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SpecialEffect Interview: Charity Through Innovation

Jonathan Lester
Charity, Dr. Mick Donegan, Eurogamer Expo 2011, Matt Hampson, SpecialEffect

SpecialEffect Interview: Charity Through InnovationSpecialEffect Interview: Charity Through Innovation

Pioneering UK Charity To Advise Microsoft & Splash Damage

A virtual car careened around a twisting track... controlled by nothing save the tinest movements of my eyes. Retinal biometry is nothing new, but UK gaming charity SpecialEffect had brought along their latest software and IR tech to this year's Eurogamer expo. It was instantly responsive without being wildly twitchy. Calibration only took scant seconds. As I sat motionless in my chair while attempting to add lap times to a Guinness world record attempt, I started to appreciate - if not fully understand - just how important innovations like this are to those with disabilities. Manipulating a computer is one thing as it unlocks the entire world, and being able to get involved with videogames provides an entirely new arena of social interaction and a playing field that's becoming more level with each passing breakthrough.

SpecialEffect has pledged to continually push the boundaries of accessible gaming technology and software... but how do they actually operate? What do they do with their technological marvels after they're completed deep within their Oxfordshire R&D centre? Will they licence their technology for profit - or is there something more exciting going on? I was keen to know more, and I sat down with founder Dr. Mick Dongegan to chat about the past, present and future of the charity. As it turns out, their goal is set a benchmark, a technological breadcrumb trail and beacon for other companies to follow and to actively help them make our games more accessible. To show that it can be done - and then to explain how to anyone who will listen. For nothing. For everyone.

SpecialEffect Interview: Charity Through Innovation

"We want to be the glue," explained Dr. Donegan, "that joins together developers, joins together the games industry, people with disabilities, universities, so that we can share and come up with ideas. We're not making money, we're doing our best to generate funds to run the charity. We're in the middle, so publishers, developers, anybody can say: those guys at SpecialEffect are able to make this stuff work - both for mainstream and for people with disabilities - so we don't need to worry about negociating fees or anything else. They can just get in touch with us for nothing and we can instantly help people, come up with ideas for everybody: whoever they are."

"We're not tied into any company. The idea is that anybody, whether it's Microsoft, a rich developer or indie developer, can see us and we'll tell them what we know about eye control so that they can integrate it into their games."

When I asked about why Microsoft had received an explicit mention, Dr. Dongegan was keen to explain that the charity has been invited to a high level meeting in order to "take a look at Kinect" and assess its potential as an accessible control device... especially when combined with eye control.

We've been invited by Microsoft to see them, we are going to take a look at Kinect as a control device generally. It's a brilliant control device for gesture and movement - and I do believe that integrating it with eye control could enable a full way of interpreting someone's complete body and eye movements. The actual technology itself is absolutely remarkable; potentially it could be an amazing device for people with disabilities. It's brilliant that it can now be plugged into a PC. And all that technology for such a little price.

Donegan freely admits that they "don't have all the answers by themselves"... but that the generosity and of independent developers and even major companies allows them to share and collaborate on ideas. Apparently they'll also be advising Splash Damage "later this month" on ways that they can make their lineup more accessible and to "make them aware of accessibility issues", and we'll keep you posted as we hear more.

The reason why it's such a great time to form a charity like this is that there's so much low cost and powerful hardware out there - and indie developers, open source stuff. The world is like a technological and human sweet shop for us, we're lucky enough to know a lot of talented and generous programmers who are willing to collaborate. As I said, we want to be this glue, part of a team between entrepreneurs, developers and anybody willing to help.

Sterling stuff to be sure, but how did the idea for SpecialEffect come about? Apparently Donegan based his PhD on how disabled children used technology throughout nine years of development... and discovered that games were an incredibly important part of their lives. A way of connecting with a world, and friends, that was otherwise completely beyond their reach. When several of these children became unable to engage with gaming, they lost an invaluable part of their lives - and the inspiration for SpecialEffect was born.

As far as the future is concerned, SpecialEffect plans to continue building their Gamebase platform (not to be confused with our price comparison engine) in order to compile their vast knowledge and code base... freely available to anyone who wants to collaborate on new projects, develop it further or integrate it into their gaming experiences. Not only that, but they'll host dedicated servers and modified gametypes for differently-abled gamers to meet up and play online with a completely level playing field.

My time up and another appointment approaching fast, Dr. Donegan left me with the following summation of what SpecialEffect is striving to achieve.

What we want to do is to be there. For any developers to visit us and to collaborate so we can share our ideas. So that we can make all games, at the outset, accessible to everyone rather than after the event. That's the goal for us.

A sentiment - a mission - that deserves to succeed. Be sure to visit SpecialEffect at this year's Eurogamer Expo, or visit their site to learn more about their current projects and donation. We wish them the very best.

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