Can killing monsters help physically-challenged children learn to walk? It can if they're virtual monsters, that are part of a balance-developing system created by engineering and computer game design students from Houston's Rice University. Called the Equiliberator, the system consists of five linked Wii Balance Boards with two pressure-sensitive hand rails running along either side, all of which are linked by Bluetooth to a PC running a custom-designed video game. Children using the setup are able to kill on-screen monsters, by successfully performing exercises that build their balance skills.

The Equiliberator was developed by a group of senior-level students, after the initial challenge was presented to them by an engineer from Shriners Motion Analysis Laboratory. Children aged 6 to 18, challenged with conditions such as cerebral palsy, spina bifida or amputations, are its intended users.

The Balance Boards form a straight runway along the floor, and are covered with an acrylic sheet to keep the children from tripping over the gaps where they meet – the acrylic is clear, so users can still see that what they're walking on is Wii hardware, which they associate with fun and games.

In order to kill the monsters, users must do things such as taking a couple of steps and then stopping and balancing on the spot, or even stopping and turning around. The better that children get at the game, the harder the challenges become, although the potential for scoring high points also increases accordingly.

Although not yet integrated into the game, the system also features handrails incorporating unique pressure-detection technology designed by the students. Ultimately, that pressure-detection will be used in the game to determine how much the children are relying on the handrails for maintaining their balance, so they can be rewarded for doing so less.

So far, the Rice students have spent less than US$2,000 of their $5,000 budget on the Equiliberator. They hope to have it installed and ready for use at a Shriners Hospital before their graduation next month.

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