At 14, Abigail Hartman ’21 began experiencing increased thirst, shortness of breath, nausea, chills, and muscle aches.
At first, she and her parents chalked it up to the flu, but after a few days with no improvement, they went to the hospital. The then-eighth grader was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes, becoming one of 1.6 Americans whose pancreas produces little to no insulin and require insulin therapy—delivered via injection or insulin pump—to maintain healthy blood glucose levels.
“I’ve spent a lot of time talking to other teenagers with T1D. We have our differences in terms of how we manage our conditions, our likes, dislikes, and other things, but one thing many of us have in common is that many of the adults in our lives don’t understand what we experience every day. How could they? Most haven’t had to stop off the field during a soccer game to take care of low blood sugar. This makes it difficult to ask for help or explain why something is a problem.”
Computer Science Innovations: The Space to Imagine and the Resources to Create
Computer Science Innovations gave Abigail the space to imagine—and the resources to create—the T1D Simulator, an educational virtual reality tool that provides people who do not have type 1 diabetes a better understanding of those who do.
“My hope is that my product can help those around type 1 diabetics learn more about their experiences,” she says. “I believe that an increase in empathy can lead to better medical outcomes.”
The interactive, 3D simulation of a diabetic teenager’s daily life begins the moment users put on an Oculus Rift VR headset and experience “eye-opening animation” designed by Abigail.
“They find themselves in a bedroom, waking up to an alarm clock to get ready for school,” explains Abigail, who spent six weeks building the bedroom and all of its mechanics. “Their first task is to get breakfast. Using the Oculus controllers, they can move around in the environment, picking up and interacting with objects around them.”
Creating Virtual Environments with Unity 3D
Abigail filled her virtual environments—including a school cafeteria and classrooms—with 3D objects like books and furniture, choosing some from an asset library belonging to Unity 3D, the cross-platform game engine she used to develop the T1D Simulator. But she built many of the objects herself, such as medical equipment, including an insulin pump like the one she uses in real life. She also created virtual replications of complications like hypoglycemia, which can produce shakiness or disorientation, after researching the side effects of different blood glucose levels in order to represent a range of patient experiences.
“The user’s view from the headset starts to move until the user ‘drinks’ a juice box to correct the virtual hypoglycemia,” says Abigail, who wears a glucose monitor that reads her blood glucose every five minutes, and stashes juice boxes everywhere—in her car, bag, and at home, work, school, and friends’ houses—to make sure there’s always one within reach. “Juice boxes, candy, and cereal bars are commonly used to raise a patient’s blood sugar when it’s too low.”
To prepare for her project, Abigail had to learn how to use Unity 3D and its coding language, C#, immersing herself in online courses for the first four months of the school year. At the same time, through City as Our Campus, she also worked with mentors Dave Culyba, from Carnegie Mellon University’s Entertainment Technology Center, and UPMC Children’s Hospital pediatric endocrinologist and WT parent Dr. Ingrid Libman, to “create a storyline for the simulation that was both accurate and within virtual reality capabilities. Mr. Culyba helped me to map out and learn how to create a virtual reality simulation that would best educate users, and Dr. Libman helped me determine what features would be important to include in the simulation in order to communicate common experiences.” The result was a product that increases empathy in users—and a project that instilled confidence in its creator.
Increasing Empathy in Users (and Instilling Confidence in the Project Creator)
“So much of this process was learning about Unity itself, but also about general game design and project development. This was the first time I worked with any type of 3D coding, let alone VR. I didn’t expect to be able to accomplish as much as I did, and even though the project in its entirety was intimidating, I learned how to break it down into smaller pieces. Each thing became a smaller project to work through which made each problem less discouraging for me as a beginner. I learned that I’m capable of more than I thought I was.”