WPI student hacks ‘Soda Drinker’ video game to help stroke patients rehab

The "Bonus Sodas" that brought Will Brierly and Sean Halloran together.
The "Bonus Sodas" that brought Will Brierly and Sean Halloran together.

“Soda Drinker Pro” is a small indie video game that lets you walk around and drink soda. You can drink soda on a beach or drink soda in a park. That’s about it. However, it’s become a cult hit on PC, with a version set to be released on the Xbox One in the next few months. It’s also simple enough that it’s now being used by Myomo, a Cambridge-based startup that is helping people with partly paralyzed or weakened arms to regain movement in their limbs.

And it all started when Will Brierly and Sean Halloran met over soda at the Cambridge Innovation Center.

Brierly, the developer behind “Soda Drinker Pro,” had begun selling “bonus sodas,” actual drinks that went along with the game, and Halloran wanted to buy a case. They emailed each other, and found out that they worked in the same building. After a short discussion, they realized that their interests overlapped, and the game could have other uses besides entertainment.

Halloran is a 21-year-old Worcester Polytechnic Institute student whose research has focused on how games can motivate and train people to establish better health habits. Lately, he’s been making games for the MyoPro, a battery-powered brace that helps train patients who have lost movement in their arms, such as if they’re recovering from a stroke. He had already helped design “Bounce,” which is similar to “Pong” and has players move a paddle. Another, called “MyoSpace,” is an asteroid-shooting game. “Soda Drinker Pro,” which only entails moving around the in-game environment and drinking soda, was a perfect fit for the brace.

All the two had to do was tweak the game for use with the brace—changing the controls so that it worked with muscle movement instead of a controller, for example. Within a couple of months, it was ready for testing.

Patients can now practice lifting up the soda in the game. Moving the arm up and down will lift up the soda, and tensing the bicep will allow the player to take a sip.

What made “Soda Drinker Pro” a great candidate for the MyoPro was this noncompetitive gameplay. The game doesn’t require defeating enemies or getting enough points to advance to the next level. The goal is to explore environments and drink virtual soda. When the player is ready, they can move on to the next stage. Patients could focus on practicing with the hardware, getting to know how to move their arms, and have fun in a what even Brierly calls a “silly game.”

“The movement in it is basically picking up a glass and putting it back down,” Brierly said. But those small motions can be instrumental in recovery, he said. “I’ve had a lot of family members that have had strokes and you lose half of the motion your body … to be able to give them the movement back, is crazy.”

While video games are often associated with unhealthy lifestyles, increasingly, researchers have been finding ways to use them for more practical purposes.

“Games for health and training people that are like ‘Soda Drinker Pro’ are about positive reinforcement,” Halloran said. He said he often sees people who often get frustrated navigating the natural environment relax and lose themselves a bit while they’re playing the game.

Both Brierly and Halloran see games as having the potential to be used more in the medicine, whether it’s in helping people in rehabilitation, or just making hospital stays more enjoyable. Brierly cites a one-month hospital stay when he was a child as one of the reasons he thinks about the power of games as more than just entertainment.

“I remember how nice it was being able to play video games in the hospital. It was at least a nice break from it,” he said. “I had never thought [“Soda Drinker Pro”] would be able to do this but it’s an honor, and I hope it helps people.”