Kinect meets doctor's office: motion-capture physical therapy

David Hughes's picture

Austrian researchers have developed a motion-capture based interactive game to aid in physical therapy, particularly with relieving back pain. The motion-capture interface used in the early research is considerably more advanced than Microsoft’s Kinect motion control releasing for the Xbox 360 on November 4th (U.S.) and 10th (Europe), but it points to a future of video games that have discrete benefits beyond entertainment.

Motion-capture game aids physical therapy; how it could come into the home

The researchers at the Austrian University of Technology’s Institute of Software Technology and Interactive Systems are using a motion-capture system similar to what Hollywood special effects studios use. Patients must wear a ‘data suit’, which has a number of small reflecting balls that are sensed by an eight-point infrared camera rig. This provides a high level of three-dimensional accuracy, very important when small changes in range of motion make the difference between therapy and potentially making the problem worse.

The scientists contracted with Danish software company Serious Games, a company that specializes in designing games, simulations and virtual worlds for corporations, state agencies, NGOs and other organizations. The game component happens once the patient’s digital avatar is loaded on-screen, walking them through various stretches and other activities designed to relax targeted muscle groups. As patients progress, the challenges become easier—giving a tangible reward for getting through the most difficult parts of the therapy progress.

An initial installation of the system is planned at a rehabilitation center in the Netherlands sometime this fall, with future installations dependent on the success of the system there. The researchers stress that this is simply designed as an extra layer of feedback to improve the therapy process, though it’s easy to see a logical extension of the technology.

One of the launch games for Microsoft’s Kinect, Your Shape: Fitness Evolved, uses a similar projection of a digital avatar in order to instruct players on appropriate motion for each activity. Where Your Shape comes closest to the Austrian researchers is with the yoga activity, which mirrors the style of slow, deliberate stretches the researchers are using in physical therapy programs.

Reviews of the Kinect device fault the device’s single infrared camera, which often forces the software to assume where certain body parts are even though they are occluded from view. While the more advanced motion-capture rig doesn’t have those flaws, one could envision health care providers creating a custom program for the Kinect using Microsoft’s XNA development platform. Patients could receive a download token for their Xbox 360, and the custom therapy program would help patients do exercises on the days between actual physical therapy visits.

This is the second recent story about video gaming providing discernible health benefits. Another recent study showed that action gaming can significantly speed up certain decision-making processes with no loss of accuracy.


The technology is pretty new, and Kinect hasn't even officially launched yet, but I could definitely see it happening soon.

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