Wii helps sick kids find balance

RICE (US) — A video game is the inspiration for a computerized motion tracking system that is aiding children with cerebral palsy, spina bifida, or amputations advance balancing skills.

A team of Rice University undergraduates linked five Wii Balance Boards and lined them up between handrails to create a cost-effective addition to physical therapy for patients at Shriners Hospital for Children.

The active handrails provide feedback on how heavily patients depend on their arms.

The project was the idea of Steven Irby, an engineer at the hospital’s Motion Analysis Laboratory.

“He (Irby) wants to get kids to practice certain tasks in their games, such as standing still, then taking a couple of steps and being able to balance, which is pretty difficult for some of them,” says Michelle Pyle, one of the students on the project. “The last task is being able to take a couple of steps and then turn around.”

“This isn’t a measurement device as much as it is a game,” Irby says. “But putting the two systems together is what makes it unique. The Wii system is not well suited to kids with significant balance problems; they can’t play it. So we’re making something that is more adaptable to them.”

The game requires patients to shoot approaching monsters by hitting particular spots with their feet as they step along the Wii array. The game gets harder as the patients improve, and the chance to rack up points gives them an incentive.

A further step, not yet implemented, would be to program feedback from the handrails into the game. Leaning on the rails would subtract points from the users’ scores, encouraging them to improve their postures. The game would also present challenges specific to younger and older children to keep them engaged.

The system’s components include a PC, the Wii boards (aligned in a frame) and two balance beam-like handrails that read how much force patients are putting on their hands.

“Small force plates that people commonly use for such measurements cost at least a couple of grand, but Wii boards—and people have done research on this—give—you a pretty good readout of your center of balance for what they cost,” Pyle says.

“We’re putting clear acrylic over the boards so there aren’t any gaps that could trip up the younger ones,” says Matt Jones, who is building the final unit for delivery to Shriners.

“We wanted to use a device that’s familiar to them, but they might not be convinced it’s a Wii board unless they can see it.”

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