From games to health

Historically, technology has been the science of craft: how to make something from something else. Today it is equated with computers, high-tech gadgets – and games, which for many people, especially the young, are often the most frequent contact with the wonders of the 21st century.

The world of games, however, is evolving rapidly. No longer just for entertainment, they have made their entrance onto the scene of healthcare, where they are building an impressive track record of solving practical problems, providing motivation and making life smarter, funnier and easier. From mechanical pacemakers to virtual-reality rehabilitation to calorie-tracking apps, games have become part of a movement toward more personalised healthcare that draws on every available resource.

“Healthcare providers have always depended on technology, but now people can take matters into their own hands,” says Jakob Bardram, Professor at the Technical University of Denmark and leader of the Copenhagen Centre for Health Technology. “With gadgets like smartphones we can basically customize healthcare to fit our needs and wishes for prevention, diagnostics, treatment and care.”

On these pages are a few game-based technologies that have already proved their worth – or soon will.

Navigating with your head

A gaming device brings a whole new utility to the common wheelchair

Dominik Schniertshauer, co-founder of Glasschair, former student at the Technical University of Munich.

What is it?

Dominik Schniertshauser: Glasschair is a smart glass-based solution that allows a disabled person to drive a wheelchair without hands, using head movements and voice commands. This allows the person to be mobile and independent.

How does it work?

D.S. It bridges the gap between two technological areas that could not be more different: the common electric wheelchair and innovative smart glasses like Google Glass. By using sensor data from the glasses that are interpreted through an algorithm, Glasschair provides comfortable and reliable head tracking that is more economical than anything currently available.

Where did the idea come from?

D.S. “At TUM we were assigned to identify mobility problems and develop a smart glass-based solution”, Schniertshauer recalls. “Glasschair was the result.”

What is the vision?

D.S. We want Glasschair to be more than ‘just’ a driving unit – we see it as an everyday assistant in the future. We also hope to inspire both wheelchair manufacturers and medical equipment providers to make use of all the innovative technologies available today and create more competition in this field.

Lending a pair of eyes

A free smartphone app allows the blind to “see”

Hans Jørgen Wiberg, founder of BeMyEyes, Copenhagen

What is it?

Hans Jørgen Wiberg: BeMyEyes is a smartphone app that allows blind people to get help from people who can see. If, for example, a blind person comes across a roadblock or wants to cook something that requires very specific spices, he or she goes to the app, presses a button and waits. Then the phone of someone who signed up to help starts ringing; they pick up and the blind person uses the smartphone camera to let the helper be their eyes.

How does it work?

H.J.W. You download the app and sign up either as a blind person or as a helper. When a blind person requires assistance, helpers from the same country get a notification and can answer the call. Currently, 23,000 visually impaired people and more than 300,000 helpers in more than 100 countries have signed up. “It had to be as simple as possible, as most blind people are rather old when they lose their sight,” says Wiberg, who is himself visually impaired. “Our target was a 60-year old woman with basic computer skills.”

Where did the idea come from?

H.J.W. I saw a need for something like this. And with the new smartphones, I saw the opportunity to make it happen. I took the idea to a competition called Start-Up Week, and we won the prize for most innovative idea. We were supported by a Danish foundation, the app was built and tested by my wife and me and other visually impaired people we know, and finally, it was launched globally on the 15th of January 2015.

What is the vision?

H.J.W. I dream of blind people all over the world getting the courage to do things they otherwise wouldn’t. If it’s making dinner for your spouse, applying for a new job or travelling alone… the chance to make visually impaired people a little more independent is what drives us.

Intelligent ball games

A simple game-like concept makes football practise fun

Chris Heger, owner and CEO, studied at Eindhoven University of Technology

What is it?

Chris Heger: SmartGoals is a system of intelligent cones for sports practice. They automatically pair up with the cone next to them to create a small goal, and then one or more of these small goals light up to become the target. When a ball or person passes the goal line, the lights go out and the light moves on to another set of cones, indicating to the players where to go next.

How does it work?

