Audiogame Jam 2 – In Support Of RNIB

Audiogame Jam 2 – In Support Of RNIB

During my hiatus from blogging, I seemed to have missed the Audiogame Jam, A game jam held last year with a focus, obviously, on audio games with an aim to raise money for RNIB. It took place between  August 26th and September 5th 2016, inspiring 16 developers to submit their creations.

The event was organised by James Kyle @JameKyle  (who’s website can be found here). Himself being visually impaired, due to macular degeneration from his early teens, has a passion for gaming and wanted to use this passion to draw attention to an issue close to his heart, game accessibility. He wanted to do this while also benefiting RNIB, a charity that helps people like us, the visually impaired, here in the UK,. To that end, a Game Jam seamed just the ticket.

Now, a year later, following on the success of the inaugural Audiogame Jam , James has announced Audiogame Jam 2. Again with the same aims as the original, hoping to entice the talent of the game development community to think outside of the box and see what they can come up with.

I was curious to find out more about the person behind Audiogame Jam, his thoughts on the current state of game accessibility and what he hopes to achieve with Audiogame Jam. Below, you can read some questions I posed to James . Thankfully, James  was kind enough to agree to answer them.

How long have you been involved in the gaming industry?

I’ve been doing small game projects and freelance animation since I completed the Masters in Professional Practice in Games Development at the University of Abertay in 2012.

What inspired you to create Audiogame Jam?

I started Audiogame Jam as I wanted to raise money for RNIB and raise awareness of the work they do and the barriers to videogames faced by people with sight loss. RNIB are a charity that have helped me a great deal in the past with various issues regarding my sight and I wanted to organise something to help the organisation that took advantage of my love of videogames and game development.

There were other factors too. My own sight loss to macular degeneration and my experience of playing videogames played a part. The lack of information from UK sight loss charities on gaming options for blind people or blind gaming communities was another.

Did you learn anything from the Audiogame Jam submissions, as to the current state of developers understanding toward game accessibility?

The main thing I took away from the first Audiogame Jam was the enthusiasm so many people had for the project. It was a great motivator to push me to make it as successful as possible. I hadn’t realised that so many people with interested in videogame accessibility and that it was an issue being taken far more seriously by many developers and publishers. Of the game submissions most were playable to those with sight loss. Some had accessibility issues that would prevent a blind person from being able to play, such as requiring mouse use to click on an icon to start a game. This is leading me this year to better communicate that the games should be playable without sight and provide better guidance on how to achieve this.

What do you hope to see in Audiogame Jam 2 submissions?

I’d like to see more game submissions than last year. I’d also like to see games that are designed for the mobile devices popular with blind people, such as Android and iOS smartphones. Games for voice devices like Amazon’s Echo would also be good to see as I think these have a big place in how blind people access information in the future.

What do you think the biggest barriers are, that prevent game developers, from producing games that have a broader spectrum of accessibility?

I think there are several reasons game developers don’t consider accessibility when making games. The idea that accessibility options are expensive is a problem. Yes, adding accessibility options and features can be expensive and time-consuming if done near the end of the project. This is rarely the case if it is something planned for at the start of the project however, and encouraging developers to do this makes a big difference. There may also be a view that the number of users who would benefit from accessibility features may not be worth the time and cost. While it may be true that the number of users who would identify themselves as disabled and would argue the case for these features they are far from the only people who would benefit from their inclusion. The industry needs more people with accessibility or inclusion needs working to make games, especially in major studios and publishers producing mainstream games. People with accessibility needs making games are in a great position to make the case that they should be able to play the games they are working so hard to create.

Will you be submitting any creations to Audiogame Jam 2?

No, I won’t be submitting any games.

Do you have anything more to add?

Audiogame Jam couldn’t have come together as it has without the help and support of so many people within RNIB, in the games industry, those with an interest in videogame accessibility and all those who worked to submit games. I can’t thank them enough.

On that note, I’d like to thank  James for answering my questions,, I could have asked so many more, maybe we’ll do a follow up post after Audiogame Jam 2 were I can once again satisfy my curiosity.

