Video Games as Physical Therapy? USC Uses Motion-Capture Technology to Heal the Injured

Researcher Belinda Lange demonstrates Jewel Mine, the video game her team made to help improve mobility in rehab.
Researcher Belinda Lange demonstrates Jewel Mine, the video game her team made to help improve mobility in rehab.
Institute for Creative Technologies

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Belinda Lange knows how to have some serious fun. A physiotherapist by training, Lange leads a group at the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT), which develops games to help people recovering from a stroke or other injuries.

At first, the researchers wanted to adapt existing games built around physical movement -- the Nintendo Wii and the Microsoft Kinect. But they quickly discovered those games weren't quite right for the rehab set. First, they didn't give enough data, explains Lange, a senior research associate at the institute.

They also weren't sufficiently accommodating to people who couldn't dance, jump or bend far. "Often, the fun parts of the game would only be unlocked after a series of other levels, which our patients often couldn't achieve," she says.

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So they jettisoned those games and set out to construct their own, using the motion-capture technology of the Wii and the Kinect. One of the games ICT has developed asks participants to reach out with their arms to grab jewels in a cave. Alternate versions require patients to pick daisies in a field, books in a library or pumpkins in a Halloween-themed version. Each game can be personalized for a specific type of movement disorder, so if a patient has trouble on the right side of the body, the game focuses on that part.

And therapists can replay the motion, frame by frame, to see how the patient is doing with things like joint angles. Sessions can be compared over time, which can develop a better understanding of progression.

You don't have to be a teenage boy to understand the appeal. A Pew Research Center survey last year found that 23 percent of those 65 and older play video games; other research shows that people who play games have a better ability to think spatially and imagine objects in three dimensions. The rehab games make people reach, pull, balance and twist -- similar to activities a therapist would do without a screen but in a more measurable and data-intensive way.

The game now is being tested with physical therapists at three major clinics, and the system will undergo more iterations with their feedback. At least one mainstream developer is interested in the possibilities: Microsoft recently donated a computer and Kinect for the TV show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition, and the team was able to provide the game to an injured serviceman to test in his home, Lange says.

The Institute for Creative Technologies was established in 1999, with a multiyear contract from the U.S. Army to explore interactive media for training, education and therapy. Part of the reason USC won the contract: proximity to the entertainment industry. Now, ICT focuses not only on creating ways to better train people for war using technology but also how to rehabilitate people coming home -- and those who need another tool to speed their recovery.

Follow me on Twitter at @kategammon, and for more arts news follow us at @LAWeeklyArts and on Facebook.

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