The Xbox 360 is a pretty decent gaming console but a computer scientist in the U.K. has found a way to turn it to more practical purposes, as a fast, cheap way to detect heart defects and prevent heart attacks.
The system is actually based on a game demo created two by Dr. Simon Scarle, a computer scientist at the University of Warwick who was at the time working as a software engineer at Rare. The idea came from a "little shooter game" he put together while at the studio in which players fight inside an arena designed to resemble a heart.
"I did a game-ified version of my old cardiac code," Scarle said. "I could actually present some 'proper' science [based on] the cool things us game developers do."
To turn the console to its new purpose, Scarle modified the GPU inside the Xbox 360 so it would "deliver data tracking how electrical signals in the heart move around damaged cardiac cells," creating a model that can help doctors detect heart defects and conditions such as arrhythmia. His modded console can deliver results five times faster and ten times cheaper than the existing system, which relies on "supercomputers" or networks of PCs.
"This is a clever use of a processing chip ... to speed up calculations of heart rhythm," said Denis Noble, the Director of Computational Physiology at Oxford University. "What used to take hours can be calculated in seconds, without having to employ an extremely expensive, high-performance computer."
"These game consoles aren't just glorified toys. [They] are pieces of very powerful computing hardware," Scarle added. "I can see this ... being most useful for students and early-career scientists to just quickly and cheaply grab that extra bit of computing power they otherwise wouldn't be able to get."