I for one look forward to Audiogame Jam 2 and the gems that it will spawn. If you’re interested in finding out more, or better yet submitting your creations once the Audiogame Jam 2 starts on October 6th 2017, feel free to click on any of the previous links in this post or just click here to go to it’s Game Jolt page.

If you want to support Audiogame Jam’s efforts, you can do so by heading on over to their Just Giving page and make a donation, the proceeds of which will go to RNIB.

As always, if you have any question or anything to add, please feel free to leave a comment below. Please feel free to follow on Twitter and Facebook. I’d also appreciate you sharing this post to help get the word out about Audiogame Jam 2.

The Journey That Ended In Me Being #OnlineToday

The Journey That Ended In Me Being #OnlineToday

Recently, @jaympaul on twitter brought to my attention #GetOnlineWeek, which  is a long running campaign managed by the Tinder Foundation. The campaign runs between the 17th and the 23rd of October, it’s aim to help people discover the benefits of being online.  This year the campaign is celebrating it’s 10 year anniversary, giving me the  ideal opportunity to talk about how technology has helped me get and stay online.

It has also given me the chance to shine a spotlight on the RNIB‘s #OnlineToday initiative, where they help people with sensory loss access their devices and get online.

My aim is to bring out a series of blog posts on how me and my family use the internet throughout October. Although as my plans tend to go awry, like the best laid  plans of mice and men, I wanted to at least release this post looking at an overview of my journey to getting online, a brief mention of some of the devices I use to get online and what I do while connected.

 

My Journey To The Internet.

As you may or may not be aware, I am a legally blind 29 year old, from the UK, suffering from Retinitis Pigmentosa. This can have some limiting effects on certain aspects of my life.  Thankfully however, having embraced technology from an early age, I have been able to stay up to date with the benefits it can provide to someone like me.

When I first got online, nearly two decades ago, there was only one option available to everyone, that was to get your hands on a PC, be it Windows or Mac. Personally I went down the Windows rout. Nagging my mum year after year, in  a forlorn hope that she may crack and buy me a computer, one summer, shortly before starting high school, a delivery lorry pulled up at the front of our house unexpectedly. Out came box after box, each one containing a piece to the puzzle that would keep me entertained for years to come.

Unpacking each box, me and my brother made an event of connecting each grey box together. We strung cables from the monitor to the base unit, then went in the mouse and keyboard, finally the printer and speakers. Thankfully all the cables were colour coordinated or it may have taken us a lot longer to figure things out, neither one of us having done it before, let alone used one.  in hope that when we turned the power on it would all work.

After a huge amount of hugs and kisses in thanks to my mum and promises made that it would only be used for school work, I switched on that Packard Bell PC, marking the first steps on my journey to the internet.

How things have changed, with the ubiquity of smart phones, tablets, smart TV’s and the plethora of other connected devices, there is a bewildering number of ways you can get online today.

After years of waiting for it to make it’s journey across the Atlantic and become readily available in the UK. Our family recently took delivery of the newest member to our connected household, the Amazon Echo. Yet another way our family is making use of the technology and internet combination, making our lives easier and more full filled.

Not only the number of devices we use to get online have increased , but the means in which those devices talk to each other, the internet, has also increased in availability and speed, while reducing in price for the most part.

When I first got online, broadband was still in it’s infancy and the majority of people were still accessing the world wide web via a dial up connection. Now, mobile internet access and broadband internet access have reached a parity in a lot of areas of the country, making dial up pretty much a non entity, thank goodness.

 

 

My download speed has increased from 56 kbps back in the Packard Bell era of my computing history, to (up to!) an astonishing 150 mbps today, although as the graphic above shows, 108.81 mbps is the best I could achieve here . In addition to this speed increase, the cost of that access has fallen.

I touched on mobile internet a little earlier. This has possibly been one of the biggest changes in technology in recent years. It’s untethered people from their desktops and enabled people to stay connected no matter where they are.

Mobile phones had only just become a thing as I started to lose my sight as a child, I along with the rest of the world had no idea how fast and how far mobile technology would come. But I do know that technology, the internet in particular has played a huge part in my life. I can only see the impact of it growing as I embrace its potential.

