Serious Gaming Systems for Kids

Student members design systems for rehabilitation and education

6 December 2011

Instead of building games that crash cars or crush castles, several IEEE students are developing game systems for kids that have an educational bent. That’s what The Institute found when it put out a call to hear from student members working on gaming projects.


Anyone who has had physical therapy knows that doing the repetitive exercises can be tedious. But the exercises are important for youngsters with cerebral palsy; if started at a young age, physical therapy can improve their muscle strength and endurance, as well as their joints’ overall range of motion.

Cerebral palsy refers to a wide range of neurological disorders. Children suffering from it often have limited movement of their shoulders, elbows, wrists, and hands.

One challenge for therapists is maintaining a child’s interest during exercises. To address that problem, a team of researchers at the Harvard Medical School Motion Analysis Laboratory designed interactive games played with a large touch-screen display.

“Traditionally, therapy for children with cerebral palsy involves the patient performing repeated movements of their arms, hands, and fingers,” says Alan Dunne, an IEEE graduate student member and one of the researchers who wrote to The Institute about their projects. “Therapists try to make these movements into games to keep children interested and to motivate them to complete the task.” Other researchers on the team are Luca Della Toffola and IEEE Senior Members Chia Shen and Paolo Bonato.

The system uses a Microsoft Surface multitouch “platform,” as Microsoft refers to the combination of hardware and software that responds to hand gestures made in its vicinity and to the movement of objects. The system’s touch screen is mounted in a frame. Built by Yalgin Ozsecen at the Motion Analysis Lab, the screen can be raised and tilted toward the user. Its design allows children in wheelchairs to use the system, which supports several types of games including maneuvering a bone to a dog and catching virtual butterflies in a jar.

The gaming system relies on three hardware components: the multitouch display, real objects, and an accelerometer attached to a vest.

Signals from the accelerometer are sampled at 100 hertz and transmitted via Bluetooth to the Surface. Much depends on the patient’s trunk rotation, which indicates whether the child is leaning forward to compensate for the limited range of movement in the elbow, shoulder, or both. The goal is for patients not to move their body but to learn to use their hands and arms.

When the child leans forward and passes a certain threshold, an onscreen indicator is triggered. The threshold for trunk movement for each user is different; a therapist can adjust the settings to match each exercise to the patient’s ability. The exercises can also be made more challenging as the patient’s range of motion improves.

The system is being developed in collaboration with clinicians at Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston, Dunne says. Clinical trials are scheduled to start early next year, and more games are in the works.

The researchers’ paper, “Upper Extremity Rehabilitation of Children With Cerebral Palsy Using Accelerometer Feedback on a Multitouch Display,” was published in the proceedings of the IEEE Engineering in Medicine and Biology Conference, held in September 2010.

Last month the lab and Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering agreed to continue to collaborate on the project. The institute uses design principles from nature to develop bio-inspired materials and devices 


IEEE Student Member Ignacio Lanzani and three colleagues designed a video game that teaches high school students how to build electronic circuits. It’s part of the Espacio Ciencia, an interactive museum of the Technological Laboratory of Uruguay, dedicated to science and technology in Montevideo, Uruguay. The E-Scientia exhibit there is aimed at raising awareness about careers in electrical engineering, computer science, and technology by demonstrating how electronic devices are designed and applied. The Technological Laboratory of Uruguay works to sustain the country’s economic development through innovation.

Launched in 2010, the E-Scientia is a 3-meter-high, 6-meter-long replica of the Apollo 11 Eagle spacecraft. Inside are five interactive stations that deal with aspects of electrotechnology: communications, energy, propulsion, defense, and biomedicine. A video about the Apollo 11 mission and clips from science fiction movies serve to introduce students to the concept of space travel. IEEE volunteers are there in the flesh to teach the teens about electricity, conductors, insulators, magnets, motors, and other basics.

Lanzani and his teammates—a high school student and two university students studying audio and visual arts—created and narrated a three-part video that “puts the young viewers in the fictional world of the spaceship,” Lanzani says. The video showed students how to build circuits and repair the ship when problems arise, and they do this by using a game system built by Lanzani’s team with Gamemaker 8.0. The software lets people create Windows-based games without having to write code. The youngsters then are brought to the game system, which uses drag-and-drop actions to build role-playing, arcade, 3-D, and other games.

In the upper right corner, the team created four screens functioning as surveillance cameras, showing videos of different parts of the spaceship’s interior. In the lower part is a screen that indicates the ship’s general condition, mostly by numbers. It was modeled on the graphics used by real space ships according to Lanzani. 

“Things are learned best by doing, and nowadays the best way to get young people interested in engineering is through the computer,” Lanzani says. “One of the benefits of our games is that you don’t have to worry if you make a mistake. That’s a good thing when working with our circuits.

“We provide images of the basic things the students need to learn, such as how to use conductors and batteries.”

The youngsters learn how to build a circuit by dragging it with a mouse from one part of the screen and dropping it so it joins with another and also how to make a fan work. The first is a simple light bulb/battery circuit, and the second one includes a fan, switch and battery. After that, the students are shown how to build real circuits with an Elenco science kit containing electronic components that can be plugged together, instead of soldered. Applying what they’ve learned, pairs of students are assigned stations, where they build a circuit board using an electronics kit that corresponds to one of the five subject areas. 

The game also tests the youngsters’ knowledge of what they learned through a series of multiple-choice questions. 

The game ends with a series of images provided by NASA and IEEE, showing the different jobs engineers perform aboard a spaceship, such as repairing power cables and preparing systems to be sent into space.

The last image is of two young people sitting near the Rambla of Montevideo, a 22-kilometer stretch of scenic roadway that runs along the city’s waterfront. They are appreciating the beauty of the illuminated city at night. “History tells us that in the future there will be unimaginable progress,” the video’s narrator says. “And behind it, there will always be an engineer’s mind. Maybe someday you will be one of them.”

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