world of clothing. But we can think of collaborative design applications or different variations in the world of entertainment".

A made in Italy and sustainable device From an industrial point of view, given that Weart's product business is in hardware production, "everything produced is made in Italy - specifies Spagnoletti - from the electronic component to the final production. the material for our external suppliers who do the assembly. At the moment we can make about 50 interfaces per month. "For now the company is made up of 7 people but it is the industrial partner who supports not only financial needs but also all activities necessary for the startup, such as project design. One wonders if the price at this point is acceptable. "Our cost is in line with others similar but lacking the tactile layer. Our intellectual property lies in the way we assemble the device and in the control algorithms ”, explains Gioioso.

Designing universities in a sustainable way The real estate assets of universities can be compared to a city like Bologna and are worth 37 billion euros. Projects for energy saving, recycling and transformation of university residences Since it is a physical object, today circular production has an added value and this was taken into account by the creators of Weart, as Spagnoletti explains. "First of all we thought about bringing all the production to Italy, and we did it. From the point of view of environmental impact, we currently manufacture a limited number of devices, but we have declined the packaging in a sustainable sense, which is now totally cardboard. For the new generation of products, we will try to replace all plastics and carefully monitor the supply chain ”. There is also an aspect of lateral sustainability in the use of the device itself, says Gioioso: "If we make it possible to remotely control experiences, we avoid people or goods having to move, even in the prototyping phase". The same happens with the e-commerce experience: we are now used to choosing the object online, trying it out, buying it, receiving it at home and then maybe sending it back. Through a tactile layer, there is an extra element of evaluation to choose the preferable product and avoid empty passages. Speaking of the debate on the risks of real disconnection triggered by virtual experience, according to Spagnoletti we must not confuse use with the tool: "The problem is that when a technology arrives, perception is always of concern: this also happens today with robotics. . There are those who instead mistake these virtual environments for their own real world, but the problem is not in the technology but in the way in which it is used. Now an ecosystem is being born which, as happened in the past for other technologies, will take care of organizing and regulating certain behaviors and certain situations ”. The future cannot be stopped, but it can be interpreted in the best possible way to transform it into progress.

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