The Swibo Switchboard: Where physiotherapy meets gaming

Mary Poppins reckoned a spoonful of sugar did the trick with unpalatable medicine. Now a bunch of students have applied the Mary P principle to physiotherapy. Make the exercises part of an inter-galactic video game and everyone’s going to want a crook knee.

Racing through an intergalactic landscape of steely blue tunnels and lava-like shards while trying to keep your spaceship balanced doesn’t sound like homework. But Swibo, a six-man team of Victoria University entrepreneurs, have built a product that puts the fun back into doing at-home physiotherapy exercises, and it’s launching in New Zealand within the next 6–12 months. The Swibo ‘Switchboard’ is a lightweight balance board with a dock to hold a smartphone. It’s designed to replace exercises on a traditional balance board – the worthy-but-boring wooden plank-like structure on a mount that physio patients use to build up core and lower-body muscles, particularly after knee and ankle injuries.

Swibo co-founder and 3D animator Zac Bird says the main problem they are trying to fix is motivation to use the board. “[Physiotherapy practice] is quite boring, it’s quite monotonous. So we decided to make it fun with video games,” he says. As well as designing a light and portable board, the Swibo team have built two smartphone games – Powderdrift (snowboarding) and ChoobRacer (flying a spaceship) – that are directed by the tilting of the phone in the Switchboard.

Take ChoobRacer: as a spaceship racing through the universe, you engage your entire lower body and core as you flip, float, and coast your way through a galactic tunnel, using your balance to tilt the Switchboard to collect points. Bird says the games can also be used for prehabilitation.

“Sports teams who use a board are less likely to actually get injured because their bodies know, if they’re in a situation where they’re falling, how to get out.” Swibo’s founders know the problem they are trying to solve first hand. Co-founder and Swibo team leader Lukas Stoecklein tore a knee ligament doing taekwondo aged 12, and was prescribed a clunky wooden balance board.

It sat unused at home, and recently Stoecklein had surgery to repair his knee. “You can’t say for sure but I think if I’d done the exercises more then maybe I wouldn’t have needed surgery later,” he says. “But as a kid I don’t really blame myself. I think if it had had games on it I would have been a lot more inclined to use it.” Bird had a similar experience. He was big into athletics and triple jump as a child, and suffered a number of knee and ankle injuries. He was given a balance board to work on at home, and still remembers the guilt he felt going back to the physio.

“I literally used it on the first night I got back, and then forgot about it the rest of the week and went back to the physio being like: ‘Ok, what’s my line, how many times have I used it?’” The Swibo team formed at last summer’s Victoria University Entrepreneur Bootcamp, an annual event for any Vic student looking to develop the skills to start their own business. The game-charged balance board was originally the idea of Victoria University lecturer Kah Chan, and the Swibo students ran with it, winning the bootcamp and securing $50,000 in funding from Viclink, the university’s commercialisation office.

Swibo is made up of two media designers, one industrial designer, two engineers, and two software computer scientists. Each team member holds an equal share in the company, while Victoria University owns 40 per cent, which the team can buy back in the future. Since the bootcamp, the team members have been focusing on the startup almost full time; some even putting their studies on hold. Bird says Swibo already has interested investors from outside the university, including one with a medical background, who approached them after seeing the board at a medical trade show.

The team is currently perfecting the product, and lecturer Dr Edgar Rodriguez has been looking into the cheapest places to get the Switchboard manufactured. Stoecklein says user testing gave them the idea for an option allowing players to compete against their mates.

“Multiplayer was something requested by players at the International Rugby Academy in Palmerston North,” he says. “We realised in a sporting context how [playing the game] would feel, and that competitive people could really have fun playing against each other.” Swibo is already onto its second Switchboard prototype, and the team are in the process of applying for intellectual property protection. “The new one is better in every way, and probably less than half the original weight,” Bird says.

While traditional balance boards can cost up to $200, Switchboard will hopefully be priced under $50, and Swibo says it will be a competitive product even without the gamefication. Both Stoecklein and Bird are grateful for the experience. “If I could do it again I would definitely do it again. The freedom of just being able to direct something real is really cool; I doubt you’d get this sort of freedom just out of university,” Stoecklein says.

Bird agrees. “I thought I was going to have to be working for years and years before I started being able to make games for my own company, but I’m doing it, and I haven’t even finished uni yet.” 

Idealog's Emerging Talent feature combines a great story about new talents and technologies, with words and photos by an emerging writer and photographer. In this case, the article was written by Massey University postgraduate journalism student Jessy Edwards. The photographer was Massey Bachelor of Design student Olivia Pitcher.