Hands-free Minecraft from Special Effect

Love it or hate it, the game of Minecraft has captured the imagination of over 100 million young, and not so young people. It is available on multiple platforms; mobile device (Pocket Edition), Raspberry Pi, Computer, Xbox or PlayStation and it looks and feels pretty much the same on all. For those of us old enough to remember, the blocky graphics will hold some level of nostalgia for the bygone 8 Bit days when mere blobs of colour and our imagination were enough to render Ghosts and Goblins vividly. This is almost certainly lost on the main cohort of Minecraft players however who would most probably be bored silly with the 2 dimensional repetitive and predictable video games of the 80’s and early 90’s. The reason Minecraft is such a success is that it has blended its retro styling with modern gameplay and a (mind bogglingly massive) open world where no two visits are the same and there is room for self-expression and creativity. This latter quality has lead it to become the first video game to be embraced by mainstream education, being used as a tool for teaching everything from history to health or empathy to economics. It is however the former quality, the modern gameplay, that we are here to talk about. Unlike the afore mentioned Ghosts and Goblins, Minecraft is played in a 3 dimensional world using either the first person perspective (you see through the characters eyes) or third person perspective (like a camera is hovering above and slightly behind the character). While undoubtedly offering a more immersive and realistic experience, this means controlling the character and playing the game is also much more complex and requires a high level of dexterity in both hands to be successful. For people without the required level of dexterity this means that not only is there a risk of social exclusion, being unable to participate in an activity so popular among their peers, but also the possibility of being excluded within an educational context.

Fortunately UK based charity Special Effect have recognised this need and are in the process doing something about it. Special Effect are a charity dedicated to enabling those with access difficulties play video games through custom access solutions. Since 2007 their interdisciplinary team of clinical and technical professionals (and of course gamers) have been responsible for a wide range of bespoke solutions based on individuals’ unique abilities and requirements. Take a look at this page for some more information on the work they do and to see what a life enhancing service they provide. The problem with this approach of course is reach, which is why their upcoming work on Minecraft is so exciting. Based on the Open Source eyegaze AAC/Computer Access solution Optikey by developer Julius Sweetland, Special Effect are in the final stages of developing an on-screen Minecraft keyboard that will work with low cost eye trackers like the Tobii Eye X and the Tracker 4C (€109 and €159 respectively).

minecraft on screen keyboard

The inventory keyboard

MineCraft on screen keyboards

The main Minecraft on screen keyboard

Currently being called ‘Minekey’ this solution will allow Minecraft to be played using a pointing device like a mouse or joystick or even totally hands free using an eyegaze device or headmouse. The availability of this application will ensure that Minecraft it now accessible to many of those who have been previously excluded. Special Effect were kind enough to let us trial a beta version of the software and although I’m no Minecraft expert it seemed to work great. The finished software will offer a choice of onscreen controls, one with smaller buttons and more functionality for expert eyegaze users (pictured above) and a more simplified version with larger targets. Bill Donegan, Projects Manager with Special Effect told us they hope to have it completed and available to download for free by the end of the year. I’m sure this news that will excite many people out there who had written off Minecraft as something just not possible for them. Keep an eye on Special Effect or ATandMe for updates on its release.

Bloom 2017 ‘No Limits’ Grid Set

You may have heard about or seen photos of Enable Irelands fantastic “No Limits” Garden at this year’s Bloom festival. Some of you were probably even lucky enough to have actually visited it in the Phoenix Park over the course of the Bank Holiday weekend. In order to support visitors but also to allow those who didn’t get the chance to go share in some of the experience we put together a “No Limits” Bloom 2017 Grid. If you use the Grid (2 or 3) from Sensory software, or you know someone who does and you would like to learn more about the range of plants used in Enable Ireland’s garden you can download and install it by following the instructions below.

How do I install this Grid?

If you are using the Grid 3 you can download and install the Bloom 2017 Grid without leaving the application. From Grid explorer:

  • Click on the Menu Bar at the top of the screen
  • In the top left click the + sign (Add Grid Set)
  • A window will open (pictured below). In the bottom corner click on the Online Grids button (you will need to be connected to the Internet).

grid 3 screen shot

  • If you do not see the Bloom2017 Grid in the newest section you can either search for it (enter Bloom2017 in the search box at the top right) or look in the Interactive learning or Education Categories.

If you are using the Grid 2 or you want to install this Grid on a computer or device that is not connected to the Internet then you can download the Grid set at the link below. You can then add it to the Grid as above except select Grid Set File tab and browse to where you have the Grid Set saved.

