Researcher develops computer game for the blind

A Japanese researcher has developed a video game system for the visually impaired that relies solely on sound.

A Japanese researcher has developed a computer game in which the player becomes the game character, the game is played in real space and a pair of headphones substitute for a monitor.

The game is called BBBeat and requires the player to wield a mallet and hit computer-generated bees in order to rack up points. The game has no screen. Instead, the player wears special headphones that makes the bees seem to buzz around the head, and the gamer must locate them based on sound alone.

The game, developed by Makoto Ohuchi of Tohoku Fukushi University as part of his PhD project, is intended mostly as a training aid to heighten the ability of the visually impaired to locate the source of sounds. But it can be enjoyed by anybody, as Ohuchi showed during a demonstration Friday at the university, about 400 kilometers north of Tokyo in the city of Sendai.

Playing the game means first getting kitted out. The computer needs to be able to follow the player's movements, so sensors are clipped to the player's upper arm and wrist, and also to the headphones and the mallet. The sensors communicate with a control box worn around the waist, which in turn routes the information to a Windows PC.

There is a monitor showing the bees and the movements of the player, but it is meant for people accompanying the player rather than the player himself.

The game not only helps players practice locating sounds but also hones their ability to reach out to the source of a sound -- and in this case bash it with a mallet.

Preliminary tests suggest the game may be effective. Ohuchi tested it by giving 10 players a similar game to play for 10 days. Their ability to locate the source of sounds was measured at the start and finish of the 10-day period. Those who had played the game showed significant improvement, while a control group with no access to the game registered virtually no change, Ohuchi wrote in a paper on the project.

Further tests are needed to verify the preliminary findings, Ohuchi cautioned.

Plans to commercialize the game are advancing and Ohuchi hopes it will be available before the end of the year.

A consortium of four companies has been working with Ohuchi on the project for the last two years, said Keiki Hatakeyama president of P Softhouse, a Sendai-based software company that is one of the four. Tsuken Denki Kogyo, another Sendai-based consortium member, will handle sales of the product, Hatakeyama said.

The price for the game has not yet been decided, but it will not be cheap, Hatakeyama said.

Ohuchi estimated that it will likely cost several thousand dollars. It will be targeted at schools and rehabilitation centers for the blind, he said.

Details of Ohuchi's research are due to be published in the proceedings of the International Conference on Auditory Display, which is scheduled to take place from July 6 though July 9 in Limerick, Ireland.

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