When good people are supported by good tech. A closer look at SpecialEffect's Eye Gaze Games and the power of inclusivity.
Levelling the Playing Field
If you consider yourself a member of the UK Games Industry you have no doubt heard of, and likely fallen in love with, the team at SpecialEffect. They have a passion for bettering the lives of people with disabilities, and a collective heart fuelling their efforts that’s a rare find. They recently released a new version of their EyeMine software which we’ll dive into shortly, but if you’re new to SpecialEffect, allow me to introduce you.
SpecialEffect is a UK-based charity that aims to enrich the lives of people with physical disabilities by helping them to play video games.
Why video games? SpecialEffect Fundraiser Nick Streeter says, “in a word, inclusion.”
“Games offer an unparalleled opportunity for the people we help to participate as an equal in astonishingly rich competitive gaming environments and social communities, resulting in greater independence, self-esteem, confidence, achievement, an opportunity to demonstrate to others the best of themselves.”
The team uses technology ranging from modified joysticks to eye-control, and finds ways for people of all ages to play to the very best of their abilities. This typically might include replacing joystick springs in controllers to make them easier to move for people with limited finger strength, adapting the height of controller buttons, or writing custom voice control scripts.
SpecialEffect Founder and CEO Dr. Mick Donegan and Fundraiser Nick Streeter.
“There's no one-size-fits-all way of doing this, so we work with people individually to find out exactly what they want to play and what they need to play it,” says Streeter. We’ll then match or modify technology to create and loan truly personalised gaming control setups, and back this up with lifelong follow-up support.”
These modifications complement the huge range of off-the-shelf buttons, joysticks, adaptors and other assistive equipment that can potentially be used in video games access setups. SpecialEffect’s support ranges from advice on one-handed controllers to complex loan setups carefully created via face-to-face (or during the times of COVID, screen-to-screen) assessments by their service delivery team.
“One girl with dystonia Parkinsonism that we helped recently is successfully using a combination of chin, feet and hand tech to access all the controls she needs. We also wrote some custom code for one of her adaptors to address a few game-specific access issues, and her whole setup is complemented by suitable mounting equipment, advice about accessibility settings for individual games, and a promise of lifelong support.”
SpecialEffect take the time and care to improve one life at a time, but that effort is quickly multiplied. They share what they learn by answering thousands of enquiries from around the world each year, and by collaborating with hardware and software developers.
“By implementing a feature that has worked successfully for one person, literally tens of thousands of disabled people with similar access needs right across the world can benefit too.”
Updates and Upgrades
The team has collaborated with hardware and software developers around the world and was also involved in the design and testing of the Xbox Adaptive Controller released in 2018.
Most recently they have released a new version of their EyeMine software, which enables Minecraft to be played without a keyboard or mouse when paired with an eye tracker.
“We listened to and worked with eye-gaze players from around the world to create the new version, which supports more eye trackers and is easier to install, has a shedload of improvements and new features that make playing quicker and easier for both beginners and experienced players.”
Construction time on large projects has been dramatically cut with a new ‘look and dwell’ feature, walk and look speeds are now adjustable, and the keyboards are easier to reposition, resize and even customise.
Eye gaze technology can be used by people with severe disabilities for communication and computer access for many aspects of independent living. The technology has been around in various forms for decades, and is one of the first systems that SecialEffect Founder and CEO Dr. Mick Donegan recognised in the early 2000s as having wider potential as an assistive tool for video game access as it tolerated a significant degree of head movement. It was being used by advertisers, marketeers and researchers to track how people looked at websites. Donegan assisted the company (Tobii) in designing its first gaze control user interface.
SpecialEffect’s Eye Gaze Games website launched late last year and features the world’s first online multiplayer eye-controlled web games.
“It makes global play possible between gamers with a huge range of abilities across the globe, anonymously and on a level playing field.”
There are currently eight browser-based games on the site, including Mole Miners, EyeDrive, Chess, and Sudoku, and there are already more games in the pipeline for development. The team will also soon be releasing a Developer’s Kit to provide game accessibility signposting.
At the heart of their work lie personal stories of the people they’re helping to play games to the best of their abilities, and sharing their learnings across the world in the form of free advice, resources and software. “When we receive feedback about the impact of our work, it reinforces what an absolute privilege it is for us to do what we do, and to have so much vital support from the gaming industry to do it.” SpecialEffect's key annual fundraising campaign One Special Day will be held on October 1st this year.