Presenting at CCVIP

Sherry Mazzocchi at the Computer Center For Visually Impaired People at Baruch College in New York City asked me to present at their conference in a workshop entitled “Let’s Play”.

CCVIP logo

Their events are free and are generally attended by visually impaired people in the greater NYC community, and the local TV station – NY1 – publicized it prior to the event. They planned on two sessions—one in the afternoon and another in the evening – the evening session would also have teens; some teens are thinking about careers in game development. I would present via Skype and Gus Chalkias – a blind gamer – would host my session.

Gus talked about several games – going from Audio Archery and Ear Monsters (simple audio games) to Zompocalypse (use weapons to fight zombies after the apocalypse) to Blindfold Racer and finally Papa Sangre (odyssey game).

In the afternoon session, I spoke about why we built the game (app class for grade & middle school sighted children), and how we tested it (Lighthouse for the Blind, VA Med Center), and what’s planned for the future (more levels of tracks, more levels of puzzles).

The evening session had many more attendees, and they asked lots of great questions. I spoke about some of the new games we’re building (games inspired by Flabby Bird and Frogger) and how I’m looking for more visually impaired gamers to collaborate with. I also mentioned the Blindfold Sudoku and Cryptogram games that will be released soon.

Gus’s demonstration of Blindfold Racer is here:

My talk that preceded Gus’s demo is here:

Help in 2 flavors

In the latest version, the blind gamers started pushing the game in a direction where it would be harder for sighted people to play.

We needed a way to distinguish between a sighted gamer and a visually impaired gamer, so the app would behave appropriately for both groups. Blind gamers are much better at audio games, so they don’t need long explanations of each sound, and they want to eliminate as many steps as possible to get to the fun parts of the game. Sighted gamers, on the other hand, learn better when they see instructions on the screen, and listen to the instructions, and then tap the screen to continue.

This difference was solved by including an AUDIO EXPERT button when the game first starts. Blind gamers usually tap that button; sighted gamers don’t. When the AUDIO EXPERT button is pressed, the game proceeds more quickly through the explanations in the first few levels.

Similarly, we tell the user that “For help in braille mode, tap the screen with 3 fingers”, and we include a HELP button in the upper left corner. When blind gamers want help, they tap the screen with 3 fingers, since they don’t know about the HELP button. When tapped, the game gives instructions based on the game’s gestures (not the buttons). Sighted gamers tend to ignore that audio message, and instead push the HELP button, and they read a short help on how to control the game.

Several gamers asked for a full user guide, so they could understand all of the features of the game, how scoring was done, etc. Others wanted a description of each level, with clues on how to solve them.

Our group of testers thought including a description of each level would take away some of the excitement of the game, so we settled on just including a user guide; it’s the first option in the SETTINGS screen, and blind gamers listen to it with voice-over. I’m not sure how sighted gamers will take it; many gamers expect the game to be self-explanatory, and they don’t want to read through 8 screens (on an iPhone) of information.

Blindfold Sudoku

Thanks to Judy (mentioned in an earlier post), I’ve started building a blind-friendly Sudoku game app. Judy Dixon is with the Library of Congress’ National Library Service for the Blind and Physically Handicapped. I met her when I went to Boston to visit with some people at the Carroll Center for the Blind.

One of her complaints about other Sudoku apps in the iTunes App Store was that they supported voice-over, but were awkward to use and slowed her game playing down. I heard this from several teens when I visited recently Miami Lighthouse for the Blind.

Judy and I exchanged emails for a few weeks so I could understand what she didn’t like about the other games, and what would be appropriate for a fast-paced audio Sudoku game.

The general idea is that when you tap a cell, a man’s voice gives you the coordinates, and a woman’s voice tells you the contents of the cell – and it sets the cursor (just like a voice-over cursor). To hear the row, swipe left. To hear the column, swipe down. To hear the 3 by 3 box, swipe up. If the cell was filled in as part of the original puzzle, you hear a tone at the same time as you hear the woman’s voice. If you have multiple candidates in a cell, you hear a different tone while you hear the woman’s voice.

