Gaming For the Visually Impaired

Columbia Engineering computer scientist Brian A. Smith has developed the RAD — a racing auditory display — to enable visually impaired gamers play the same types of racing games that sighted players play with the same speed, control, and excitement as sighted players.

Credit: Brian A. Smith/Columbia Engineering

The article Equal Access to Racing Video Games for the Blind, discusses how Brian A Smith, a Columbia Engineering computer scientist, was able to develop and perfect RAD. RAD was developed as an auditory display that allows visually impaired gamers play the same games as non visually impaired players, without handicaps on factors such as speed and control. These RAD games are still complete with full 3D graphics and complex, challenging racetracks for the player at hand. The players are able to listen to the audio based interface using a standard pair of headphones, however the audio of the games can be integrated by developers into almost any racing video game, making a popular genre of games equally accessible to people who are blind.

“The RAD is the first system to make it possible for people who are blind to play a ‘real’ 3D racing game — with full 3D graphics, realistic vehicle physics, complex racetracks, and a standard PlayStation 4 controller,” says Smith, who worked on the project with Shree Nayar, T.C. Chang Professor of Computer Science. “It’s not a dumbed-down version of a racing game tailored specifically to people who are blind.” I think this is a super important part of the development of the RAD games, that any visually impaired players do not feel they are playing an easier version of the game compared to non visually impaired players. By keeping the same graphics and course settings ALL players are able to experience the equal excitement and challenge of RAD games. Previous to Smith’s work, the number of games on the market suitable for the blind that were loaded with competing sources of information that players must sift through, slowing down the fun of playing the game, were countless. Other examples included versions of popular games that were so simplified that a blind gamer did nothing more than follow orders. There has been a fundamental tradeoff between preserving a game’s full complexity and its pace when making it blind-accessible. Smith claims that the biggest challenge “was to give visually impaired players enough information about the game so that they could have the same sense of control and thrill that sighted players have, but not so much information that they would get overwhelmed by audio overload or bogged down in just figuring out how to interpret the sounds.” Brain Smith’s work is divided into to fields of research: building audio navigation systems while developing blind-accessible racing games and driver assistance systems. The article explains that the RAD comprises two novel sonification techniques: a sound slider for understanding a car’s speed and trajectory on a racetrack, and a turn indicator system for alerting players about upcoming turns well in advance of the actual turns. By combining these two methods players are able to better comprehend aspects about the race and perform a wide variety of actions in a way that is not possible in current blind-accessible racing games. Smith avoided the previous standard of giving players orders and instructions by creating a platform that would allow players enough relevant information to form their own plan of action. Further explaining the audio of his development Smith expresses “The RAD’s sound slider and turn indicator system work together to help players know the car’s current speed; align the car with the track’s heading; learn the track’s layout; profile the direction, sharpness, timing, and length of upcoming turns; cut corners; choose an early or late apex; position the car for optimal turning paths; and know when to brake to complete a turn,” Brian Smith was later able to share his research with other developers at the Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems April 21-26 in Montreal, the leading international conference for Human-Computer Interaction. Smith, later put together a prototype car racing game in Unity. Unity is known as one the most popular game engines in the world, and integrated the RAD into that prototype. He ran two studies with fifteen participants he recruited through the Brooklyn-based Helen Keller Services for the Blind and volunteers at Columbia. Commenting on Smith’s work one player commented that at times he felt “had as much information as if he could actually see the track.” Smith added that he also hopes to create similar systems for other genres of games, including adventure games, role-playing games, and first-person shooters allowing a larger variety of gaming options to those facing visual impairment.


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