Surrounded by a group of captivated occupational therapists, Jonathan Halton skillfully demonstrated the latest high-tech tool for clinical physical rehabilitation:
The Nintendo Wii.
An occupational therapist at the Glenrose Rehabilitation Hospital in Edmonton, Halton first introduced the Wii on a lark.
He called up Nintendo, pitched his idea, and within a few weeks a free Wii arrived at the hospital’s doorstep.
The key to the Wii’s rehabilitative properties is its unique controller.
Instead of being equipped with standard buttons and joysticks, Wii controllers make use of cutting-edge “accelerometers” in order to translate real-world physical movements into the gaming environment.
In Tennis, a popular Wii game, players swing the controllers like a tennis racket, and their exact swing becomes mimicked by a character onscreen.
“It’s intuitive, you don’t necessarily have to be a gamer to understand how to use it,” he said.
Halton was in Whitehorse spreading the Wii gospel at the annual conference of the Canadian Association of Occupational Therapists.
“We need one of these,” said a nurse from Quebec.
“Do they have any curling games for the Wii,” asked another.
For only a few hundred dollars, the Wii allows healthcare professionals to access technology that would cost hundreds of millions of dollars if developed independently, said Halton.
Glenrose Hospital currently uses a specially designed virtual treatment system, but at a hefty price tag of $15,000, it is out of reach for many therapists.
The Wii addresses one of the most difficult problems faced in the field of occupational therapy: a lack of motivation on the part of the patient.
With the Wii, patients can become so absorbed in the game that they don’t even “see it as rehab.”
The first time Halton used the Wii with a patient, he described his incredulity at watching them instantly performing complex muscle movements that he hadn’t been able to induce in months of conventional therapy.
“The whole idea behind this is engagement … if I can make therapy fun, if I can get them engaged and motivated, then I’m doing my job.”
Halton warned the gathering crowd of therapists that patients may actually become so engaged that they may injure themselves from over-exertion.
“I’d rather have to deal with patients exercising too much than too little,” he said.
Of course, Halton recommends that the Wii be used with close therapist supervision.
Dozens of hospitals worldwide have followed Halton’s lead; his findings have are been incorporated into a myriad of scientific studies and he has received widespread press coverage in print, radio and television.
In spite of the praise, “people laugh at me around the hospital,” said Halton.
Already, the “gamer therapist” has introduced another video game, Guitar Hero, into the hospital.
In communication with the computer science faculty at the University of Alberta, Halton soon hopes to recruit students to design specialized “rehab” Wii software as a part of their curriculum.
Nintendo has responded positively to the therapeutic properties of their product, but as of yet, the company has failed to show any serious interest.
A delegation of occupational therapists is soon expected to make a presentation to Nintendo headquarters in Japan.