2010 da vinci award winnerIn line with the biopsychosocial model of functioning, we are interested in modulating personal environments to maximize possibilities for children and youth with disabilities. One way to adapt the physical environment is to endow it with additional properties, such that a variety of different movements may cause meaningful responses. This is the philosophy behind the virtual music instrument. Alternatively, one can also augment the physical environment through the presentation of additional information to the individual. To this end, we are investigating the use of wearable, see-through displays for addressing issues relating to topographical disorientation in individuals living with the effects of acquired brain injury.

vr therapyThe Virtual Music Instrument (VMI) program began as a PRISM lab research effort in the year 2000, to develop a music instrument that all children could access. In particular, we especially targeted those that could not physically access traditional instruments in a meaningful way. In an effort to realize a usable system that was non-contact, non-invasive and built on each child s physical abilities, the VMI was developed. Early on, it was discovered that the VMI had the potential as a therapeutic tool in therapy and education. Research participants were able to learn songs using a colour system method. Due to its success in the research trials and requests from the participants to continue their involvement with the system, VMI was then introduced as a service available to all children in the Toronto community, especially those 0 to 18 with physical disabilities. Since our humble beginnings, we now have 5 VMI students registered in our community education music service and more than 10 clients utilizing the VMI in their music therapy sessions. The VMI is also being used by a small group of pre-school children in one of our inpatient programs. The software continues to be distributed for use with a wide range of programming in schools and community centres for children, youth, and young adults.


augmented environmentBloorview MacMillan Children’s Centre’s Community Music Services is proud to offer the VMI in their music education and music therapy programs. The objective of the education program is to offer children and youth the opportunity to access normalized musical experiences. Children and youth participate in weekly music lessons that are customized both physically and developmentally to match their learning styles. In June, all students are encouraged to participate in a class recital. This encourages social praise for accomplishments made (including a sense of mastery) and the development of performance skills. Music therapy sessions also utilize the VMI. This is ideal for those children and youth who are more physically involved and who may not otherwise experience the therapeutic value of being an active participant in the music therapy process. The VMI will provide a musical voice to express his or her emotions with just the slightest movement or gesture.

Progress through the Community Program (Life Skills Institute and Arts) at Bloorview MacMillan Children’s Centre

We now have:

1. Four VMI students registered. Our top student is working toward the completion of the second level this spring. Many of the students are working through the first book quite successfully. We are planning some opportunities for the performance of duets in the spring recital.

2. There is a great increase of music therapy clients using the VMI successfully in their therapy. The VMI is also used as a shared instrument for group music therapy for young adults as well as a resource for a small group of preschool children.

3. Initially, we depended on donations and special funding to support the program. For the past 2 years, we have been a completely self-funded program that employs two music therapists and involves a music therapy intern, and a music therapy graduate student.

4. With the upcoming opening of our new building, we have plans for more group music programs utilizing the VMI such as a “rock band” experience, a choir, mother and baby groups, and other new initiatives. The VMI will have a central role in all of these programs allowing clients to play the drums or an electric guitar. Perhaps it will give a nonverbal client the opportunity to add a voice in a choral experience or an infant with cerebral palsy a rewarding musical experience for reaching out and interacting with his or her environment.

5. Due to the popularity of the program, we continue to maintain our wait lists.

6. We have plans to bring in a second music therapy intern to provide services on Saturday mornings for the fall of 2006.

7. Recently, the VMI has been the focus of a qualitative research project. This project examines the potential for increased participation in children with cerebral palsy participating in music therapy. The first trial completed in September of 2005 with some encouraging preliminary data suggesting several areas of potential benefit. The second trial is currently in process. Results are expected by March of 2006.

A number of local schools and children treatment centres have also implemented prototype versions of the Virtual Music Instrument to use with their students and clients. Novita Children s Rehabilitation Services in South Australia has successfully implemented the latest prototype of the Virtual Music Instrument under the guidance of David Hobbs, a senior rehabilitation engineer at Novita. Several different therapy programs based on the VMI are currently in a trial phase at the time of writing including programming in schools and in seniors’ programming. Feedback from families and therapists has been overwhelmingly positive. A formal research study is expected to be launched by Novita in the near future with possible collaboration with Bloorview MacMillan Children’s Centre.

A member of the research team who recently visited with the Novita staff discussed this idea following a lecture on clinical applications of the VMI.

Future Plans

We are actively seeking avenues through which the Virtual Music Instrument may be brought to commercial fruition. In this way, the software can be made available to more families, children treatment Centres, and therapists in private practice in the community.

U of T Innovations Foundation is helping us with commercialization efforts.

Research Videos

virtual music instrument

Virtual Music Instrument
See one of our talented musicians playing a tune with the Virtual Music Instrument.

Research Team

Clinical Collaborators
Cynthia Tam (Bloorview)
Heidi Schwellnus (Bloorview)
Ceilidh Eaton (Sick Kids)
Andrea Lamont (Bloorview)
Dave Hobbs (Australia)
Clive Thursfield (UK)
Debbie Herbert (Toronto Rehabilitation Institute)

Industry Partner