Videogames have gotten a bad rap in recent years. On top of some games being blamed for excessive violence and language (and carpal tunnel syndrome from excessive gaming), they have become the stereotyped icon of the couch potato, second only to the beloved TV remote. But the age of simple button-pushing is inexorably coming to an end. The advent of new, more interactive games may force even critics to take a second look.
It has become clear that games can have a positive effect on health, whether by helping to improve kids’ fitness levels or by being used as physical rehabilitation tools for seniors. More than $2 million in grants were awarded this year from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to 12 research teams to help strengthen the evidence base that supports the development and use of digital interactive games to improve players’ health behaviors and outcomes.
Curing Ennui With Wii
Nintendo® Wii videogames are becoming a popular form of physical therapy, or “Wiihab.” The Wii’s appeal cuts across all ages and interests, including people with disabilities. Wii games require body movements that are similar to traditional therapy exercises. Rehab professionals are increasingly using the Wii to help patients work on visual and cognitive skills, problem-solving, balance, coordination and upper- and lower-body strength.
Wii games used for rehab patients include golf, bowling, boxing, tennis and baseball. The system uses sensors that monitor players’ movements while they play using actual motions associated with a given sport, such as hitting a baseball. The new Wii Fit game offers low-impact fitness activities such as aerobics, balance and yoga.
Regional Representative Mona Patel, who tried out the Wii at the 2008 Amputee Coalition Conference, says, “I played a game that involved balance and putting balls into various holes. It was my first time, and I did quite well. It wasn’t hard to learn, but having a great-fitting prosthesis did help.” She adds, “And yes, we have purchased a Wii since. It helps with my continued rehab, and it’s also a great family activity!”
What Is the Sound of One Hand Playing?
The Access Controller is a single-handed videogame controller designed for use with the Playstation 2 and 3 and the PC. eDimensional, Inc., a leading developer and manufacturer of innovative gaming accessories, recently introduced the Access Controller, designed by product engineer Benjamin Heckendorn (also known as BenHeck). BenHeck, after making a custom one-handed gaming controller, was swamped with hundreds of requests, from injured soldiers serving in Iraq, to accident victims, to parents of children with disabilities. They expressed how video games can be both physically and mentally therapeutic, allowing them to enjoy and engage in something that they could previously only watch as their friends and family played. Many also conveyed that the ability to play games would be a truly life-changing event.
The Access Controller features a patented modular control layout; each control found on a regular gamepad (analog sticks, D-Pad, shoulder buttons, action buttons, etc.) is accessible and built into its own slot and positioned in the layout of a hand. Each module can be removed easily and rearranged to suit any gaming style or need.
Researchers at Johns Hopkins University have turned the popular Guitar Hero game into a tool for amputees who are being fitted with the next generation of artificial arms.
The research is one small component of the massive Revolutionizing Prosthetics (RP) 2009 project, sponsored by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The project, spread over 30 research institutions worldwide and led by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL), is developing a mechanical arm that mimics the properties of a real limb more closely than ever before.
Another facet of the project has pioneered a neural surgery technique for controlling arm movement. The nerves that once controlled an amputee’s arm are still intact even after the limb is lost. By rerouting these nerves into the chest muscles and affixing electrodes to pick up the electromyographic (EMG) signals, the researchers were able to use those signals to control a mechanical arm.
But controlling the motion of individual fingers is still a problem. To establish a clear link between mind and machine, the software that translates between EMG signals and the mechanical arm must be trained to understand what the different muscle signals mean.
The amputee does this training with the help of a Virtual Integration Environment (VIE), a virtual-reality tool in which an onscreen animated arm mimics the user’s movements, based on input from electrodes attached to the residual arm. The user sits in front of a screen and obeys repeated commands to “close ring finger,” “open index finger,” etc. The algorithms map the amputee’s subjective experience of flexing a finger to the movements of the virtual arm.
That’s harder than it sounds. Because a movement might be slightly different every time you do it, it needs to be repeated countless times during training for the control algorithm to lock onto the essential signal.
The researchers experimented with various games, but they needed one with metrics that were relevant. In the context of prosthetics, that would mean activating muscles to open and close “fingers” quickly. The researchers borrowed a copy of Guitar Hero and attacked the guitar-shaped controller with a soldering iron, rewiring it to take instructions from the VIE.
Two-handed gamers play by using one hand to press colored “fret” buttons to correspond to the correct notes while using the other hand to push a “strum” button in time with the note. But the researchers needed to make the controls one-handed. They wired the two controls together so that an input from a muscle contraction would be read by the VIE as a simultaneous “fret” and “strum.”
The researchers demonstrated the system to Iraq veteran Jon Kuniholm. He has been a volunteer for the DARPA program and is the founder of the Open Prosthetics Project, which aims to make prosthetic-arm technology as open-source and collaborative as possible.
Kuniholm has big plans for Air Guitar Hero. He wants to use it to train people who use less advanced prostheses. DARPA is in the process of making the APL-created video-game interface software open-source, he says, “so we can all begin hacking away.” He hopes to have the source code available in 2009.
eDimensional, Inc. http://www.eDimensional.com
Games for Health http://www.gamesforhealth.org
Open Prosthetics Project http://www.openprosthetics.org
Revolutionizing Prosthetics 2009 http://www.darpa.mil/dso/thrusts/bio/restbio_tech/revprost
Wii Fit http://www.nintendo.com/wiifit