Computer science and engineering video game project to offer exercise for blind children

Eelke Folmer receives $420,000 NSF grant to explore new avenues of research into exergames

10/17/2011 - By: Mike Wolterbeek
exergames for the blind University of Nevada, Reno doctoral student Tony Morelli demonstrating target acquisition using two Sony Move controllers. Photo by Mike Wolterbeek, University of Nevada, Reno.

A research project at the University of Nevada, Reno has received a $410,220 grant to explore how video exercise games can be played without using visual feedback so the visually impaired, especially adolescents, can improve their health through increased activity. The funding comes from the human-centered computing program of the National Science Foundation.

"Lack of physical activity is a serious health concern for children with visual impairments," Eelke Folmer, lead researcher and an assistant professor of computer science and engineering in the College of Engineering, said. "They have fewer opportunities to be physically active and have much higher levels of obesity than their sighted peers. Latest census results show there are about 60,000 blind children in the U.S. These kids - and millions more worldwide - could benefit from playing our games."

The project, VI Fit (Visually-Impaired Fit), seeks to build on Folmer's current, successful research and develop novel interaction techniques that explore turning a user's body into a display device that can be accessed in an ear- and eye-free manner.

"For example, you could make an application on the phone that makes the phone vibrate when it is pointed North, which can be measured with its internal compass," Folmer said. "The user can now point the phone in different directions and when the user feels a buzz, he or she knows their arm is pointing north."

This interaction technique exploits a human ability, called proprioception, to sense the position and orientation of the body and its parts, he said. Using a small amount of feedback the human body can function as a display device where limbs can be used to communicate information to a user, for example to point out an object of interest.

This type of interaction is extremely useful for users with sensory impairments because it doesn't rely upon being able to see or to hear.

"All physical activities, such as tennis or basketball, involve eye-hand coordination. You first visually acquire a target -- the ball -- and then you perform an action on it  -- hit it or catch it," Folmer said. "Exercise games simulate physical activities; therefore, they involve the same eye-hand coordination. Because video games predominantly use visual feedback, exergames are inaccessible to those unable to see."

In preliminary research Folmer's research team already created several exergames that can be played using sounds and vibrations, and can be played using a low-cost motion sensing controller (Wii remote). VI Bowling is a game that implements a proprioceptive display similar to the phone example, but instead allows a blind user to throw a virtual bowling ball at the location of the pins that they sense with their arm holding the controller, he said.

Folmer collaborates with adapted physical education researchers in New York from SUNY Cortland and SUNY Brockport. A tennis game and a whac-a-mole type game were evaluated at a developmental sports camp for blind children in New York. His team found the games to engage children into levels of active energy expenditure that were high enough to be considered healthy.

"Ever since we released the games on our website for free, we've received hundreds of positive responses from children, parents and teachers," Folmer said. "Some blind children had never played a video game in their life and now all of a sudden they can play Wii games with their friends and family. A few months ago someone on Twitter sent me a link to some photos of blind children in the Middle East playing our games at a school for the blind in Qatar.

"Our research makes a difference - being able to have such a profound impact on the lives of blind children. I can't think of a better reason to be in academia."

"This NSF grant speaks volumes about the excellence of Dr. Folmer's work and the potential that this area has for making significant contributions to solve some very important societal problems," Manos Maragakis, dean of the University of Nevada, Reno College of Engineering, said. "It is one of the most promising research areas in the college; it involves very talented faculty and students. It's based on amazingly innovative techniques and highly technological applications to address challenges, and come up with solutions, that can significantly improve the quality of life."

For more information, go to http://vifit.org.


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