UPEI students developing accessible gaming controller for people with disabilities

·4 min read
From left, engineering students Ryan Unuigboje, Graham Ching, Denaj Miller and Muhanad Hilaneh are pictured with their prototype of a video-game controller for people with disabilities. (Jane Robertson/CBC - image credit)
From left, engineering students Ryan Unuigboje, Graham Ching, Denaj Miller and Muhanad Hilaneh are pictured with their prototype of a video-game controller for people with disabilities. (Jane Robertson/CBC - image credit)

A group of UPEI students is working to make the world of gaming more accessible by creating a more inclusive controller for people with disabilities.

The group is made up of four engineering students: fifth year's Graham Ching and Muhanad Hilaneh and fourth year's Ryan Unuigboje and Denaj Miller.

Hilaneh said they've created what they call a "No Pull No Lift" controller for the North American charity AbleGamers — a non-profit aiming to make gaming more accessible for people with disabilities.

"I personally was very happy and proud with the outcome of the project and knowing that the work that I put in, specifically engineering work, is going to help people with disabilities play games," Hilaneh said.

Jane Robertson/CBC
Jane Robertson/CBC

Most modern gaming controllers are held with two hands and make use of both thumbs as well as both index and middle fingers. With more than 10 buttons, multiple joysticks and directional pads on PlayStation and Xbox controllers, using a modern gaming controller can be difficult or impossible for someone with limited hand mobility.

"If you're a person whose disability has a physical manifestation, oftentimes it's the controllers themselves that we need to change," said Mark Barlet, executive director of AbleGamers U.S.

"A standard controller … requires a lot of dexterity that many people just don't have, and so we create new custom controllers to bridge that gap so you can get into a game and really enjoy it."

It's really great that I was able to help those gamers have more accessibility. — Denaj Miller

Ching said working on the project was "a dream come true," to be able to do engineering and play video games at the same time. He said the group had in mind a controller for people with limited use of their hands or arms — and, specifically, people with multiple sclerosis.

"Users wouldn't have a full range of motion in their hands; they can only move their fingertips a very small distance," he said. "They wouldn't be able to use a traditional controller like an Xbox controller or a computer mouse, so we were trying to make a joystick that targets that specific condition."

How does it work?

The controller prototype they're working on is triangle-shaped, operating like one large joystick. Moving the joystick moves a smaller puck inside a box below, which can move characters in a game and engage the buttons.

It requires only the smallest amount of force to move around and push down. Inside the controller are elastic bands that allow the push and pull needed for movement in games.

Jane Robertson/CBC
Jane Robertson/CBC

"You don't have to raise your hand up — just move it on a board or on a table," Unuigboje said. "It's very easy and very efficient and precise."

The students said that they wanted the device's parts to be cheap so that people with disabilities can easily afford an accessible controller. At the moment, the total cost is expected to be $52, Unuigboje said. In comparison, a brand new Xbox Series X controller retails for around $75 before taxes, and a PlayStation 5 controller goes for around $90 before taxes.

The triangular top is interchangeable so that gamers can choose whichever top they feel is most comfortable and suits their disability.

Miller said he loves gaming, and as the project went on it became clear how important this controller will be for people with disabilities.

"It's really great that I was able to help those gamers have more accessibility to play these types of games, especially the types of games I play and I enjoy," he said.

The controller hasn't been tested by someone with disabilities yet, Miller said. That's what's next for the prototype. "Hopefully those will be done with AbleGamers, and hopefully they get the information they need to improve [the controller] further," he said.

'They've done such a good job'

Chris Power is helping the group. He's an associate professor in UPEI's school of mathematics and computational sciences as well as being director of the recently created AbleGamers Canada.

Jane Robertson/CBC
Jane Robertson/CBC

"I would call it a prototype right now. However, they've done such a good job that I'd be very comfortable providing this prototype for a player to use," he said.

"The thing we're looking at right now is doing a little bit of testing and a little bit of refinement with users, which is where I come in."

Barlet said when the controller is officially complete, the end goal would be to publish a how-to guide online showing people how to assemble their own version or for the person in their lives who needs it.

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