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For the Disabled, Kinect Shows Possibilities

December 22 2010 | by

The Kinect system

Microsoft’s Kinect is now out in time for the holidays. Kinect has some features that make it accessible to disabled gamers and others. But is it worth it?

To start, movement-based gaming systems like Kinect are not going to work very well for people who can’t move, because the nature of the games is to encourage activity, says Ablegamers founder Mark Barlet, who has written a two-part piece on its experience with the new gaming system. This relates to people who use a wheelchair and, in particular, who do not have the use of their upper bodies. If you are a C3-C4 quad, the Kinect is going to be as accessible as the Wii and Playstation Move are to you right now,” he says.

One of the best additions that Kinect brings to disabled gamers is voice control, which lets users with mobility impairments speak commands without a controller. Unlike the PlayStation Move and the Wii, the Kinect’s very reliable voice recognition technology can add some great gameplay while making gaming easier for people who cannot hold a controller, Barlet says. (This feature will not be available in Europe or Canada until Spring 2011.)

For the visually impaired, Kinect does offer color blind options and a selection of readable fonts. Still these systems, like others, are not good for people who need to sit close to the display, as they’re designed to create space to encourage freedom of movement. There is no screen-reading option, either.

One interesting feature that’s been talked about on tech blogs is Microsoft’s patent for gestural movements, which means the potential for sign language to be used with Kinect. While it will not replace the need for human sign language interpreters, using Kinect with sign language would be a groundbreaking move for gaming systems.

Researchers at Georgia Tech have already paired Microsoft’s motion-sensing camera with custom software that previously required colored gloves kitted with wrist-mounted, 3-axis accelerometers. Currently Kinect’s camera isn’t advanced enough to read fast finger motions, but future releases may. For the deaf, Kinect also a video chat feature, which is good for sign language communication. And many games have subtitles.

One game, Kinectimals, may be a good present for kids with a cognitive or physical disability. Kinectimals is a next-generation version of taking care of virtual pets; users can scratch, pet, hug, and even play with a virtual animal using only their hands and voice.

If you can’t use Kinect in its current form, don’t dispair, says Barlet. Hardware reconfiguration experts — ahem, hackers — like his friend Ben Heckendorn and companies like Evil Controller can develop ways to make the system more useable. This might include enabling some switches or inventing adapted controllers.

Still, Barlet says traditional gaming is here to stay. “The average gamer, let alone disabled gamers, won’t want to stand in front of their television for an eight hour “Halo Kinect” gaming session,” he says. That concept bodes well for disabled gamers, because developers are going to create products and systems that all serious gamers want to use, he adds.

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