PHYSIO FUN Balance Training Review
Posted by Sean Aaron
A good step in the right direction
Though most of the focus on the Wii's motion-based controls has been on their impact in gaming, what is more radical about Nintendo's approach with both the Wii and DS has been its success at positioning game systems as more than simply entertainment devices. Wii Fit stands as the biggest success story in this regard, with the Wii being successfully marketed as a device for daily use rather than just the odd bit of fun with the family thanks to the popularity of this casual fitness tool.
The therapeutic aspects of Wii Fit and the Balance Board haven't been lost on the medical community; whilst a Wii + Wii Fit Plus bundle might seem a bit pricey for the average pensioner, as a viable alternative to specialist medical equipment it's a positive bargain. Despite the interest of the medical community in the application of motion-controlled games for physical therapy, no one has made a software title for the Balance Board specifically targeting the physiotherapy market – until now.
Kaasa Solution (via its Health division) has decided to fill this gap with the first WiiWare application designed expressly for physiotherapy. From conversations with close relatives who have suffered stroke or undergone knee surgery we know that regaining lost mobility requires time and patience and often necessitates physiotherapy sessions outside of the home. A software application providing realtime feedback and offering the possibility of balance training in the home as part of recovery would seem to be of some value, as well as providing an alternative to more expensive specialist systems for medical centres on a tight budget. As we are not medical professionals, however, we cannot evaluate PHYSIO FUN Balance Training for its suitability in this regard. What we can do is evaulate the interface and the exercises included: though it seems to do the job, it's sufficiently rough in some areas that we cannot give an unequivocal recommendation for purchase based upon our experience.
There are two primary modes of use: a simple balance test with both feet on the board and a series of one-legged exercises that test your balance with an eye to exercising specific ligaments and muscles. In the first case you can take a basic balance test similar to the "Body Test" part of Wii Fit Plus with a duration of 30, 60 or 90 seconds (there's also a continuous mode option under the physio mode section outlined below). Unlike Wii Fit there is no weight-tracking aspect: the purpose of this application is purely for the user to work on and track their ability to maintain their position for the duration of the test. A realtime display shows the relative position of the user's centre of gravity on a representation of the Balance Board. Once the test is complete you can view a schematic which draws an ellipse outlining the furthest extent of your movement, graphs showing vertical and horizontal movement relative to the centre line and a recommendation for improvement if applicable.
By creating a user profile and selecting it before conducting the tests a record of results will be kept and the detailed report above will include a comparison with the previous results, indicating on a percentage scale any improvement or decline since the previous test. Users can view even more detail including measurements of deviations forward and back and the surface area of the ellipse traced by their movements, though this information will likely only be of interest to medical technicians.
The second mode is a series of one-legged balance exercises, some of which also require different arm movements in order to exercise different parts of the leg and provide a bit of variety to the balance exercises. There are two ways of experiencing these: you can create a personalised routine with the duration of each exercise having a user-selected length of between 10-90 seconds, as well as a difficulty setting represented by the amount of deviation allowed in the user's balance before being marked as failing the exercise and having to restart. Multiple schedules can be created and stored and the frequency of use is recorded in a calendar view where the frequency and duration of sessions can be monitored.
In addition to executing an exercise routine you can run through all of them in "fun" mode which has a rank and scoring aspect that makes it more like a game, complete with High Score table (though the instructions say these scores can be compared with others online via Wi-Fi Connection we couldn't see any evidence of online connectivity.) These exercises are the same ones found in physio mode with a surrounding narrative putting you in the role of a student working with a "Zen Master" on the way to mastering the art of balance. You run through the exercises in sequence to earn a given belt colour and then repeat the sequence with a progressively higher difficulty and longer duration on the road to black belt status. These can actually be pretty challenging if you go for multiple belts in one session; unfortunately it's not always for the right reasons.
A couple of the arm movement exercises could have benefited from a bit more testing as they seem to have issues with detecting motion from the Wii Remote. In one you're supposed to move both your arms in a backwards circle as if rowing a boat, but on a few occasions our motions weren't properly detected, resulting in a false reporting of "Wrong Movement" and eventual failure of the exercise when the program failed to detect them again. The other exercise we saw this problem with involved alternating swinging of the arms as if walking vigorously, though it was less of an issue. In both cases longer durations and slower movements seemed to result in more detection failures. Two other exercises involving arm movement had no such issues, so it doesn't appear to be a general problem and we'd like to stress that these failings weren't consistent, though they happened often enough to deserve mention.
Another problematic area is the Balance Board sensitivity. Even at the lowest of three selectable levels it's sufficiently sensitive to shifts in your centre of gravity that attempting any exercise involving upper-body movement at the highest difficulty level is almost guaranteed to result in failure. The choice to abort an exercise due to a user moving outside of the target area (marked with concentric rings of green, amber and red in the optional visual indicator with the outer rings being removed as difficulty is increased) for a short span of time seems a bit counter-productive for an application meant for physiotherapy. Wii Fit doesn't abort exercises short of the user leaving the balance board completely, but rather lowers the score allowing you to recover and complete the activity. We expect someone actually trying to get some benefit from this application would likely become rather frustrated at having to keep restarting exercises aborted due to a momentary loss of balance.
Clearly there could have been more variation in the evaluation of user performance in these exercises which would take into account the varying levels of activity involved. Those using more arm movements were actually not a bad upper-body workout as well as making the balance aspect more challenging, but sticking to a canned evalution and grading system that applies to all the exercises regardless doesn't appear to be helpful for advising on ways to improve your results.
There could also have been more differentiators between the Physio Therapy and Physio Fun modes to set them apart, though the backgrounds and ambient music are nice. The on-screen avatar in the one-legged exercises could also have used a little more customisation beyond matching the gender of the user and the model itself is a little on the rough side generally, especially when compared to those used in Wii Fit. Lastly some kind of audio feedback would have been appreciated as a method of encouragement beyond the text seen in the corner. As it stands the only audio cue is an exclamation from your on-screen avatar when it starts to lose balance in reaction to your balance shifting towards the point of failure, though we found this more distracting and annoying than helpful.
Lastly, there are a number of spelling mistakes and places where instructions or labels are misspelled or inaccurate. Most notably when putting together your training schedule, the instruction says to drag the icons to your schedule bar, however in fact you simply click to add and remove them. Though minor, it's just further evidence that this title was released before it was sufficiently tested and could have used a bit more polish.
PHYSIO FUN Balance Training is a unique offering and certainly worth considering for people who may be at risk of falls due to general infirmity or recovering from stroke or leg surgery, and for whom Wii Fit Plus exercises may prove too demanding. A bit more testing and polish would get a firmer recommendation, though the price of this software and the Wii + Wii Fit Plus bundle compared with specialist medical equipment may be sufficient to justify a purchase regardless.