Feb. 21, 2015 | By Simon

When it comes to day-to-day activities, it’s easy to naturally take seemingly small tasks for granted - such as picking up a fork or tying one’s shoes.  But for a large part of the world’s population, these seemingly mundane everyday tasks are either extremely difficult or next-to-impossible.  Thankfully, the low cost of 3D printing has been able to bring about a new generation of custom devices that are enabling those with physical disabilities like never before.  Among other experiences that are now possible thanks to 3D printing are video games.

SpecialEffect, a UK-based charity, has been spending almost a decade developing unique custom devices that enable those with physical disabilities to enjoy the gaming experience.  Founded in 2007 by Dr. Mick Donegan, a former teacher and current Assistive Technology Specialist, the charity invites individuals with physical disabilities that prevent them from handling a standard video game controller to try out a variety of alternative interfaces using different methods of input.

According to SpecialEffect communications officer Mark Saville, their job is to “join the dots by connecting a person’s abilities with the tech,” which can also include voice commands, muscle twitch switches and eye control.     

For example, rather than using a typical video game controller with multiple buttons and joysticks, SpecialEffect will design individuals custom solutions that can include everything from mouth-controlled joysticks to palm and chin-controlled interfaces that provide a more flexible option on a case-by-case basis for each individual. Of course - since these solutions are unique to each individual - 3D printing makes perfect sense for creating one-of-a-kind solutions.

“For instance, we’ll remap buttons or change the joystick sensitivity,” adds Saville. “For other controllers, we use software to incorporate inputs such as voice control. If something doesn’t exist or is prohibitively expensive, we make modifications to hardware ourselves.”

More recently, the SpecialEffect team collaborated with Mondelez International - a global confectionary company - to combine the PC game Spore with an eye-tracking system and 3D printing.

For the project, players with physical disabilities were able to design monsters within the popular simulation game and control them using just their eye movements.  Using the 3D printers supplied by Mondelez International - which they use to prototype vending machines - the SpecialEffect team was able to 3D print the players’ in-game creations into physical objects.     

This small - yet significant - example opens up a larger conversation about the current state of video games today and how the growth of gaming in general is leading to the need to create more hardware devices designed for different kinds of gamers.   

“The number of people contacting us for help and support has shot up as word has spread,” said Saville. “With gamers increasingly moving to the next-gen consoles over the last year this has also added to the demand for our work and created some interesting tech problems. Finding solutions has been challenging, but it has had a huge impact on those we work with.”

Perhaps the most significant impact that SpecialEffect has had isn’t necessarily in enabling the play of video games themselves but rather, enabling users with physical disabilities to better-interact with others.  

Among one of their recent case studies is Lee, a lifelong gamer who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy.  Due to his muscle-weakening condition, Lee has been unable to enjoy kicking a soccer ball with this brother, but thanks to his new video game setup he is able to enjoy the experience virtually with his brother when they play FIFA 2015, a soccer-based video game.  Although many may attribute video games to violence and lack of physical activity, it’s examples like these that highlight that the activity can actually be beneficial for many in regards to stimulating brain activity and social interactions.    

However, as significant and life-changing as these new interfaces are for users such as Lee, a large amount of these physical disabilities often change over time, meaning that although a solution might work now it may not work further down the road.  This aspect alone shows just how integral additive manufacturing can be in being able to sustain these experiences as the designs of the interfaces of themselves may change over time.  

In order to help raise money for more users like Lee, SpecialEffect is holding a fundraising event - their biggest ever - this weekend called GameBlast.  The 48-hour event will consist of two-days of constant gaming from people all over the UK who are live-streaming footage of their gameplay. The GameBlastLive marathon will be streaming via Twitch starting at 10AM on Saturday morning.  

Those interested in donating to SpecialEffect to help create more positive video game experiences can do so here.   

Posted in 3D Printing Applications


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