RALEIGH, North Carolina (Reuters) - Ever since Nintendo launched the Wii, gamers have been interacting with characters and working out with virtual trainers in titles like Electronic Arts' "EA Sports Active" or Ubisoft's "Your Shape."
Nintendo is even encouraging families to exercise together with "Wii Games: Summer 2010," a national tour that kicks off in Jersey City, New Jersey on July 16 with Olympic gymnast Shawn Johnson serving as an ambassador for the competition.
Now researchers, scientists and game developers are using Nintendo's console for many other health-oriented applications, and in some cases are getting millions of dollars in grants to dream up new technologies.
A recent gathering of over 400 top minds at the sixth annual Games for Health Conference in Boston found innovative new ways that video games with motion-sensor controllers are being used to help doctors and patients.
Through a grant from the National Institute of Health, Red Hill Games and the School of Nursing at the University of California San Francisco are using Wii technology to create games that help people with Parkinson's disease improve their balance. One called "Rail Runner" requires patients to stand up and sit down to operate an old-fashioned railroad hand cart.
"Most of these patients are in their 70s and 80s, and they really love these games," said Bob Hone, creative director at Red Hill Studios. "They really want something that's going to address their disease, and what's different is these games are designed specifically for them."
Red Hill is incorporating similar Wii technology into games to help improve gait and balance in kids with Cerebral Palsy.
"These kids sometimes have physical challenges, so we've taken that into account to make games where they feel like they're walking and they get to the finish line successfully," said Hone.
This fall, Sony Computer Entertainment America will launch PlayStation Move for PlayStation 3 and Microsoft will introduce Kinect for Xbox 360. These new devices are expected to not only open up gaming to a new mainstream audience, but also offer pioneers in the burgeoning Games for Health arena the ability to dream up new technology.
"The impact of these new technologies is going to be as seismic as Nintendo was when it originally came out with the Wii and the Wii balance board, because it's going to extend across more platforms," said Stephen Yang, a researcher and assistant professor at New York's College of Courtland.
"There are a lot of great game designers out there who will be able to tap into these new physical interactions with games and bring new experiences that will be both fun and beneficial for patients," Yang said.
John Lumpkin, MD, senior vice president of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has seen first-hand the advances that motion-sensor controllers and physical games have had on both his patients and his own children.
"These games promote motion, which increases the heart rate and burns more calories," said Lumpkin. "Even a game with the simplest motion like playing drums on 'Rock Band' can have a gamer burning twice as many calories per hour as he or she would just sitting around, while a more vigorous game like 'Dance Dance Revolution' can burn as many as six times the amount of calories," said Lumpkin.
Lumpkin said what really excites him, and many in his field, is that fact that today researchers are using a Wii balance board game to help stroke victims regain their balance just as effectively as an $18,000 piece of equipment.
That's one reason why the Games for Health sector has been growing exponentially over the past six years with no slowdown in sight.
"When you look at the economic activity associated with Health Care in the U.S. it's approximately 16 percent of gross domestic product, even in countries that spend less on health care, it's still double-digit GDPs," said Ben Sawyer, co-founder, Games for Health.
"Small games for health developers are receiving grants in the tens of millions to the low hundreds of millions" of dollars, said Sawyer. "When you combine those numbers with game sales of titles like Konami's 'Dance Dance Revolution,' Ubisoft's 'Your Shape,' Nintendo's 'Wii Fit' and Electronic Arts' 'EA Sports Active,' the Games for Health sector is well over $1 billion annually."
Editing by Bob Tourtellotte