C.H. SmartGoals is suitable for all types of sports and for all levels and ages. Currently 150 amateur sports clubs and schools in The Netherlands and Belgium use it, as do the professional football clubs Schalke 04, Ajax Amsterdam and PSV Eindhoven. “For kids, SmartGoals is motivating because it is a gamification of exercise and training,” says Heger. “It’s like a real-life computer game with scores that they can compare.For athletes at a higher level, say football players, orienting yourself towards the next light forces you to look over the ball and see your surroundings. But the real power is that it’s really, really simple. There are no computers; no technology or experience is needed. You just set up the cones and then it’s ready.”

Where did the idea come from?

C.H. I was a student in the Department of Industrial Design at TU/e, and a researcher had developed this technology of separate units communicating in a network instead of through a central computer. I had an assignment on intelligent products in sports, and thought I would put his invention to use.

What is the vision?

C.H. We want SmartGoals to replace regular plastic cones and become ‘the new cone’ for all sports. Most important, we want people to move, to have fun and to become great at their sport.

An extra setof bones

A robotic suit allows the frail and elderly to remain active

Shaoping Bai, associate professor in the Department of Mechanical and Manufacturing Engineering at Aalborg University

What is it?

Shaoping Bai: The Axo-suit is a project that aims to develop portable, ready-to-use exoskeletons – robotic skeletons with a built-in motor that you wear like a suit of extra bones – for the elderly. The goal is to enable healthy but weak older people to keep up their daily activities even if their bodies become frail. The Axo-suit is expected to launch within five years.

How does it work?

S.B. The exoskeleton consists of a set of robotic “bones” that supplement the user’s body with motors. It follows the user’s moves and requires a high level of human-robot interaction. It needs to be compact, portable and lightweight so that the user can put it on easily and comfortably. And the technology that goes into the exoskeleton has to be affordable to make it widely available. “We need human-intention detection and control methods to achieve better interaction between the human and the robot,” says Bai. “We also have to consider the power of the motors in the skeleton to make sure the robots are inherently safe – and that users aren’t scared by the machinery’s strength.”

Where did the idea come from?

S.B. In 2050 there will be more than two billion people over 60. And the older we get, the weaker our bodies become, even if we are mentally fit. This is an attempt to complement the strengths of older people so that they can continue to be mobile and live independently for a longer time.

What is the vision?

S.B. Axo-suit products will be available in the supermarket to meet the needs of elderly, just like wheelchairs or electronic bikes.

“The last frontier: wiring the brain”

With neural prosthetics, scientists can restore or augment damaged sensory, motor or cognitive functions.

Bruno Herbelin is an expert on the use of virtual reality for psychotherapy and stroke rehabilitation. Now deputy director of the EPFL Centre for Neuroprosthetics, he is tackling the ultimate technological frontier
in healthcare: getting technologies to talk directly to the brain and nervous system.

Technologist: How has the use of games and technology for rehabilitation developed over the past decade? 

Bruno Herbelin: Medicine first approached technologies in a mechanistic way, like for artificial knees or pacemakers. Today we see more advanced, computer-driven ones like virtual reality for rehabilitation. And science is working towards technologies that allow computers to read and write directly into the nervous system.

T. Is the ‘bionic man’ around the corner?

B.H. Not necessarily. Implanting electrodes in the brain is now quite common for specific medical conditions, such as deep brain stimulation for Parkinson’s patients and for severe depression. But new studies on electrical stimulation in rehabilitation indicate that physically implanting technology doesn’t have to be a permanent solution, but just a treatment like getting a broken femur screwed together by the orthopedic surgeons.

T. So the technology doesn’t have to stay in the body?

B.H. In one study, paralysed mice had electrodes implanted in their spines to restore connections through electrical stimulation. No surprise in that. But analysis revealed that once the ‘dead’ body part was re-activated, new paths from the brain started taking shape and expanded further as the mice had more electrical stimulation.

This indicates it could be possible to rewire the nervous system by stimulating the natural plasticity of the brain. Exploring this further could make rehabilitation of stroke patients, for example, much more effective; in the end, implanting electrodes could just be a temporary measure.

T. This all sounds great, but is it ethically tricky?

B.H. As science becomes more capable, questions on ‘the augmented human’ are going to arise. Sometimes I jokingly ask people when they think athletes are going to come to us and ask us to amputate their legs and give them bionic ones that will make them faster. As scientists, we are highly conscious of these ethical concerns – the discussion of what we can improve versus what we should improve – but that should never stop us from exploring the options and from solving the problems we come across.