Zombie teddy bears make tedious rehab fun

A swarm of zombie teddy bears, spawned in Wellington, are proving improbable heroes of the medical world.

Teamed with a balance board and a smartphone, the terrifying teddies are helping injured humans to recover quicker, Olympic athletes to perform better, and could even help sufferers of Parkinson’s Disease to improve their balance.

The animated undead are stars of the aptly-named video game, Unbearable - created by a team of young Wellington entrepreneurs in their quest to solve an age-old conundrum for physiotherapists.

The problem: motivating injured patients to do often-monotonous, but vital exercises at home. The solution: turning the exercises into fun video games.

The Swibo team, who work out of a small office in a heritage building in the capital, have created “Tilt” – a purpose-built balance board with a dock for a smartphone. The board doubles as exercise equipment and game controller; while you play Tilt’s video games, it measures your recovery, analyses your performance, and assesses your injury risk.

And your physio knows whether you’re doing your exercises, or not, because the data can be sent straight to them.

“For us, gaming isn’t about killing time. It’s about enriching lives,” reads the Swibo philosophy.

After three years of testing by physiotherapy patients and lower limb amputees throughout the country, the Tilt board is on the verge of mass production.

Ben Dunn, CEO of Swibo, says he and his three co-founders have all faced the dread of rehabilitation at home at some point in their lives. But that wasn’t the catalyst for Tilt. It was more of a serendipitous discovery.

The Swibo team came together at a Victoria University Entrepreneur Bootcamp, an annual summer programme that helps students from across the university grow their entrepreneurial skills, and turn ideas into viable businesses.

“We got the idea of an electrified balance board, and developed it from there,” Dunn says. “The physiotherapy angle came partway through the development. It’s not really the best way to start a business - you should really start with a problem first, then find a solution.

“But we found all this fantastic data – studies showing that balance training really reduced injury rates and improved balance. We got really excited that we were working on something statistically proven to be an incredibly powerful physio tool. We wanted to encourage people to use a balance board more often, and get the benefits already proven for it.”

A group of nine students pared down to the core team of four who started the Swibo company – Dunn, Connor Broad, Zac Bird and Lukas Stoecklein. Although they came from different backgrounds - computer science, media design and electronics engineering – their “healthy common interest” in gaming glued them together.

It's a matter of balance for the four founders of Swibo. Photo: Supplied

They go to work each day to play, developing video games that enhance the balance board experience. The three games created so far are all very different: NeoZen is a fast-paced space racing game built to hone fine balance control and stability; Unbearable, the survival game where campers fend off zombie teddy attacks using balance to fire at them; and Hexile, a more even-paced adventure puzzle game with a rolling character, which tests reactionary balance.

A smartphone app measures the movements of the board, transferring data to the computer on which the game is played. All of that data can be automatically sent to the patient’s physiotherapist. “From the clinic, they can see who is playing, when and how often; read the strengths and weaknesses in people’s balance, and measure them again when they come in to the clinic,” Dunn says.

“The core problem we are trying to solve here is that people really do hate doing recovery exercises. When people don’t do it, they aren’t getting the value from physiotherapy, which leads to poor outcomes, people getting reinjured, or sometimes going off physiotherapy entirely. It’s not there to replace physios, but to encourage exercise; to get people up and doing it.”

In the testing phase, Tilt has been used by “a couple of hundred” physiotherapists throughout the country. Boards were also given to the New Zealand Artificial Limb Service to help people with prosthetics to regain their confidence and mobility, and are also being tested in Australia, Italy, Britain and the United States.

It’s not just the injured who are benefiting from the boards. Dunn says a number of Olympic athletes (he can’t reveal who) have been using them, as well as high performance rugby, netball, hockey and soccer players.

“Anyone would benefit from doing balance training. Especially athletes who are exposed to injury frequently. Ankle sprains and ACL tears are two of the most common injuries we target; balance training has been proven to reduce ACL tears by about 80 percent,” says Dunn. “Reducing injury rates for people whose livelihood depends on being healthy can have a pretty significant impact.”

One major limitation Swibo has faced with Tilt is the price of the board. The team has made the boards from locally sourced bamboo and spun aluminium, and then assembled and varnished them in friends’ garages.

“The boards cost around $150. We need to take them away from our garages and put them into larger scale production so it will be cheaper,” Dunn says. Any day now, Swibo will launch a new website and start taking their first individual orders – a major milestone for the start-up.

Swibo was started with equity investment from VicLink (Victoria University’s commercialisation office), before turning to family and friends for further investment. “We also do some software and hardware development contracts to help keep ourselves alive,” Dunn says. “We’ll look at opening a seed funding round once we start mass production.”

As well as positive feedback from medical practitioners, patients and athletes, Swibo is earning recognition from serious gamers too. Tilt is a finalist at New Zealand’s international games festival, Play By Play, and is part of an exhibition of grassroots game development at Thistle Hall in Wellington this week.

Dunn believes Swibo can still explore “a ton of applications” for Tilt, especially to help an ageing population to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

“Using Tilt as a preventative tool is what I find it most exciting. Falls are the number one cause of injury in the world. If you can prevent that first fall, or first bad sprain, by helping people to have better balance, then you can prevent a whole slew of complications down the road,” he says.

“I can also see it being used to help people with neurodegenerative disorders, like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s. We’re only just beginning.” 

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