Gaming turns to therapy: Kinect back in the game

Friday 19th June, 2015

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After Microsoft’s Kinect failed to impress the gaming crowd, a group of London-based Romanian developers transformed the motion-sensing device into a ‘recovery assistant’.

When Cosmin Mihaiu shared the story of how as a child he broke his arm, MIRA was born. As with any other seven-year-old boy, he found the recovery exercises incredibly boring, and with his friends sought a way to entertain whilst healing.

Short for “Medical Interactive Recovery Assistant”, MIRA’s software makes the exercises recommended for a patient’s treatment more interesting by turning them into video games. “It is designed as a complement to their traditional therapy,” says Mihaiu.

What is MIRA Rehab? Let co-founder and CEO Cosmin Mihaiu tell you in a minute.

The concept of “exergaming” has been around since the late nineties: Konami’s Dance Dance Revolution popularised the machine present in game arcades around the world, but its application in medicine is relatively new. This has been made possible by consumer devices such as the Nintendo Wii balance board and Microsoft Kinect, which have found uses outside their intended domain.

MIRA is an alumnus of the latter in more than one way. Not only is the Kinect’s motion sensing technology central to the physical therapy app, but Mihaiu and his friends also entered their brainchild into Microsoft’s annual global student competition, the Imagine Cup, in 2011, managing a top six finish and gaining belief in the power of their idea.

After graduating in 2012, Mihaiu and the team applied to London’s Healthbox, a business accelerator programme for healthcare entrepreneurs.

They started to develop their student project into a business, collaborating with physiotherapists around the UK to develop a product that would be useful to the market.

The future of motion sensing gaming seems non-existent, and Microsoft’s darling faces a grim outlook.

More than four million patients require physiotherapy services every year with the NHS, and budget cuts have driven it towards cost-saving innovation. The 26-year-old Romanian says: “Increasingly, the clinicians and the healthcare industry as a whole are more and more open to what is becoming known as ‘digital treatment’.” But selling into the NHS is still easier said than done.

“That’s why we’re doing clinical trials, to gather as much evidence as possible to show them it’s a good solution that can help them improve their therapy services: either by shortening the length of a patient’s treatment or better engagement,” says Mihaiu.

Rebecca Scott, a senior physiotherapist at National Star College in Cheltenham, has been using the software for over a year. For her, it’s the data and feedback provided by MIRA that sets it apart from commercial games made for the Wii or Xbox. “Motion sensing technology is productive in therapy only if you can report on data received from the game,” she says.

Be a bee in the MIRA world: skip the houses, deposit pollen and avoid the insects. Image: MIRA Rehab

Scott works with young adults who have brain injuries or cerebral palsy, and has found the gaming concept to be a motivation for her patients. New solutions drive up costs though and MIRA is a subscription-based service.

She says rehabilitation is an “expensive business and what drives decisions about whether something is worth paying for is whether it does what it is supposed to and MIRA certainly has that potential.”

And then there’s the matter of the technology.

The Microsoft Kinect is a failed gaming device, there is no other way to put it. Ben Kuchera, senior editor at Polygon, a popular video gaming website wrote this month that “the Kinect is well and truly dead”. That is evident from the fact that sales of Microsoft’s new gaming console, the Xbox One, doubled after the company gave in to public reception and unbundled the two.

The small circle of developers making games for the Kinect shrunk further. The future of motion sensing gaming seems non-existent, and Microsoft’s darling faces a grim outlook.

MIRA isn’t the only one in its field. There’s Doctor Kinetic in the Netherlands, Poland has SeeMe Rehabilitation and Reflexion Health was developed in the United States. Although they may look and feel different, all four are similar in their approach and the services they offer. But what sets MIRA apart from the others, according to Mihaiu, are the clinical endorsements and published studies.

And when the time does come to scale up, Mihaiu hopes the Kinect will still be in Microsoft’s plans. While he has explored opportunities with other devices such as a webcam, he adds, “it’ll never be as good”.