 

But you’re blind, you can’t see to use mainstream technology.

Ah, that’s where you’re wrong. There may still be devices that haven’t picked up the accessibility baton and hammered their devices into shape with it. However, you’ll be surprised just how many mainstream devices have accessibility features baked into them from the get go.

While the hardware manufacturers and infrastructure companies innovated, accessibility advocates and engineers didn’t sit on their hands, oh no, they were hard at work too.  macOSWindowsiOS and not forgetting Android, the four operating systems that most major consumer devices are based, all have accessibility features installed by default.

There are also devices like the Amazon Echo, that do away with the screen all together. Once the device is configured, which requires the use of a smart phone, either iOS or Android based, the device is accessed entirely via verbal commands. This enables you to access streaming music services like Amazon Prime Music and Spotify. manage your calendar and a myriad of other functions that are constantly being expanded via the Amazon Skills API. This device levels the accessibility playing field massively, perhaps due to a lucky accident, but the end result is still the same.

An Image and Link to the Amazon Echo

My 6 year old son did over estimate the echo’s capabilities a little however,  with his first voice command being “Alexa, make me a snack”. If the 10 inch cylindrical form of the Amazon echo had a face, it would have had a look of bewilderment painted on it, as it thought about how it would complete this task. Little did we know, the Echo is capable of ordering take away meals, via ‘Just Eat‘, so his request isn’t as far fetched as it may have first sounded to me and his mum, as we rolled around laughing.

 

This thing can also make phone calls.

I’d be lost without my PC and I love the new technology that comes onto the market like the echo, however, this past 5 years or so I’ve come to rely a lot on my smart phone. After years of struggling with a magnifying glass to try and read text messages and navigate through phone menus, when I reach 16 years old it came to the point where I just couldn’t manage it any more and my use of mobile devices just stopped.

Then came the smart phone revolution, triggered in part by the original iPhone. As usual, I was a little slow on the uptake. I jumped on board with the Samsung Galaxy S3, when I realised just how accessible the devices have become. Since then things have just got better and better. Now, I’m using the Samsung Galaxy S6  and I wouldn’t be without it.

Accessing email, twitter and streaming content in the same way a sighted person would, my mobile experience is a world away from what it used to be. And on the occasion I need to make a phone call, it handles that pretty well too.

 

Some mainstream technology is difficult to access.

That doesn’t mean I had to give up and spend the rest of my life offline. There are hundreds, if not thousands of products out there,  specifically designed to make accessing technology easier. These either adapt mainstream technology to make it accessible or give you an alternative device with similar features to off the shelf products, in an accessible form-factor.

These products include third party screen magnification and screen reader software, an example of this is Dolphin’s Supernova, a product I am familiar with and used to use during my time at college. Since then, they have continued to advance it’s capabilities and it now boasts a complete suite of accessibility features that is drawing my attention.

A screen shot of the supernova website.
A screen shot of the supernova website.

Software adaptations aren’t limited to desktop and laptop devices however, companies like Synaptic Software provide a software package designed for android devices that simplifies the user interface and makes it easier to access for people with visual impairments. You can also buy devices with this software pre-installed.

As far as my smart phone goes, I am happy, for the most part, with the built in accessibility features provided by the Android operating system. Features I expand upon via the use of third party apps like ‘Tap Tap See.

If software adaptations don’t go far enough, there are several peripherals you can buy to increase the accessibility of your device. These range widely from high contrast keyboards to braille displays that can help you access your smart phone or PC, a lot of which can be found on the RNIB Online Shop.

As my vision is so reduced, combined with the fact I am a touch typist, high contrast keyboards are of little use to me, a braille display is a product I would consider adding to my arsenal in the future however.

 

But I’m not like you, I’m new to technology .

That’s OK, no one expects you to turn on a device and instantly know how to access it and get the most from it. That’s why there are governmental projects and charitable organisations out there to help you get started. An example of this would be the RNIB’s Online Today Initiative , put in place to help those with sight loss access and get the most from their technology.

Take a look at the video below produced by RNIB, where Andrew gives a brief look at what he does while online and the advantages being online offers. He also gives an overview on how the RNIB‘s Online Today team can help you if you suffer from sensory loss.

