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1up for gamers with disabilities

Gamers with disabilities are being given lifelines to play their favourite games, through new controller developments.

Companies such as Evil Controllers, an independent company in Arizona, US, have been developing customised controllers for people with disabilities, using basic technology.

Jonah Coe, director of operations at Evil Controllers, says the company started making controllers for disabled people because of a UK gamer missing a right hand, making it nearly impossible to game.

“After exchanging a few e-mails and phone calls, I was able to design a "one handed" 360 controller that worked perfectly for him. After successfully completing the mod, we welcomed any and every request.”

He says every controller is custom made by him or the company's 'evil techs' in its warehouse. “Every mod is treated with care as it is hand-soldered and modified. We also offer additional modifications of our very own third party parts, such as our evil thumb-sticks.”

The controllers are compatible with all games and the controller works on the console that it has been designed for. There are games designed for people with disabilities, ranging from the blind to the deaf. However, development is very behind when comparing to current game design, according to Coe. “These games and features could be improved upon even more so.”

It's hard to say if there is any disability that limits someone from gaming, according to Coe. “With so many innovative peripherals such as over-sized buttons, muscle twitch sensors, and thoughtful customisation, I think we can modify anything for anyone.”

Blind gamer, Craig (22) from the UK, says he understands that many games would be difficult to make "accessible", in some cases nigh on impossible. He says he'd “like to see some imagination put in to try and find games which can be made accessible rather than simply not realising how easy or hard a given game would be”.

Luke Hewitt, also from the UK, says scripts or walkthroughs downloaded from the Internet and read using speech are insufficient for blind players.

Coe says the gamers may not have 100% capability as their opponent, but “we can find a way to make them game somehow. We have even made a controller for quadriplegic pro gamer, Randy Fitzgerald, aka NoM4D.”

Eye contact

Since 2008, technology has been developed to allow people with severe motor disabilities to play 3D computer games like World of Warcraft using only their eyes.

As to the technology used, there are always improvements that can be made when it comes to technology, but the company makes do with what it has.

“For example,” explains Coe, “technology currently limits gamers from relocating button functions on their controller in certain games. We can modify the controller to allow you to relocate them, bypassing the technology and improving your gaming experience.”

The controllers are made for the general public and all focus around the design of the Xbox 360 controller. However, Coe says, the company does have the resources to design and produce pieces that are completely one of a kind to the controller.

The technology used to design these custom peripherals is mostly the technicians' experience and innovation in the industry. The more projects the company conquers, Coe says, the more the "technology" develops and expands to other opportunities for others.

The legend of NoM4D

Randy Fitzgerald, known to the global gaming community as NoM4D, was born with arthrogryposis, an illness which left him paralysed from the neck down, but he plays with modified controllers using just his chin and lips.

Now 30 years old, NoM4D (Nomad, for those who don't know leetspeak) is a professional gamer and an aspiring game developer, having been given the support he needed to game by the likes of Evil Controllers and Llama.com.

His team, Equal Opportunity Gaming, is a highly competitive tournament squad.

"I've got a lot of facial movement," NoM4D explains. "I can get to hard-to-reach buttons with my lips."

Cost

Some disabled people, such as Ari Damoulakis, a blind student from Wits University, think that gaming tech for the disabled would be expensive.

Coe says they try to design the controllers with the least amount of cost. But, “since things are custom, it can sometimes be extremely affordable or extremely expensive”.

The budget is hard to say for a custom controller, but some range from simple modifications for under $100 to some over $400.

“We try to keep our costs as low as possible, as all the funding is currently our own money. We see the potential in accessible gaming, so we have no problem doing whatever we can to help budget wise. It's terribly sad when we have to turn down an amazing design for someone, due to significant costs.”

Not a new development

Development of accessible controllers isn't entirely new. Independent developers have been working with video games since the days of the Atari, with KY Enterprises developing controllers for the game since 1981.

According to research done by Accessibility.nl, many mainstream video games are more or less accessible for gamers with a physical disability, usually using special hardware.

The most advanced hardware interfaces, it says, are mouth-controllers and head- or eye-trackers. Alternative switch interfaces can also be used, which enable larger buttons or custom grouped buttons.

Other companies developing technologies for gaming with disabilities are OneSwitch and eDimensional.

Michael Echoes, a US soldier in Iraq, was hit by an improvised explosive device, and 39% of his body is burnt. He was also left without a left hand and right thumb. He has been gaming of late with a custom controller made by eDimensional.

For gamers with a severe physical disability the number of controls might be limited to just one or two buttons. There are games specifically designed to be played with just one button. These games are often referred to as "one-switch" games or "single-switch" games.

Coe says there is tons of research going into accessible gaming. “However,” he says, “it's still far behind when comparing to the industry standards.” Accesibility.nl is doing a lot of research into gaming for the disabled, and their research papers can be found here.

Since 2008, technology has been developed to allow people with severe motor disabilities to play 3D computer games like World of Warcraft using only their eyes.

Since the 1990s, gaze technology has helped people with conditions such as motor neurone disease, cerebral palsy and other "locked-in syndromes" to control 2D desktop environments and communicate using visual keyboards.

Users typically guide a cursor with their eyes, staring at objects for a time to emulate a mouse click. But that is too laborious to let users match the speed and accuracy of real-time 3D games, says lead researcher on the project, Stephen Vickers, of De Montfort University in the UK.

His team is developing the software as part of the EU-funded project Communication by Gaze Interaction, and this has been documented in SA by the National Accessibility Portal.

Eye-gaze systems bounce infrared light from LEDs at the bottom of a computer monitor and track a person's eye movements using stereo infrared cameras. This setup can calculate where on a screen the user is looking with an accuracy of about 5mm.

Recent progress

Researchers at the Tokyo Metropolitan University have recently developed a controller, which manipulates heat and cold to create sensation, allowing a player to feel his or her way through a game.

ThermoGame, a video game interaction system that gives off the sensations of hot and cold, is based on French physicist Jean-Charles Peltier's Peltier effect. Small solid-state devices use electricity to generate and remove heat.

Peltier discovered the temperature-changing effects of electrical currents. These heating and cooling devices in the controller are activated during the appropriate levels of fire or ice.

The temperature change is only a 10-degree difference, but it gives enough of an impact to engage the gamer to be that much more involved in the game, say the researchers.

Tetsuaki Baba and Kumiko Kushiyama of Tokyo Metropolitan University and Kouki Doi of the Japanese National Institute of Special Needs Education released their findings at the International Conference on Computer Graphics and Interactive Techniques.

A pair of these devices is housed in the upper and lower halves of a video game controller's casing. At appropriate times during game-play, the devices activate, rapidly cooling or heating the controller surface, bringing the sensation to temperature change to the player's hands.

An estimated 54 million people in the world are disabled. “How many game is hard to say, but there's no question we can increase that number,” says Coe.

“There is no question that gaming helps people with disabilities or even without disabilities,” he says. “Gaming is a way to escape everyday struggles in life, making friends easily with no judgmental attitude. Sometimes it's nice to escape from reality.”

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