For Grid 2 users:

Download Bloom 2017 Grid here https://grids.sensorysoftware.com/en/k-43/bloom2017

Global Accessibility Awareness Day – Apple Accessibility – Designed for everyone Videos

Today May 18th is Global Accessibility Awareness Day and to mark the occasion Apple have produced a series of 7 videos (also available with audio description) highlighting how their products are being used in innovative ways by people with disabilities. All the videos are available in a playlist here and I guarantee you, if you haven’t seen them and you are interested in accessibility and AT, it’ll be the best 15 minutes you have spent today! Okay the cynical among you will point out this is self promotion by Apple, a marketing exercise. Certainly on one level of course it is, they are a company and like any company their very existence depends on generating profit for their shareholders. These videos promote more than Apple however, they promote independence, creativity and inclusion through technology. Viewed in this light these videos will illustrate to people with disabilities how far technology has moved on in recent years and make them aware of the potential benefits to their own lives. Hopefully the knock on effect of this increased awareness will be increased demand. Demand these technologies people, it’s your right!

As far as a favorite video from this series goes, everyone will have their own. In terms of the technology on show, to me Todd “The Quadfather” below was possibly the most interesting.

This video showcases Apple’s HomeKit range of associated products and how they can be integrated with Siri.

My overall favorite video however is Patrick, musician, DJ and cooking enthusiast. Patrick’s video is an ode to independence and creativity. The technologies he illustrates are Logic Pro (Digital Audio Workstation software) with VoiceOver (Apple’s inbuilt screen-reader) and the object recognizer app TapTapSee which although has been around for several years now, is still an amazing use of technology. It’s Patrick’s personality that makes the video though, this guy is going places, I wouldn’t be surprised if he had his own prime time TV show this time next year.

Mounting Assistive Technology Documentation (MAT-DOC)

Mount'n Mover, wheelchair mounting system holding a camera

To use technology effectively it needs to be at an optimal position for our use. Whether it’s a computer display, tablet computer, or even the chair we sit on, the position of items we use is important for ease of use and comfort. For someone with a physical disability this is even more important as their ability to reach, grasp, hold or interact with physical objects may be limited. Mounting can improve the overall view and the ability to manipulate the controls of the device.

There is now a range of mounting solutions available from mounting arms to modular mounting kits.

We need to consider a range of things when mounting assistive technology, to ensure technology can be used effectively in a range of environments and contexts to meet the lifestyle needs of the user.

Some very useful documentation is now available. It is designed for service providers and others who are involved with attaching one piece of assistive technology, such as a communication device to another, such as a wheelchair. It’s designed to help ensure all relevant aspects have been considered to ensure the best solution is reached.

This best practice guidelines documentation is available for general use at http://mat-doc.org/

MAT-doc also includes Best Practice Guidelines which have been developed by a team of people who are all actively involved with mounting assistive technology.

These guidelines are intended to promote and facilitate independence and participation and not as a mechanism to find barriers to the provision of equipment.

It is based on the Mounting Assistive Technology Documentation (MAT-DOC)

The Big Life Fix

Just when we thought 2016 couldn’t get any better (in an AT sense) BBC make a prime time TV show with a huge focus on the design and construction of bespoke AT solutions. Although aired in December on BBC due to regional restrictions it’s not available to many on this side of the Irish Sea on iPlayer so you may not have had the chance to see full episodes yet. The good news is full episodes are beginning to make their way onto YouTube and are well worth a look. The general theme of the Big Life Fix would be how technology has the power to improve lives. Although not just about what we call assistive technology, it is more broad in scope covering many different types of technology challenge with the goal of democratising and demystifying solutions. AT does play a big part in many of the challenges however.

The first episode (a clip of which I’ve embedded below) introduces us to James, a young photographer who is having difficulty operating his SLR camera. The solution created for James features all the exciting technology and techniques being utilised every day by Makers around the world: Arduino microprocessor, 3D printing, AppInventor as well as some good old fashioned hardware hacking. The iterative nature of the design process is well illustrated with James critically evaluating the initial prototype and providing insights which significantly change the direction of the design.The other AT related challenge in this first episode features a graphic designer called Emma who due to tremors which are a symptom of her Parkinson’s, is unable to draw or sign her name. After a number of prototypes and lots of research a very clever solution is arrived at which seems to be extremely effective, leading to a rather emotional scene (have the hankies ready).

The Big Life Fix beautifully portrays both the potential of AT to improve the quality of life as well as the personal satisfaction a maker might get from participating in a successful solution. I can see this show sowing the seeds for a strong and equitable future for assistive technology.

Finally, the icing on the cake is that all the solutions featured on the show are Open Source with all the source code, design files and build notes that were used to print, shape and operate the solutions publicly available on GitHub. Nice work BBC. Take a look at the clip below (UPDATE: Full Episodes now on YouTube. Not sure how long they will stay there though).