 

 

I know it’s often easy for someone like me who has surrounded themselves with technology and the internet, to underestimate how difficult it can be to take that first step. However people like Andrew, along with the other staff members and volunteers at RNIB have the training and experience to guide you through the process, so that you can take those first steps together.

 

Technology opened the door to other interests.

The pure love of technology is what got me lusting after a connected life style all those years ago. Although I knew nothing about it, something about computers and technology attracted my introverted personality.

Technology doesn’t have to be the reason you get online though, technology can just be a tool enabling you to stay connected with friends and family, or maybe even make new friends. Endless amounts of information is just a question away when your connected to the internet too. Hours of entertainment can be had, either through online video streaming services, games or audio books.

Speaking of audio books, the RNIB has recently made their “Talking Books” service free of charge, so you can now access thousands of audio books  online, either on your PC or mobile using the Overdrive app. This is another service I make good use of.

If instant information or entertainment isn’t what you’re after and you want a bit of retail therapy, don’t worry, the internet has you well covered on that front. Providing you access to more products than you could ever hope to find on the high street, you’ll run out of money long before you run out of shiny new things to buy online.

Having long forgotten the promises I made to my mum, that my computer would only be used for school work. Chat rooms were the initial draw that got me draping a telephone cable across the living room floor to my pc and waiting for my computer to dial up all those years ago.

Once I grew up (depending on who you ask, some would argue that still hasn’t happened.) and gained access to a little bit of money, online shopping  soon became the major draw for me. Having instant access to all the latest reviews and price comparisons on all the latest technology, it’s a veritable wonderland for someone like me. If only the supply of money could keep up with my growing wish list.

An image of the twitter logo

 

Shopping aside, another huge benefit of being online for me, that I have started making use of within the last year or so is Twitter, having known about it and Facebook for years, as has everyone I imagine, I was a little slow on the up take though, the shy introvert inside preventing me from taking advantage of these platforms obvious benefits. that has enabled me to stay connected with friends and family. It has also enabled me to make lots of new friends with similar interest to me. Being on Twitter also exposes me to information that I wouldn’t have been aware of otherwise and let’s me get involved in conversations relevant to me.

As my blog’s name alludes to, you won’t be surprised that gaming has also historically taken up a huge proportion of my time online. As my eye sight has deteriorated, the type of games I play has started to change, you’ll be surprised how many of these games are becoming accessible to the blind though, with audio and text based games taking the forefront.

But regardless of your interests, no matter how niche you think it may be, I can almost guarantee it, within seconds of being online, you’ll find other people just like you and a host of information or entertainment based around it.

 

So what are you waiting for?

The fact you’re here reading this blog post shows you’re already online and have doubtlessly fallen in love with the benefits of it, but If you find yourself using excuses as to why you don’t get online more or embrace technology, take a few minutes to think of all the benefits you’re missing out on.

More to the point, if you have family members who are visually impaired that don’t currently get online, take some time to talk to them about their interests and how getting online may benefit them. There’s very few reasons why you can’t get #OnlineToday.

As always, please share this post using the social media links provided and feel free to leave a comment. Share with me how you use technology and the internet. I want to hear your stories on how you might use them both  to further your hobbies and interests or how you use them to simplify your day to day life. You can also contact me on Facebook and Twitter. And if you are on those social networks, please feel free to join the conversation by adding #onlinetoday or #GetOnlineWeek to your posts.

 

Playing It By Ear!

Playing It By Ear!

Being a legally blind PC gamer, I have a choice of Text Based Games, Audio Games or the more typical, mainstream video games. I mention this choice as my mind has been drifting back towards gaming of late. Having taken a bit of a break from it recently. The tweet below caught my eye and it’s corresponding article got me thinking.

Ignoring text based games and audio games for a moment, mainstream video gaming, for blind and partially sighted people, is more often than not a game of trial and error. Going over the same level over and over again, remembering where the enemies, power ups and pit falls are all located. @BGMisadventures mentioned something similar to this in her #MyBlindStory article (which can be found here), on Blind New World. She also mentions that we have to rely heavily on others. But I feel, with the current programming knowledge and tools at developers disposal, this situation could be vastly improved.

