$1.1 million project tip of movement to develop 'serious games'SAN RAFAEL – The National Institutes of Health has awarded $1.1 million in stimulus grants to Red Hill Studios in San Rafael toward developing an interactive game to improve movement in people with Parkinson's.

"These grants are the start of what may become a massive new area of health care," said Bob Hone, Red Hill founder, creative director and a former science show producer for KQED-TV and WGBH-TV.

[caption id="attachment_20130" align="alignright" width="324" caption="Sue Lifschiz, a person with Parkinson's, provides feedback for Red Hill Studios' interactive physical therapy."][/caption]

The emergence of low-cost motion-sensing technologies plus growing appreciation of the effectiveness of interactive video have spurred the development of a whole new form of rehabilitation: physical therapy games.

Red Hill partnered with the UCSF School of Nursing to develop the Parkinson's games.

"The challenge of developing any serious game, whether it be for education, training or therapy, is to find the 'area of maximal engagement,' where the task is challenging enough so that it isn't boring, yet not so challenging that the task is frustrating," said Mr. Hone.

Because people with Parkinson's often have trouble sitting and rising from chairs, part of the Red Hill game simulates moving a handcar along a track, which requires similar motion and balance.

According to Glenna Dowling, chair of the UCSF Department of Physiological Nursing, as the baby boomer population ages, the incidence of Parkinson's disease will increase dramatically, impacting health care costs and quality of life for millions of people.

"Yet very little research has been done on using interactive technology for these people," she said, adding that the Red Hill games were well-received by study participants.

Mr. Hone's research and development has included student performance in educational games, user-customizable biology-based games, cognitive therapy for Multiple Sclerosis patients and even a multi-player game to help farmers in Arizona develop strategies to combat a plant pest.

He's won about $7.5 million in grants from the NIH and the National Science Foundation. In addition to producing science programs for PBS, he founded the multimedia studies program at San Francisco State University before starting Red Hill. The company employs 12.

Ben Sawyer is founder of Games For Health, an organization that brings together researchers, medical professionals and game developers to share information on games to promote heath and health care.

He said there is a market opportunity for physical and cognitive therapy games.

"Our annual conference now devotes an entire section to rehabilitation. The possibilities go far beyond the physical."

People who suffer psychological trauma in an automobile or other accident can actually return to the scene in a virtual way, preparing them to engage again in everyday activities, he said.

"In terms of revenues, look at Wii Fit," an exercise game. "It came out of nowhere and made over $1 billion."

Physicians and physical therapists who would purchase games from developers like Red Hill won't be spending that kind of money, but "if each PT in the U.S. buys a $20 game from Red Hill, they'll do very well," he said.

"But even if a game makes several million dollars, if it doesn't improve the health of the user, they we would consider it a failure," said Mr. Sawyer.

For more information, visit www.redhillstudios.com or www.gamesforhealth.org.