Gaming’s serious side: Helping brain-damaged patients
Fishing Cactus is a start-up that began in the world of entertainment games. Now it’s moving into what are called “serious games” – starting with one that can help doctors support patients left with impaired motor skills after an accident.
When accidents leave patients with impaired motor skills, doctors need to help them re-connect with everyday thinking processes and actions. Conventional rehabilitation methods can be expensive and difficult to manage. But what’s called “serious game” technology can help – enabling doctors to support their patients with simulated real-world experiences, in a safe, easily controlled and cost-effective environment. An example is being developed by a Belgian start-up called Fishing Cactus.
Fishing Cactus is a computer games studio created in 2008. Its three founders decided to launch their own company after the well-known games studio they were working for went out of business. And that turned out to be a smart move: Fishing Cactus rapidly became profitable and is now one of Belgium’s fastest-growing games studios, creating traditional entertainment games, developing games for other publishers and consulting.
Serious games -- designed to help doctors to rehabilitate patients who have suffered brain damage following an accident -- are a new growth sector for Fishing Cactus.
Turning everyday tasks into a game
So how does the game work? Patients recovering from brain damage often have problems dealing with routine tasks that the rest of us take for granted, such as cooking a meal. They simply do not know where to start. Traditional re-learning therapy is provided in a physical set-up, such as a “test” apartment. But this can be expensive, hard for the doctor to monitor and takes up time – so it is available to only a limited number of people.
Fishing Cactus’s solution replicates routine everyday processes in an Xbox-based computer game, using highly realistic images. The patient then uses this environment to try tasks, with limited risk and with the doctor able to monitor the situation, whether in the same room or remotely. If the patient becomes distracted or loses concentration, the doctor can observe the exact point at which that happened.
One example would be asking patients to cook a very simple meal. First, they have to assemble the right ingredients and from the right location in the kitchen, such as the refrigerator or a store-cupboard. Next, they have to remember the process, for instance boiling water, turning on the oven and cooking the meal for the right length of time.
The doctor will also be able to tailor the experience for the patient, including the addition of “troublemakers”, which are distractions designed to test concentration. Examples might include a pet cat entering the room, the iron starting to steam, a phone call or a neighbour knocking on the door.
Serious games include room settings like these to help brain-damaged patients relearn daily routines at home such as cooking.
The innovative software grew out of a close collaboration with the Microsoft Innovation Centre in Mons.
“When we identified the potential for serious games, Microsoft not only provided technical and business support, it also put funding into the project and will help us find a second sponsor,” says Laurent Grumiaux, commercial director at Fishing Cactus.
The company’s first serious game is under development in partnership with a team of doctors and specialists in the region. The hospital patients’ game will be ready at the end of 2010, but Fishing Cactus already has other projects in the pipeline, including more of these serious games.
One game platform that could be explored for future products is Kinect for Xbox 360 (refer to Kinect story), which removes the need to use a regular games controller. “This is good for older people and patients, who may not be familiar with or able to use a keyboard,” says Grumiaux. “Just pointing at the screen is a lot easier for them.”
Entering any new market is a challenge, but Grumiaux points out that Microsoft’s support has helped. “Microsoft gives us access to not just technology but business support too, finding us partners and a joint presentation at Belgium’s first serious games conference. It’s also a big help being part of Microsoft BizSpark programme
, which provides access to free software, support and market visibility.”
This article was first published in Microsoft's Futures Magazine #7. To download the full edition in PDF click here.