Folmer believes a virtual world doesn't have to be a visual one
He's not big on paper.
It's not that the work of Eelke Folmer, an assistant professor of computer science and engineering, isn't impressive or ambitious or even paper-worthy. It's just that other than seven mini-Post-Its, there's no paper visible anywhere in his office. Not even the one that shows he recently received a $90,448 grant from the National Science Foundation.
"We are the first ever to get a grant in gaming accessibility from the NSF," Folmer said quietly. "We're working with a massive multiplayer online game that can potentially offer opportunities for social interactions regardless of disabilities."
Folmer cites the present lack of computer games that can be played by people who are unable to see or use a mouse. His work is designed to help cognitive and physically disabled people enjoy the socialization and just the pure fun of multiplayer games. This particular NSF grant will primarily help with accessibility for the blind.
"Our goal is to improve the quality of life for millions of people with disabilities and gaming is a part of that," he said. "I'm developing a prototype client for the massive multiplayer virtual world called 'Second Life' that offers a basic level of accessibility for the blind."
Second Life is a 3-D virtual world built and owned entirely by its "residents." Since it began in 2003, it has grown dramatically and today is "inhabited" by a more than nine million players from around the world. Folmer's prototype client will initially allow blind players to navigate the environment using voice commands alone. It will then be enhanced and extended to enable players to interact with other players.
"We hope to raise the awareness of game developers so they see that not only is there a market here for them, but that it is really part of their obligation to make these games accessible," Folmer said as he navigated a game prototype on a Sony flat screen TV. "Modern controls have close to 30 buttons on them, and we want to reduce that interaction to perhaps a one-button shooter for people with disabilities. In the case of blind players, there is a lot we can do with audio cues so that it's still fun to play."
Achieving these goals won't be easy, in part because the client and the server of Second Life have only recently been made as open source code and no one has yet attempted to create an accessible client for the environment. In other words, Folmer has to figure out how to extract relevant information from the game's environment in order to provide meaningful output for the player.
Originally from Balk in the Netherlands, the 30-year-old previously worked in the software engineering and games group at the University of Alberta. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Groningen, where he worked on the European Union-funded Software Architecture for Usability (STATUS) project. He's already developed www.helpyouplay.com which has a free component for games to add closed caption functions for the hearing impaired. He came to Nevada in part for the opportunities to do research like this and because of the direction of the CSE program.
"It's exciting because in many ways Nevada is on the cutting edge of computer science engineering," Folmer said. "And we will try to leverage the technology to other massive multiplayer online games and games in general. Voice navigation can make 3-D adventure games accessible to physically disabled players, which will enable future games to be developed in an inclusive way for the benefit of all players."