Although peoples levels of sight obviously vary widely, Terry demonstrates perfectly in his popular YouTube video, how he copes with a mainstream game, using stereo sound and in game audio indicators to navigate the game. This is a great demonstration of the current state of affairs for blind gamers.

I want to be clear, I’m not belittling blind gamers achievements for playing mainstream games in this way. On the contrary, I congratulate them, It shows an outstanding level of determination and love for the game they’re playing. It’s just my dream, as a legally blind gamer myself, to have a more immersive gaming experience, similar to that of my sighted peers and I doubt I am alone in this.

Don’t get me wrong, there are video games out there that are, for the most part, completely accessible for blind and partially sighted players, especially on the iOS and Android platforms, such as Dice World, a very popular game in the blind community.  These games can hardly be considered action packed however. On the graphics heavy end of the game spectrum there are games, that, once your vision drops below a given level, playing that game just becomes untenable.

Does that have to be the case? Would it be possible to introduce a game mechanic, like the one that is central to Deep Echo. In this game, you can make your way through each game level, locating objects of danger and exit points all through sound. Although once again, the game play is not graphically stimulating for the fully sighted player and can hardly be considered a mainstream game, that’s not the point. What I want to focus on here is the way in which players navigate the game levels.

Mainstream games could integrate such a mechanic where, upon selecting an accessibility option, the player can navigate the game world using an echo location aid. This way, rather than trusting to luck and an awesome memory. Blind players can play reactionary game play, like our sighted counterparts. Once again, or maybe for the first time, having that on the edge of your seat game play, where you’re lost in the moment, not knowing what’s going to come next and loving it.

As demonstrated by Terry in the video linked to earlier in the post, visually impaired gamers, even more so than sighted players, are used to using audio queues that the game developers introduce into the game. Using audio to  provide even more accurate navigational information is just the natural evolution in my mind.

Adding to the echo location, developers could also provide visually impaired gamers with tactile feedback, using today’s console controllers. Or maybe, through a wearable peripheral that has yet to be invented. These additions would increase the immersion into the game for visually impaired gamers as well as increasing game accessibility.

These feedback adaptations may require the game play to be paired down in some cases, in order to avoid overwhelming a blind player. For example, slowing down the speed at which an enemy attacks you, or maybe a reduction in the number of attackers, so that you are able to identify the direction at which you are being attacked.

In my layman’s opinion, I would think this could be relatively easy to implement in single player games. I would have imagined the challenge would present itself when playing along side sighted players in team based, co-operative game play, in terms of balancing the play between sighted and visually impaired players. But I’m sure this challenge could be overcome, given enough thought.

The question is, would blind and partially sighted people be willing to accept that they, we, would possibly be playing an altered version of the game compared to a fully sighted player,  in exchange for a more immersive and accessible gaming experience, or do they prefer the current trial and error state of affairs.

Speaking from my own experience, I currently have to make sacrifices in game play compared to my sighted friends and family, in order to experience a given game. I would often run games on my PC in windowed mode, at a reduced screen resolution, so that in game objects would appear larger or so that I could use screen magnification software when required. This is less than ideal and for the most part doesn’t work at all, leaving me frustrated and either asking for help or abandoning the experience. I would much rather have a version of a game that I can access using a modified game mechanic.

Another accessibility modification that could, quite easily in my opinion, be made to video games would be audio description. This is a feature that has been available on DVD’s Blu-Ray and even TV programs for some time. Why not bring this to the world of Video Games. There are often cinematic cut scenes in video games, the introduction of audio description to these would be great for the visually impaired.

Game accessibility has taken several steps forward recently, especially with the advent of text to speech and zoom functionality on the PS4, XBOX One and the Wii U but there is still a long way to go. It’s great that the console manufacturers have picked up the baton of accessibility but it’s now the turn of the game developers to take hold of that baton and run with it.

