Gaming is the largest entertainment industry on the planet. A natural consequence of this ubiquity is that people from all walks of life turn gaming into a culture and lifestyle regardless of their age or background. Disabled gamers are one of these groups that make up a large segment of gamers. Gamers with a variety of disabilities have been competing at the highest level of esports. From blind players like BlindWarriorSven to gamers with hand deformities such as Spear3FW, there are many shining examples of digital warriors who’ve overcome physical and mental barriers to break out into the pro gaming scene.
However, they’ve had to do so without much assistive technology available to them by adapting themselves around one of their greatest foes: the lack of video game controllers for disabled gamers.
Limitations and the Need for Accessible Game Controllers
Game developers create video game controllers and general computer interfaces primarily for non-disabled users. We’ve all seen how typical console controllers look. Their buttons, pads, and sticks are designed to fit the average human finger. On top of that, their position is optimized for the average person’s hand dexterity. Despite this, gaming charities and nonprofit organizations like Everyone Can, Extra Life, Able Gamers, Special Effect, Gamers Outreach Foundation, Child’s Play Charity, and Games for Change provide resources and advocate for disabled gamers. One such advocate, Steven Spohn of Able Gamers, consults on assistive technology like the Xbox Adaptive Controller. Another is the Indie game studio, Soft Leaf Studios, which made Stories of Blossom for children with disabilities.
As an example, decorated SFV player BrolyLegs has overcome these problems by using his mouth and face to push the buttons on his standard Xbox gamepad. He and other disabled gamers have creatively torn down the walls that prevented them from enjoying video games through sheer will. These players, though, are the exception and not the rule.
Back in 2008, over 20.5% of casual gamers had a disability. We can only imagine their numbers have only grown. At the same time, when you factor in that around 60% of households have at least one game and that nearly a quarter of the population face physical challenges that prevent them from gaming, we can only imagine how many would-be gamers haven’t taken the plunge.
It’s clear that there’s a growing need for accessible game control methods, as we read on the Disabled Gamers subreddit. Though we are biased as providers of a head and eye-tracking solution, we believe the answer lies in eye tracking and head tracking technology.
Eye Tracking and Head Tracking Applications in Gaming
In a nutshell, eye tracking and head tracking involve using camera tech to translate the position of your eyes or head into digital commands. As such, these tracking signals can also be mapped to video game control schemes. There’s nothing new about this concept. For general interfacing with machines and computers, a host of tracking technology has empowered disabled users. The most famous example was Stephen Hawking, whose Intel-developed cheek tracker allowed him to communicate using text-to-speech. Developments in eye-tracking further improve the lives of individuals with ALS, like Professor Hawking.
However, gaming isn’t like using a PC for daily tasks. More often than not, it requires pinpoint precision and fast reactions to play to any degree of success in sim racing, first-person shooters, and other PC game genres. Recent developments, though, have made head tracking fast enough for use in gaming. Through clever design and better camera technology, such as the iPhone’s TrueDepth, using your head to execute gaming inputs is now a viable option with apps like Eyeware Beam or dedicated hardware from TrackIR and Tobii.
For gamers with less severe physical challenges, eye tracking can help support their focus on the screen. Currently, streamers and content creators are using eye trackers to enhance the viewing experience for their users by showing them an on-screen bubble. This same system can allow players who struggle with focus or have specific vision impairments to understand better where they’re looking.
Head tracking already has real-world gaming interface applications. Specifically, gamers who enjoy simulation experiences, such as Microsoft Flight Simulator, already use head trackers as the camera control method.
This is a game-changer for disabled gamers who lack some ambidexterity. Couple head tracking with some recent developments with accessible game controllers, and many people with disabilities will be able to play games with complex controls. These are not the only examples of assistive technology. Voice assistants and IoT devices like the CronusMAX cross-compatibility gaming adapter help disabled gamers too. As the coronavirus epidemic changes how many people work, the upside of this epidemic is more augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices and software being developed faster and with a greater sense of importance.
As a final idea, a combination of head and eye tracking can open up specific genres to gamers with reduced motor skills. Games that fall into the grand strategy, city building, and real-time strategy categories are prime examples of games that require the proper use of pointer devices. A logical solution, at first glance, is the trackball mouse. The issue, though, is that it’s designed with daily tasks in mind. Trying to move from one side of a large map to the other with accuracy becomes cumbersome. Head tracking gives us access to our head movements, which make our actions faster, natural, and effortless. Combining head tracking for scrolling with eye tracking for selection and accuracy feels like the more logical step forward.
Cutting Edge Tracking Minus the Costs
You probably think that such tech costs a fortune because it requires some proprietary camera and hardware. Eye and head trackers do exist in this capacity, but they’re not the only option. As mentioned earlier, some of the latest smartphones have incorporated technology into their cameras to analyze depth with more precision than ever. Such advancements have opened up apps that transform your phone into an inexpensive eye tracking and head tracking device.
While not all of the applications in the previous section are ready to use in such apps out of the box, developers can access a head and eye-tracking API to build their head and eye-tracking enabled software for gaming, simulators, and augmentative and alternative communication (AAC) devices to solve problems that do not yet have any solutions.
Through this collaborative and open approach, studios and devs can help open up the doors to gaming for many physically and mentally challenged gamers. As institutions and teams continue to research both eye tracking and head tracking in various contexts, the results behind such projects can also provide more insight into how the tech can become more viable for disabled gamers.
On top of making gaming more accessible in terms of controls, an eye-tracking or head tracking app like Eyeware Beam does both, placing the tech within more people’s reach. The free in beta app turns your iPhone or iPad with its built-in TrueDepth camera into a reliable, precise, multi-purpose head and eye-tracking tool. The app works as the input source for over 200 PC games, enabling a full range of in-game head motion to add depth to gaming with responsive, intuitive head movement controls that benefit many disabled gamers.
The tech is quite a feat as it takes Apple’s TrueDepth technology to produce a depth map of your face by projecting 30,000 infrared points recorded and processed by the smartphone chip’s neural engine. Eyeware Beam uses this technology to generate an accurate head pose and eye tracking signal comparable to expensive proprietary devices from Tobii or TrackIR.
In addition to the head tracking, the app also provides accurate eye-tracking so that gamers can live stream their online arena, MOBA, and any other gaming content with a precise eye tracking overlay on Twitch, Youtube, or Facebook to share wherever the gamer is looking at with their audience in real-time. Setting up your smartphone-turned-tracker device is an effortless process. Without any bulky or added hardware, the only concern you have is propping up your phone. After that, a smooth calibration process will help you set up your tracker, and you’ll be ready to start gaming with the best of them in Star Citizen, Digital Combat Simulator (DCS World), and Star Wars: Squadrons.
The bottom line is that video games are an art and a hobby that everyone should enjoy. But it is also a growing lifestyle that needs to grow more inclusive. Advanced tech like eye tracking and head tracking offers robust solutions to help close the gap for people with disabilities who still have to find complex workarounds to participate. Gaming does not need to be as much of a challenge or outside the realm of possibility for the disabled.