Eurogamer Expo 2012: Special Effect
In the centre of the Earls Court exhibition hall, surrounded by a sea of wide-screen plasma TV’s, interactive violence and scantily clad booth babes, the stand for Special Effect was easily one of the most subdued displays at Eurogamer Expo 2012. It wasn’t advertising a brand, trying to sell a product or holding a competition, and yet it often drew crowds as big as any game at the show.
They (and I) were drawn by the sight of an incredible young man named Isaac, who was warping around Portal 2’s test chambers using only his feet.
Isaac was demonstrating what is known as the split controller, which expands the classic button, trigger and stick layout of an ordinary gamepad into multiple smaller controllers that can be placed apart from each other. It looks like an extremely complex interface, reminiscent of a flight-simulators’ cockpit layout, but it’s one designed around its user’s needs, and demonstrates exactly what Special Effect is all about.
Founded in 2007 by assistive technology specialist Dr Mick Donegan, Special Effect is a gaming charity that works alongside children and adults with physical impairments to provide them with controller technologies personalised to their disability. In Isaac’s case the split controller allows him to nimbly navigate GlaDOS’ fiendish traps with incredible precision.
R & D Coordinator Bill Donegan explained that whilst this sometimes involves the creation of new technologies, such as the split controller, often the modification or re-purposing of an existing technology can open up new and accessible ways to play.
I got the chance to test out one of these modified examples with an eye-tracking device used to play Dirt 3. The technology was originally developed for advertising purposes, with the intention of maximising the efficiency of information transfer by tracing a viewer’s vision. Special Effect worked with programmers to develop a new piece of software called Alt-Controller which translates the viewpoint controlled cursor position into the up, down, left and right directional inputs of the standard WASD gaming controls.
Assisted by Special Effect ambassador Shaz Hossain I quickly calibrated my eyes to small dots on the screen and after a few written-off rally cars I got the hang of subtly picking out directions of steering through my vision. The control method even allowed for a surprising amount of subtle accuracy once I’d matched the distance of my eye movements with the resulting on-screen response.
Technologies like this are available through the charities’ loan library, which lets users try out potentially useful solutions for a period of time at The Special Effect centre, or with an occupational therapist at home.
Having only been around for the past four years, Special Effect is a relatively new organisation and is entirely privately funded – relying upon contributions, applications to grants and fund-raising events. Its presence as a central booth at Eurogamer Expo shows that support from the industry is increasing – and rightfully so. In an industry often solely focused upon fulfilling fantasies through technology, it’s about time that technology was used to make gaming what it should be: a level playing ground for everyone to enjoy.