It’s one thing to make things larger on screen, or make on screen menus accessible but we deserve more. Blind and partially sighted people deserve to be drawn into the games action. Fully immersed in everything the game has to offer. Not left squinting at the screen as we try to identify friend from foe. Nor do we deserve to be repeatedly presented with the game over music and splash screen as we unceremoniously  fall to our deaths, while we try determinedly, but unsuccessfully,  to negotiate a cliff side obstacle course.

When you look at the World Health Organisation Statistics, approximately 285 million people are visually impaired world wide. That is a statistic and a segment of the market that should not be ignored or undervalued by mainstream game developers, those developers that have the resources at their disposal to make a game changing impact in the lives of literally millions of blind and partially sighted people.

These are just a few of my thoughts on how mainstream games could be changed to make them more accessible for the visually impaired. They are obviously just my opinions, what are your thoughts on the matter? What games do you currently play and how would you like to see them changed to improve your gaming experience? Do you think they are fine as they are and we should just make the best of it?

If you’re a visually impaired gamer I’d love to hear your story. What are your experiences of trying to play mainstream video games, or have you switched to more accessible games such as text based or audio games. What adaptations have you made to your gaming environment to make it more accessible, do you use adapted peripherals, large screens etc, I want to hear it all.

I’m equally interested in hearing the thoughts of game developers large or small. What are the challenges you face when developing a game and trying to ensure you cater for the wide verity of accessibility needs that are out there today. Feel free to leave a comment below or contact me via Twitter or Facebook. . I would also appreciate it if you could share this post using the social media buttons below so that I can gather peoples opinions.

Seeing With Dolphins!

Seeing With Dolphins!

Hi guys, I know it’s been a while, but I’m back now!

I thought it only right to write a blog post seeing as my blog was just kindly featured on the Dolphin Blog. Dolphin Software, Supernova to be precise, played a huge part in my life back at school and college and now they’re once again stepping up to the plate and helping Blind and Partially Sighted bloggers, if I was wearing a hat, it would definitely be going off to them right now.

I haven’t spoken about my eye condition on my blog yet, in any great detail at least. I suffer from Retinitis pigmentosa, for most sufferers, this results in what can best be described as tunnel vision, they lose most if not all of their peripheral vision and to them it is like they are looking through a tube, only being able to see what is directly in front of their field of view.

For me however it has manifested itself in a slightly different way, the cells are degenerating all over my retina, not just on the periphery, so I have lost clarity of vision throughout. This means I struggle to distinguish variations in colour, I can’t read anything but the largest of font sizes. I am also unable to recognize people in all but the closest of distances and traveling on my own can be a challenge as I am unable to see obstacles.

This is why Supernova was a life line to me in school. It couldn’t help me walk around without bumping into things, nor could it help me recognise friends and loved ones. What it could do however was help me access my school work, browse the internet and communicate online, all things I would not have been able to do otherwise.

Supernova is a screen magnification and screen reader designed to help Blind and Partially Sighted people access their computer. Without this software I would never had been able to make my way through school and receive anything like the grades I did.

Dolphin Software wasn’t the only aid I had in school however, I also had one on one support in most of my classes except for P.E. (I think you guys in the states call it Gym?). Anyway, that one on one support was so useful, helping me access content that the teacher would write on the blackboard, describing classroom experiments in the science classes and adapting classroom resources on the fly that had not been pre-submitted by the teachers.

The one on one support was more than that though, it made me feel like I wasn’t going through school alone. Don’t get me wrong, I had friends in school, but I don’t think any of them really understood my eye condition, they just saw me for who I was, for the most part, I think. Having the support teachers there who I could go to when I needed to talk to someone who understood was so useful, especially as I went to a mainstream school.

I’d like to thank Dolphin once again for prompting me to pick up the proverbial pen again and take to my blog, it’s been a long time coming and I really enjoyed recalling old memories. School is a huge part of most peoples lives and Dolphin played a massive part in my schooling, so thank you Dolphin.

If you had low vision in school I’d be interested to hear what accessibility aids you used, be it magnifiers or software, one on one tuition or classroom support. Let me know in the comments or contact me on Twitter or Facebook I’d love to hear your story. I’d especially like to know how you carried on after you left school and possibly entered the world of work. Did you continue using the same adaptations or did you change things up, let me know.