Microsoft Kinect Could Reinvent Physical Therapy

A new virtual reality game makes rehabilitation convenient and even fun

23 July 2015

Most anyone who has undergone physical therapy will tell you that the exercises can be tedious and dull. Patients may have to perform the same movements several hundred times a day to see improvement. When IEEE Member Yash Soni’s father underwent rehabilitation treatment for a slipped disc, Soni knew there had to be a better way.

Soni came across research into how the Microsoft Kinect game console’s motion-sensing technology could be used for rehabilitation purposes. Inspired, he and his professor as well as his classmate created Kinect-o-Therapy, a virtual reality game to help patients like Soni’s dad practice their exercises in an engaging way. The exercises can help people with cerebral palsy and chronic muscle ailments as well as those recovering from a spinal cord injury or a stroke.

“We feel that the current modes of physical therapy that rely on patients to practice their exercises properly and consistently are outdated,” says Soni, now a product engineer at Sprinklr, a social media management company, in Gurgaon, India. “Plus, there are millions who cannot afford or do not have access to a physical therapist.”

Soni, along with IEEE Senior Member Anil Roy and IEEE Member Sonali Dubey, wrote “Enhancing Effectiveness of Motor Rehabilitation Using Kinect Motion-Sensing Technology,” which was featured in the IEEE Global Humanitarian Technology Conference: South Asia Satellite proceedings and can now be downloaded from the IEEE Xplore Digital Library.

Roy is a professor at the Dhirubhai Ambani Institute of Information and Communication Technology, in Gandhinagar, India, and Dubey is an alumnus of the school who works as an assistant manager for Snapdeal, India’s largest online marketplace.

Working with rehabilitation experts, the trio determined that games can help boost motivation among patients and keep them engaged so that they may even forget they’re in therapy, Dubey says. Their suite of exercises makes the routines less about how many repetitions must be completed and more about performing well and moving on to the game’s next level.

PLUG AND PLAY

The Microsoft Kinect game console was chosen because its motion-sensing technology allows the user to be the controller. Relying on a variety of technologies, including 3-D and depth sensors and real-time motion tracking, Kinect lets users control their onscreen avatars simply by moving their bodies. Focusing on this feature, Roy and his team created a full-body tracking game for home use incorporating conventional rehabilitation exercises.

The game currently includes five sets of exercises targeting different parts of the body. The group visited different hospitals and reviewed research papers to understand which exercise routines are commonly used during physical therapy. Therapists in India were consulted and provided their input. The group then did beta testing in hospitals to help refine the game further.

The Kinect game console can be connected to a TV or a computer. Therapists select the routines that match their patients’ needs. These exercises, involving, say, walking in a straight line, raising an arm or leg, or hand-eye coordination, are mirrored by the patient’s onscreen avatar. The system can also track people when they perform exercises on the floor.

Users wave their hands to browse the list of exercises and use a tap gesture to make their selections. Before starting the exercise, an animation demonstrates how to perform it. When a patient performs an exercise, the patient’s avatar mimics the movements by means of real-time motion capture to show whether the routine is being performed correctly.

A balloon pop routine, for example, helps patients improve their hand stability and hand-eye coordination by requiring them to burst all the balloons on the screen as quickly as possible. To pop them, users position their hands on each balloon for about two seconds to make it pop. Once all the balloons have been popped, users move on to the next level, in which the degree of difficulty increases. In this level, users must pop a series of specific colored balloons and are given less time to complete the challenge.

FEEDBACK AND ACCESSIBILITY

Research has shown that patients undergoing physical therapy tend to do better when they receive feedback about their performance. With Kinect-o-Therapy, players receive audio feedback, such as a soft, pleasant melody when an exercise is performed correctly (or a buzzer when it isn’t). Statistics are displayed at the end of each routine, comparing that day’s performance to that of previous sessions.

Kinect-o-Therapy uploads data about patient performance to their computers, providing instantaneous feedback. The data is also available to doctors through the system’s website, allowing them to provide comments and analyze how well patients are progressing.

Because physical therapy sessions are expensive and often require patients to come to the hospital or physical therapy facility daily, the group says its home-based system is a much more affordable and convenient option. Roy and his team hope to sell the game console, equipped with the team’s software and automatic updates of new exercise routines, for 12,000 rupees, or US $187.

They also plan to sell the systems to hospitals and clinics, which can offer such virtual sessions as an affordable alternative. They also plan to make their software open source so that developers can create additional exercise routines and avatars.

“We’ll consider our system successful when physical therapy is no longer thought of as boring, cumbersome, and expensive,” Soni says.

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