Page last updated at 10:37 GMT, Thursday, 12 March 2009

Disability no barrier to gaming

By Flora Graham
BBC News

Jon Kuniholm
Electrodes pick up the signals from the arm and are used to mimic a gamepad

Jon Kuniholm sits in front of the telly and plays Guitar Hero, the music video game. He's sailing through Pat Benetar's classic, Hit Me with Your Best Shot.

But unlike most players, he doesn't strum a little plastic guitar with his hands; Kuniholm's right arm is amputated just below the elbow.

Kuniholm is a biomechanics researcher at Duke University who lost his arm in an explosion while serving in Iraq. His efforts at Guitar Hero are more than just fun and games.

He is trying out a system developed by Jacob Vogelstein and Robert Armiger of the Applied Physics lab at Johns Hopkins University who hope to use games like Guitar Hero to train people to use prosthetic limbs.

"We call it Air Guitar Hero, actually, because there's no guitar involved," Dr Vogelstein told the BBC.

To play the game, users wear electrodes on their residual muscles, such as those found on their chest and shoulder. The system translates the signals from the electrodes as if they were coming from the game controller, allowing players to strum along, despite not having any hands.

Dr Armiger came up with the idea after becoming a Guitar Hero fan himself. He realised that the movements used by the game were similar to those required during the hours of tedious rehabilitation needed to learn to control a prosthetic limb.

David Halliday
Drummers and premiership footballers have similar fitness levels

The researchers are designing a prosthetic arm, which also learns from the user. So, the more users practice, the better the limb will work. By making practice fun, Guitar Hero helps keep users motivated.

But training prosthetic limbs isn't the only way that music video games such as Guitar Hero, Rock Band and SingStar are surprising people. Music games have sold tens of millions of copies, and they are starting to show up in hospitals, laboratories, and classrooms.

Drum for life

Steve Draper from the University of Gloucestershire and Marcus Smith from the University of Chichester studied Clem Burke, the drummer of the rock group Blondie, and found that drummers need the same fitness levels as professional footballers.

Now they are looking to find out if people playing video game drums could feel the same physical effects.

They connected monitors to drummers playing the game Guitar Hero World Tour to find out whether they could come close to the 400-600 calorie per hour output that real-world drummers achieve.

"People may be a bit sceptical about the amount of calories that are burnt using Guitar Hero World Tour," admitted Dr Smith.

"But especially in very obese people who find it difficult to move around, it could be the first steps for them to become more active."

Smith and Draper's work with video games have also inspired projects at King's College London Centre for Neuroscience Research, where they are looking to find out if music games can positively affect the brains of autistic children.

Overweight man
Researchers are looking to see if video games can help tackle obesity

Another thing that Smith and Draper are excited about is skills transfer; that is, whether someone who can nail the songs in the game can use those skills to master the real thing.

Andrew Missingham thinks so: in his report for the charity YouthMusic, he found that music games are leading people to take up real instruments.

Of the people who volunteered to be surveyed for the report, 19% had gone from playing music video games to taking up instruments. But more importantly, Mr Missingham said, he found that 100% of children in the UK between the ages of 6 and 10 called themselves 'gamers'.

Mr Missingham stressed that as these children grow up, games will become a normal part of learning about music.

"For young people who are growing up with console games as their method of getting into music, it's just an ordinary part of the way the world is," he said.

It's up to teachers and game designers to come up with a way to harness the love of games as a way to encourage young people to take up music, he added.

Future shock

But that doesn't mean there won't be growing pains as adults get used to the gamer generation.

Composer and presenter Richard Stilgoe, who is a trustee of the charity that commissioned the report, was shocked to discover the type of influence that music video games were having.

"My assumption, certainly as an old bloke, was that video games were a bad thing," he told the BBC.

"Suddenly the video game, from being a devil, becomes a fantastic new way in to music for young people."

Digital Planet is broadcast on BBC World Service on Tuesday at 1232 GMT and repeated at 1632 GMT, 2032 GMT and on Wednesday at 0032 GMT.

You can listen online or download the podcast .

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