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University spin-out packs gaming punch

13 April 2012


A new university spin-out company is to land a knockout blow in the global ‘exergaming’ market as a former Australian Prime Minister, and a BAFTA winning video games designer join their corner to fight rising health and fitness problems.

The latest statistics from the World Health Organisation estimate that as many as 2 million deaths per year are attributed to physical inactivity, and that a sedentary lifestyle is among the 10 leading causes of death and disability in the world.

In the UK, the NHS reports that 32% of men and 33% of women are sedentary for six or more hours on weekdays and the same patterns of inactivity are now widely prevalent in children.

Dynamic Motion Detection (DMD) Limited has been established on the back of research at the Social Futures Institute – part of Teesside University in North East England which is internationally renowned for its work in digital design, gaming and animation. Partnered by New South Wales-based sports technologists, ShadowBoxer Systems, the DMD research team is now taking its pioneering new Shadowboxer ACTIVE product to a burgeoning fitness entertainment market currently led by global brands including Sony, Microsoft and the Nintendo Wii.

ShadowBoxer ACTIVE harnesses photorealistic 3D computer games and sophisticated motion capture technology to allow players to train in a virtual gym, punch along to their favourite music or fight against an opponent. The opponent can be either an artificially intelligent boxing avatar or a friend.

Gamers of all ages and skill levels can undertake brief, High-Intensity Interval Training – or HIIT - a method of exercise which has been shown to significantly improve health with as little as 6-9 minutes exercise per week.

The product will be released in Australia and the UK later this year with plans to launch in the USA, Asia and Europe from 2013.

Working together can significantly benefit society Former Australian PM Bob Hawke, now 82, is Chairman of the Shadowboxer Advisory Board. Hawke, an acclaimed scholar and Oxford University graduate, is convinced that the Teesside University / ShadowBoxer collaboration demonstrates how carefully coordinated academic and commercial interests can align to significantly benefit society at large.

He added: 'This partnership is addressing real societal need through academic innovation and commercial acumen and we hope to work in a similarly constructive and socially responsible way with other top research teams, including in our own leading universities in Australia.'

Aimed at the serious fitness and computer gaming enthusiast, the mass market consumer product will build on ShadowBoxer’s market-leading position as a provider of high-intensity fitness aids and programmes.

A professional version of the technology is available for schools and for workplace interventions to improve employee fitness and deliver the related economic benefits from a healthier workforce. It is also being used in programmes to research the health impact of HIIT exercise in at-risk groups.

This includes groups in places where instances of type 2 diabetes are high, such as China and in Australian Aboriginals – famously supported by Hawke during his tenure as Australian PM. In medical applications the technology can be configured for occupational therapy where support costs can be reduced and patient recovery rates improved.

Iain Spears, Professor in Biomechanics with Teesside University’s Social Futures Institute, led the Digital Economy research project with funding from Research Councils UK (RCUK), and it was from this project team that the DMD technology was developed and the ShadowBoxer ACTIVE product emerged.

This early research identified that chronic areas of health inequality are closely linked to the decline of traditional employment in industries like steel, engineering and shipbuilding – characteristic of the economy in the North East of England and other regions in the post-industrialised world. In such areas, the research shows a consequent rise of sedentary lifestyles which increase the risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease resulting in an increasing burden on welfare systems.

Being healthy in an everyday environment Professor Spears said: 'The value of this project is to see whether we can reduce health inequalities by harnessing the latest motion capture, gaming and social networking technologies to give people opportunities to be healthy in their everyday environment.

'HIIT can deliver remarkable results and this product, which can be used by players in the comfort of their home, is designed to make the road to a healthier lifestyle far more accessible for those leading busy or normally sedentary lives.'

ShadowBoxer Active was developed with input from Andrew Walker, a video games designer who was part of a team awarded a BAFTA in 1995 for his work on Sony’s trailblazing Playstation racing game: Wipeout and who is now a Senior Lecturer in Game Art at Teesside.

Joining Spears and Walker at Teesside were engineer Simon Bateson to develop the plug and play motion sensing technology, and sports scientist Pierre Lagadec to test the validity of the muscle force calculations.

Their product development work built on the work of the early research team of Dr Alan Batterham, Professor of Exercise Science, Liane Azevedo of the Centre for Translational Research in Public Health, Dr Wen Tang of the Digital Futures Institute, and Dr Paul Crawshaw, a medical sociologist and Assistant Dean of Research and Enterprise, to harness the early motion capture research.

The Commercial Edge Initiative The Teesside researchers were assisted by a new academic investment broker, The Commercial Edge Initiative (TCEI), which pursues commercially driven research and technology licensing deals. Abandoning the speculative and linear research effort adopted by most technology transfer agencies, TCEI, which is sponsored by a select consortium of UK universities, aims to maximise research innovation by identifying real social and economic impact for prospective business partners, to return financial value back to academics and universities.

Andy Todd, Co-Founder of the Commercial Edge Initiative, concluded: 'As a broker in a very high-tech environment, we’re delighted to have helped to bring such an innovative product, which can help to drive standards of health across the world, to market.

'Thanks to the lead taken by Teesside University we now have an opportunity to rapidly and reliably drive high economic and social impact across a number of universities we’re working with, helping UK research to punch above its weight in the global market.'

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