Video Games Help Stroke Survivors Recover: the Kata Interactive Table

Image courtesy of Brian J. Shields

Johns Hopkins is well-known for its innovative medical technology. In line with its reputation, the Johns Hopkins Brody Learning Commons has recently installed a new device that may revolutionize how doctors treat patients suffering from impaired motor abilities following a stroke.

I was able to interview Dr. Omar Ahmad from the Kata Lab design team about the Kata Interactive Table and how it works.

Image courtesy of Brian J. Shields

  1. How will the Kata table help stroke and other neurologically impaired patients recover on a neurological level?

The Kata group sits in the department of Neurology at the Johns Hopkins School of medicine. Its mission is to couple world class physicians and their subsequent clinical insights with world class engineers, artists, and designers to push clinical care forward. A large body of our product development deals with creating highly dynamic, compelling, interactive experiences for neuro-motor rehab. The following explains a bit more:


and here:


The Kata group develops “games” which engender the “right kind of movement” for neuro motor rehabilitation. Part of our mission is to allow physical therapists, physicians, family members, and even members of the public to participate in the healing process by playing multi-player therapeutic games. The Kata table will ultimately allow users to actually play therapeutic games with patients over the network.


  1. What inspired you to create the concept for the Kata Interactive Table?


The inspiration came from the desire to create a more socially interactive experience for patients recovering from stroke and other brain ailments. The initial idea was that the touch-screen table would take away the gravity, allowing patients to play with therapists. Since we have been interested in multiplayer games for a while, we thought this would be a good match for such a game- have a therapist or a family member play on the table with the patient. So, the initial idea was to have a local multiplayer therapeutic table. The idea evolved from there into having community members play over a network with the patients.



  1. What makes the Kata Table unique?


The table has a custom design encasing, utilizing three different types of wood and a variety of digital wood manufacturing technologies to create an archetypal toy with inspiration drawn from Mary Blair. Mary Blair was the principal designer for Disney’s Small World and also did concept work for Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan, all three of which were utilized in spirit. Jarreau Wimberly was the primary artist of the table under the creative direction of Omar Ahmad. Embedded in the table is a 4K touch-screen device which will be used to play multi-player therapeutic games between patients in the Johns Hopkins hospital and students in the library. The games are custom-designed by the Katagroup in the Hopkins Department of Neurology.


  1. Why did the team decide to house the Kata Table at the Homewood library rather than a medical setting like the JHU hospital?


Kata Studio is affiliated with the Malone Center which aims to bridge between campuses and to promote cross-campus collaborative research and education activities. The interactive table project was a perfect opportunity to do so. The Homewood campus hosts the largest population of Hopkins students, and the majority of them are not much exposed to the medical campus. There are many pre-medical students here who want to be involved with medicine and research. The interactive table is a very unique rout for getting involved by actually participating in the care and therapy of patients.

The choice of the location was also a result of a lucky coincidence of needs. The library management had this great space, with great visibility, and wanted to use it for something not only esthetically pleasing but also engaging and interesting. We needed exactly that kind of space that would allow us to connect patients with students.  It was just the right time and location for this project to happen.



  1. What types of games are available on the Kata table and how will they help stroke and other neurologically impaired patients recover?

Currently we have a local single-player game that allows students to play on the table. Within 4 moths there will be local multi-player games, and then 4-5 months after that we will start to connect with patients. The table will eventually offer the option of four different people (patients and students) playing the game, but it will start with one-on-one players (two people playing together).


The games we design are unique because we add richness to the social part of multiplayer gaming, because of the way we are doing the control and the physics of the animation in the game.  This is done for therapeutic purposes- we design the game to give people a rich sense of physics, feedback for their motor movement. The patient does not simply move an object; the patient controls all the dynamics of that object. They are playing online with someone else- it is like they are embodied in a creature which is interacting with another creature. Our games are very special in that sense- not like a helicopter fighting another helicopter, not just standard multiplayer games. They create a motor connection between two or more people.


  1. Do the designs on the side of the table play any therapeutic role?


No, the table will be seen primarily by students and library visitors. Patients will play from their rooms or the rehab inpatient and outpatient centers in the hospital, on special devices build for them, not a table like the one in the library.


  1. How, if at all, has working with Johns Hopkins allowed the Kata Interactive Table to become a reality?


Hopkins presented us with the unique opportunity to work with world-class neuroscientists who pioneer theories that we can try to apply in actual rehabilitation process. Hopkins is unique in another way too. There is a very strong drive for interdisciplinary research within the university, with special attention on the value and promise of collaborative work at the intersection of engineering and medicine. All that provided the necessary background and support for the work on this project, and for Kata’s work in general.


  1. What is your vision for the Kata table’s future? (e.g. do you hope to implement it in other locations?)

We are definitely open to the idea of building more of these tables for other locations, but right now our focus is on the successful completion of all project stages, so that we can connect patients, rehabilitators and students.



Cathy Nie

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