With the notable exception of the Wii Balance Board introduced with Wii Fit in 2007, balance and wobble boards generally aren’t the most technological pieces of equipment. Dr Jonathan Williams, a physiotherapy lecturer at Bournemouth University in the U.K. has added sensors and wireless technology to the humble wobbleboard to objectively measure improvements in patients’ balance.

Wobbleboards are circular boards that rest upon a semi-sphere that allows it to pivot in all directions. They are used by physiotherapists, chiropractors, osteopaths and sports therapists to improve a patient’s balance and proprioception, which is a person’s sense of the relative position of neighboring parts of the body.

The problem, according to Williams, is that that it can be difficult to gauge just how much a patient’s balance is improving from one session to the next.

"A patient will come in and use the wobbleboard, then come back and use it again at a later date but it is very hard to tell if they have got any better or not," he said. "At the moment we have to guess and it is hard to say what is bad and what is good or how much better a patient is performing – you are purely going on what you can see.”

To solve this problem he has created SMARTwobble, which is a 400 mm-diameter (15.7 in) wooden wobbleboard packing a sensor to measure the degree of tilt when the patient is on it. Data collected by the sensor is transmitted wirelessly to a computer running special software that creates a report which a clinician can use to objectively measure the patient’s performance against previous sessions as well as the average score of a person with no injury.

"Now, when a patient comes in and says they have been working really hard, we can see whether their performance has actually improved,” Williams says.

In addition to making life easier for clinicians, Williams has also added some games to make using the SMARTwobble more fun. The tilt sensor allows the board to be used like a joystick to negotiate a ball around a maze or hit targets on a linked computer display.

When a patient is standing on a wobbleboard for 2 or 3 minutes at a time, it can get a bit boring for them," said Williams. "But we can use targets and things like the maze feature as a fun, interactive tool. We have put it in front of our students to test, and they love a good gadget so they think it's great. We've had staff competing with each other and a bit of friendly competition is great to boost performance."

Williams developed the SMARTwobble and produced prototypes over the last six months with THETAmetrix, a U.K. company that looks to develop products that use sensor technology to assist clinicians in objectively measuring patient motion. The device is now being provided to a number of local clinics to gather feedback from clinicians and users. Williams says the SMARTwobble will cost around £250 (US$395) when released.

Source: Bournemouth University, THETAmetrix