We are also including many settings, such as the voice speed, changing the column and row headers from numbers to letters (such as A 3 instead of 3 3), and whether or not the row or column numbers are spoken.

It took about 7 versions of the app before it Judy considered it ready for the App Store, and she just completed her first puzzle in Blindfold Sudoku. Every few days, Judy would give me feedback on the latest version. Based on her suggestions, I made changes and added more features, and Judy would evaluate the resultant version. The entire process took about a month.

We should be ready to launch the app within a week, and I look forward to getting feedback from other gamers.

Blindfold Flabby Bird?

I was thinking about the next game to build in the Blindfold series, and I thought I would make an attempt at Flappy Bird. While that game doesn’t have the characteristics that Doug said a good accessible game should have (one of the blind gamers I met in Boston who has been evaluating products for accessibility for decades), it seemed like it could have potential. Doug’s requirements were that the game include a lot of physicality, high quality environmental sounds, and an ever increasing difficulty level.

If you are not familiar with Flappy Bird, it’s a trivial game that was so addicting that people would play for hours. The objective is to direct a flying bird, which moves continuously to the right, between each oncoming set of Mario-like vertical pipes, reoccurring every 1.5 seconds. If the bird touches the pipes, it ends the game. The bird briefly flaps upward each time the player taps the screen; if the screen is not tapped, the bird falls due to gravity. The player is scored based on the number of pipe sets that the bird successfully passes through, with medals awarded for the score at the end of the game.

To see exactly what it’s like, watch this video on teens playing the game:

Here’s how the audio-version would work. Your right ear is like the vertical pipe. In your right ear, you would hear one of the notes from a piano scale. Each of the eight notes would represent a different position of the opening. The sound would be far away, but within about 2 seconds, it would be at your right ear.

Your left ear would hear the bird. The bird would sound like a descending piano scale. Every time you tap the screen, the bird would pop up a little – it would move up 2 notes on the scale, and then would start dropping down – you would hear the piano notes descending in your left ear. Tap again, the bird pops up by 2 notes again. Tap three times, she pops up by 6 notes.

The bird starts far away from your left ear, but within 2 seconds, it would be at your left ear.

To get through this virtual pipe, the bird must be singing the same note as what your hear in the right ear. Hence, the hard part of the game is to time your taps so when the bird gets to ear, it is singing the same note as the vertical pipe. For example, if the bird is two notes lower that what you hear in the right ear, and you have about 1/10 of a second before you hit the virtual pipe, tap the screen. That would pop the bird up by two notes, what your hear in your left and right ears are identical, and the bird passed through the opening.

If you do it too soon, the bird will drop by 3 notes, and you will crash into the virtual pipe. If you did it too late, the notes would be different and you crash and lose the game.

Music by Mozart

One of the goals when we designed Blindfold Racer was to introduce children and teens to different music genres besides the typical top 40 that many listen to.

Many gamers told me they like the music selection, and now we’re beginning to get queries as to what specific music piece is heard for certain tracks. The latest question asked about the track with a cow standing in the middle of the road. The music is Mozart’s Turkish March, and here’s a brief snippet:

The game has different music for each level that we’ve preselected as the best match for the course, with selections from classical, rock, reggae, pop, world, country, Broadway and others. I’m glad that Blindfold Racer is exposing some gamers to new music styles.

Other gamers asked for the ability to pick their own music. In the newest version, you can select music tracks from your iTunes library, and hear it (as the fence sound) while driving.

By the way, the Turkish March has special meaning to our family; my daughter – the voice you hear in Blindfold Racer – heard it when she was just a baby. She used to sit in front of the TV and watch the video “Baby Mozart”. On the TV she would see tiny toy penguins climb up a stairway and then roll down a ramp, while hearing the Mozart’s Turkish March. She could watch this video for hours. The video was so hypnotizing that once when several guests came to visit, they looked at what my daughter was watching on TV. After a while, there were five adults completely mesmerized: watching the penguins and listening to Mozart.