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David Zax

A View from David Zax

The Secret to Staying Healthy? Make It Fun

Rice students have adapted components of the Nintendo Wii to help train children with balance problems.

  • May 4, 2011

The idea of “gamification” posits that just about anything can be turned into a game. Make something fun, goes the idea (popularized in the recent book Reality is Broken), and all of a sudden people become incentivized to achieve things they might not be motivated to do otherwise. A team of Rice University students have taken this lesson and applied it to medicine, using a component of the Nintendo Wii to help patients with cerebral palsy and other ailments.

Rice engineering students linked five Wii Balance Boards together, hooked those up to a PC, and placed the Wii array in between two handrails for arm support. The composite formed a balance training and diagnostic system for child patients with cerebral palsy, spina bifida, or amputations. The students then developed a game wherein monsters approach onscreen, and by tapping particular spots on the array of Wii boards, the kids zap the monsters. As the patients get better and better at the task, the game gets more and more difficult, progressing the therapy.

The students also have plans to integrate the handrails, which are sensor-equipped, into the game. A future iteration of the game might subtract points when the children lean on the rails–further incentive to develop balance and straighten posture, to the degree possible.

There are two main reasons to use the Wii boards. For one thing, they simply get the job done for cheaper. Typically a hospital would shell out several thousand dollars just for the small force plates used in such devices. The Wii boards were much more affordable; the entire prototype of the system reportedly cost well under $2,000.

The second reason is that for many kids, the Wii is simply recognizable, and cool. For many of them, playing a Wii game relying on a balance board is something they can’t do without the supportive system of the handrails. One of the students behind the protoype, Matt Jones, said that the group actually took pains to make the Wii boards very visible; they’re covered them with clear acrylic so the students can actually see them. “We wanted to use a device that’s familiar to them,” he has said.

The students behind the project include Jones, Michelle Pyle, and Drew Berger–seniors in engineering at Rice. Jesus Cortez helped build the game, while Irina Patrikeeva and Nick Zhu added programming. Jennifer Humphreys, an undergrad studio arts major, did the artwork, making this a truly interdisciplinary team. The group hopes to implement the final device at Shriners Hospital for Children, in Houston, sometime in May.

“Is the Wii Really Good for Your Health?” Time asked years ago. The answer, with the rapidly multiplying therapeutic games like these, increasingly seems to be yes

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