As anyone who’s ever recovered from an injury knows, physical therapy can be painful, boring and slow. TED Fellow Cosmin Mihaiu is out to change that with MIRA, software that disguises physical therapy exercises as fun-to-play videogames. Here’s how it works.
Unlikely — fun! — physical therapy. “Traditionally, a patient doing physical therapy at home is, at most, looking in the mirror. There’s no other feedback or encouragement,” says Mihaiu. MIRA, built by his team in Romania and the United Kingdom, changes that. It’s a set of simple, fun-to-play videogames that encourage precise movement while offering audio and visual stimulus and a sense of achievement. By reaching their onscreen goals, patients also do their physical therapy exercises. So a patient recovering from a broken arm might fly a bee to gather pollen — while flexing and extending the arm. Someone recovering from a stroke might navigate a submarine through water to improve the precision of movement in the shoulder.
Off-the-shelf hardware and tailored exercises produce a personal experience. Each of the ten games offers a range of exercises that can be tailored to each patient’s needs; it’s up to the therapist to prescribe which ones to play, and for how long. Mihaiu and his team built software that can be played via a Kinect motion-sensing input device and a PC. Using readily available and relatively cheap hardware is one way they hope to promote adoption by clinics and hospitals — and eventually by patients at home.
BECAUSE PATIENTS KNOW THAT THEIR CLINICIANS CAN SEE WHETHER AND HOW THEY ARE DOING THE PRESCRIBED EXERCISES, THEY’RE MORE LIKELY TO COMPLY.
The inspiration for MIRA: a fall from a tree. When he was seven, Mihaiu fell out of a tree he’d used as a (poor) hiding place. “The doctors encased my arm and torso in a cast, and because I was stuck in that position for six weeks, I could no longer extend my elbow when the cast came off,” he says. A physical therapist prescribed exercises that called for him to flex and extend his elbow 100 times a day. Unsurprisingly, little Cosmin balked at such tedium. But that meant his recovery took far longer than it should have done. Years later, as a computer engineering student at the University of Babeș-Bolyai in Romania, Mihaiu remembered this childhood experience during a brainstorming session for the Microsoft Imagine Cup innovation competition. “We thought, what if we could get people to play their way to recovery?” he recalls. They didn’t win, but the idea stuck, and MIRA — which stands for Medical Interactive Recovery Assistant — was born.