2016 – Technology Trends and Assistive Technology (AT) Highlights

As we approach the end of 2016 it’s an appropriate time to look back and take stock of the year from an AT perspective. A lot happened in 2016, not all good. Socially, humanity seems to have regressed over the past year. Maybe this short term, inward looking protectionist sentiment has been brewing longer but 2016 brought the opportunity to express politically, you know the rest. While society steps and looks back technology continues to leap and bound forward and 2016 has seen massive progress in many areas but particularly areas associated with Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Smart Homes. This is the first in a series of posts examining some technology trends of 2016 and a look at how they affect the field of Assistive Technology. The links will become active as the posts are added. If I’m missing something please add it to the comments section.

Dawn of the Personal Digital Assistants

Game Accessibility

Inbuilt Accessibility – AT in mainstream technology 

Software of the Year – The Grid 3

Open Source AT Hardware and Software

The Big Life Fix

So although 2016 is unlikely to be looked on kindly by future historians… you know why; it has been a great year for Assistive Technology, perhaps one of promise rather than realisation however. One major technology trend of 2016 missing from this series posts is Virtual (or Augmented) Reality. While VR was everywhere this year with products coming from Sony, Samsung, Oculus and Microsoft its usefulness beyond gaming is only beginning to be explored (particularly within Education).

So what are the goals for next year? Well harnessing some of these innovations in a way where they can be made accessible and usable by people with disabilities at an affordable price. If in 2017 we can start putting some of this tech into the hands of those who stand to benefit most from its use, then next year will be even better.

Accessible Apps, Games and Toys

range of children's toys

Enable Ireland’s National Assistive Technology Service has gathered together information on a range of accessible toys. It includes a variety of accessible games, apps, and toys. These are not recommendations but simply a selection of items which may be of interest, particularly at times such as Christmas and birthdays, when presents are high on the list of priorities.

Available here https://goo.gl/QpcD1z

Difficult to read traditional print books?

Shelf with many books

Bookshare and LibriVox are two projects that have the potential to open up the world of reading for people who find it difficult to read traditional print books. This may be due to a visual impairment, physical disability or severe learning disability.
Bookshare offers a large collection of accessible titles, currently more than 400,000. With Bookshare you can listen to books with high quality text-to-speech voices, hear and see highlighted words on screen, read with digital braille or enlarged fonts. There is a charge for individuals of $50 annually + $25 setup.
LibriVox is another project. Their objective is to make all books in the public domain available, for free, in audio format on the internet. Librivox is a non-commercial, non-profit and ad-free project and welcomes all volunteers from across the globe, in all languages.
Both are requesting volunteers to help with their projects. All you need is a computer, a microphone, some free recording software, and your own voice. They accept all volunteers in all languages, with all kinds of accents. Be inspired, get involved!

Accessible Gaming & Playing Agario with your Eyes

We in Enable Ireland Assistive Technology Training Service have long recognised the importance of gaming to many young and not so young assistive technology users. It’s a difficult area for a number of reasons. Firstly games (and we are talking about video games here) are designed to be challenging, if they are too easy they’re not fun, however if too difficult the player will also lose interest. Successful games manage to get the balance just right. Of course when it comes to physical dexterity as well as other skills required for gaming (strategic, special awareness, timing) this often involves game designers taking a one size fits all approach which frequently doesn’t include people with physical, sensory or cognitive difficulties. There are two methods of getting around this which when taken together ensure a game can be accessed and enjoyed by a much broader range of people; difficulty levels (not a new concept) and accessibility features (sometimes called assists). Difficulty levels are self-explanatory and have been a feature of good games for decades. Accessibility features might include the ability to remap buttons (useful for one handed gamers), automate certain controls, subtitles, high contrast and magnification.

Another challenge faced when creating an alternative access solution to allow someone successfully play a video game is that you need to have a pretty good understanding of the activity, how to play the game. This is where we often have difficulty and I’d imaging other non-specialist services (general AT services rather than game accessibility specialist services like SpecialEffect or OneSwitch.org.uk  ) also run into problems. We simply do not have the time required to familiarise ourselves with the games or keep up to date with new releases (which would allow us better match a person with an appropriate game for their range of ability). We try and compensate for this by enlisting the help of volunteers (often from Enable Irelands IT department with whom we share office space), interns and transition year students. It’s often the younger transition year students who bring us some of the best suggestions and last week was no exception. After we demonstrated some eyegaze technology to Patrick, a transition year student visiting from Ardscoil Ris, Dublin 9, he suggested we take a look at a browser based game called agar.io. I implore you, do not to click that link if you have work to get done today. This game is equal parts addictive and infuriating but in terms of playability and simplicity it’s also very accessible with simple controls and a clear objective. The idea is that using your mouse you control a little (at first) coloured circular blob, think of it as a cell and the aim of the game it to eat other little coloured cells and grow. The fun part is that other players from every corner of the globe are also controlling cells and growing, if they are bigger than you they move a little slower but can eat you! Apart from the mouse there are two other buttons, the spacebar allows you to split your cell (can be used as an aggressive or defensive strategy) and the “W” key allows you to shed some weight. We set up the game to be played with a Tobii EyeX  (€119) and IRIS software (€99). IRIS allows you to emulate the mouse action with your eyes and set up two onscreen buttons (called interactors) that can also be activated using your gaze, the video below should make this clearer.

