While the manual wheelchair has been around for thousands of years (the earliest appearance dates back to the 6th century, BCE), they’re far from an ideal mobility solution for people with disabilities. The repetitive motion and strain of overuse often (more than 70 percent of the time) results in further injury and reduced mobility.
Certainly people with a disability don’t want to diminish their quality of life further, especially as the result of using a device designed to improve quality of life. Even motorized wheelchairs aren’t the perfect solution, as they tend to be bulky, difficult to transport, and they must have their batteries recharged periodically.
Now there may be a way to diminish the chance for further injury and reduced mobility for manual wheelchair users! A new research project is focused on assisting manual wheelchair users, not by “building a better mousetrap,” as the old saying goes, but by treating and helping to prevent the injuries themselves.
Researchers at the USC Schools of Social Work and Cinematic Arts, and the Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center, are developing an interactive video game called Skyfarer to prevent and treat the shoulder injuries so common among wheelchair users. The project is being funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Institute on Disability and Rehabilitation Research.
Maryalice Jordan-Marsh, associate professor at the School of Social Work, explains, “If you want to stay in a self-propelled wheelchair, you have to sustain upper-body strength. You have to do these boring exercises all your life. Over time, people get tired of it. Our job was to figure out how to intrigue people to do these exercises.”
The game’s player wears an adjustable gaming rig fitted with specialized sensors that are attached to a set of tensile bands and weights. As the sensors track the user’s movements, the data is sent to an exercise software system tied to the game, which coaches users in the correct motions to perform their exercises while providing an entertaining and interactive environment.
Phil Requejo, Rancho’s director of rehabilitation and engineering, says, “By doing this exercise program, this protocol that is prescribed for people with shoulder pain, it actually reduces their pain after a certain time, in a matter of weeks or months. We are taking this evidence-based approach and combining it with immersive technology. The whole idea is to increase enjoyment and promote adherence and long-term use.”
The game is set in South American environs and based on pre-Incan mythology as well as ancient alien architect theories. The goal is to collect energy from sources such as the sun to power an alien spacecraft that is responsible for creating the massive Nazca line geoglyphs. Players use movements to collect enchanted water, to steer and propel the ship, climb towards the sun and moon, and more.
The game, still a prototype, is getting positive feedback from wheelchair users and immersive technology experts. Currently, the rig required is expansive, making it impractical for mass marketing; however, the hope is that a miniaturized version of the technology is possible to allow the game to be played in the comfort of one’s own living room.
Jordan-Marsh says, “Down the road, we’d like to make it available for people to use in their home. We’re exploring creative ways this could work at home without this big structure.” She goes on to say, “It has amazing physical and psychological mood-lifting and social possibilities.”
Get the details—watch the video below! Do you have any suggestions for making the video game/exercise combo even more fun for manual wheelchair users?