Virtual personal trainer helps seniors get more exercise at home
U of A researcher developing personalized program that brings the appeal of electronic gaming to physical therapy for older adults.
By BEV BETKOWSKI
A high-tech University of Alberta research project is letting seniors hit a computerized gym especially designed for their needs.
VirtualGym, an electronic game that combines the entertainment of gaming with prescribed exercises, is being put through its paces in a Calgary seniors’ residence to test its user-friendliness and appeal.
Once perfected, it will deliver at-home therapeutic exercises for seniors with chronic health issues, mobility problems or dementia, at the click of a button.
“It’s a concept of bringing rehabilitation home,” said PhD candidate Noelannah Neubauer, who helped design the program. “We already have telehealth being used by doctors, why not rehabilitation too?”
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The joint research project is teaming computing scientist Eleni Stroulia and other researchers from the faculties of science and rehabilitation medicine, with support from AGE-WELL, Canada’s Technology and Aging Network.
Designed to work through Kinect, a motion sensor system originally designed for Xbox video game consoles, VirtualGym works by giving users personalized feedback as they exercise along with an onscreen avatar using a “Simon Says” theme.
“It’s designed so the exercises are completely customizable from a personal trainer or physical therapist and their progress can be monitored,” Neubauer said. By recording users’ movements through VirtualGym, therapists can remotely watch for progressions and adjust exercises accordingly.
Stroulia and her team thought their original version of VirtualGym, developed in 2015, would be a good fit for seniors, but it was a flop with their test group, who found the game too busy.
“They didn’t like it at all,” said Victor Fernandez-Cervantes, a post-doctoral researcher in computing science, who took it back to the drawing board.
Using feedback from Edmonton senior Stuart Embleton and other volunteers from the Cardiac Athletic Society of Edmonton who tried the system, Fernandez-Cervantes made VirtualGym more user-friendly.
“We wanted to design it from their point of view.”
He dialled down the noise with a less distracting and cartoonish version of the game. The screen scenery evolved from its original version—an instructional avatar exercising on snowy ground in front of a brick building—to a soothing blank-walled room with a potted plant at either side. The avatar’s build was also adjusted to reflect a more typical body shape for older adults. As well, he programmed its movements with simple but specific instructions on how to do an exercise properly, complete with correctional tools like arrows and colours that pop up if needed.
Fernandez-Cervantes is continuing to tweak VirtualGym to create a 3-D version. Right now the exercises are only partially viewable, which is a problem for seniors, Embleton believes. “If the program wants you to lift your leg and kick your foot up, you should be able to see that action from a suitable perspective,” he explained.
Other planned improvements include adding simple games to measure cognitive awareness for users. “Over time, perhaps changes in scores could reflect varying levels of cognitive impairment,” Neubauer said.
The eventual plan is to market VirtualGym widely through a spinoff company, Stroulia said.
Embleton, 77, believes seniors would use VirtualGym if it were available to them.
“Most seniors nowadays have computers and TV sets, and that, plus an optical input, is all you need to use the system. It’s going to be more and more useful as it’s further developed. It’s called a game, but it’s really a useful therapeutic process. If I had a broken hip or was frail or couldn’t drive, and needed some physical therapy, I could use a virtual gym at home,” he said.
That’s especially valuable for rural or shut-in seniors who can’t go to real-life gym classes or make regular visits to physiotherapy clinics, said Neubauer.
“We want seniors to be able to exercise more, and this provides another option for them.”
Their work on VirtualGym also offers insight and a set of guidelines for other game designers wanting to develop exercise technology for seniors, said Fernandez-Cervantes.
“When designing products, seniors need to be involved. Soon enough, everyone will be a senior.”