Big thanks to Patrick for suggesting we take a look at Agrio and helping us set it up for eyegaze control. I’ll leave the final words to him. “I found playing Agrio with gaze software really fun. I think you have just as much control with your eyes as with your mouse. If an interactor was placed in the corner of the screen to perform the function of the spacebar (splits the cell in half) it would be beneficial. I believe it would be a very entertaining game for people who can only control their eyes, not their arms.”

Accessible Music Technology and Practice Seminar

accessible music technology photo montage

On February 23rd Enable Ireland Assistive Technology Service and the Institute of Art Design and Technology (IADT) Dun Laoghaire will be holding an Accessible Music Technology and Practice Seminar. This is a rare opportunity for anybody interested in music and disability to hear a highly experienced range of speakers from Ireland, the UK and Norway who are involved in the design and development of accessible musical instruments/interfaces, the delivery of accessible musical education or in supporting musicians and performers with disabilities. Places are limited so advanced booking is essential.

For more details see electroAT.com/amtp where you will find the booking form and regular updates as the day approaches.

Who might be interested in attending?

  • Musicians or aspiring musicians with a disability.
  • Musicians or music therapists who work with people with disabilities.
  • Music teachers or community musicians interested in providing more inclusive classes and environments.
  • Therapists or anybody who works with or supports people with disabilities that would like to introduce music based activities.
  • Product or software designers interested in creating alternative musical instruments and interfaces.

Contributors

As you will see from the range of experience below this promises to be a very interesting group representing all areas from the design and development of accessible hardware and software to practice based experience of working with musicians with disabilities.

Dr Tim Anderson (inclusivemusic.org.uk ) – has been involved with developing technology and software for enabling people with disabilities to make music for the last 25 years. Over that time he has been Research and Development (R&D) manager and later Technology manager with Drake Music and more recently an independent consultant to the software developers as well as to schools, colleges, councils and individuals. Tim developed, sells and supports the E-Scape software system, that allows people to compose and play music unaided, whatever their physical ability or musical knowledge.

Elin SkogdalSKUG Centre, Norway. The SKUG Centre provides education and support for musicians with disabilities. They also offer training, education, demonstrations, and advice for teachers and supporters and participate in the development of specialist hardware and software for access to music making.

Dr Brendan McCloskey (Ulster University, School of Creative Arts and Technologies) is a musician and designer working closely with performers with disabilities. Having worked extensively a researcher and practitioner in the field of inclusive community music with Ulster University, Drake Music N. Ireland, Drake Music UK, Share Music Sweden and Stravaganza Production Company across the past 15 years, he has designed an innovative digital instrument for musicians with quadriplegic cerebral palsy. The instrument, called inGrid, was shortlisted for the Prix Ars Electronica one-handed musical instrument competition in November 2013, and selected as a finalist for the Margaret Guthman Prize run by Georgia Tech in Atlanta, January 2014. He will discuss the key innovations underpinning inGrid, and how they will be developed in the immediate future.

Brian Dillon (Unique Perspectives) designer and manufacturer of assistive technology solutions who along with Ruud van der Wel (MyBreathMyMusic) has developed accessible music technologies such as the Quintet and the Magic Flute. The Quintet is an exciting device that enables people with disabilities to play music using switches. Easy to use and set-up it is suitable for teachers, therapists, parents and others who want to use music in an activity with children or adults. It can be used with a group of people or by a single individual. The Magic Flute is an electronic musical instrument that enables people whose only reliable movement is the head and breath to play music. The flute is similar to a harmonica or slide whistle in that it requires no fingers to play and both note and expression can be controlled using the mouth.

Grainne McHale and Graham McCarthy from SoundOUT , a group based in Cork who provides inclusive music-making and performance opportunities for young people with and without disabilities in Ireland.

Jason Noone – music therapist active in clinical work, music therapy training/supervision and research. He is a member of the Music and Health Research Group at the University of Limerick. His clinical expertise are mainly in the area of developmental disability and research interests include sensory integration and music therapy, music technology for access and participation and participatory action research.

Koichi Samuels – PhD candidate based at the Sonic Arts Research Centre (SARC), Queen’s University Belfast. He is researching inclusive music practices and interfaces with Drake Music Northern Ireland, a charity that aims to enable musicians with physical disabilities and learning difficulties to compose and perform their own music through music technology.  Research interests include: inclusive music, DMIs, DIY/maker culture, critical design, HCI.