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Gamer without hands builds this controller for his feet

(Credit: Dave Schmelick/Johns Hopkins University)

A video gamer who lost both hands to illness can now play again, thanks to a foot-activated controller he designed and built with two fellow engineering students.

It’s tough to play when you can’t press buttons, says Gyorgy Levay, who lost his hands because of a meningitis infection five years ago.

“This is a very simple design, but it can potentially help a lot of people, since it’s wearable and it’s adjustable.”

But Levay and two other Johns Hopkins graduate students devised a sandal-like controller that allows him to direct on-screen action with his feet.

Levay says the project—dubbed GEAR, for Game-Enhancing Augmented Reality—is really about much more than his own ability to play.

“About 200,000 people in the United States alone have lost at least some part of an upper limb,” he says, “and 20 to 30 percent of all amputees suffer from depression. They have a hard time socializing, especially young people.”

For those with highly visible impairments, online video games can be a boon, Levay says, because opponents are not typically aware of a player’s appearance.

“The GEAR controller allows people to socialize in a way in which their disability is not a factor,” says Levay. “That was a key point we wanted to make with this device.”

Fallout 4 and World of Warcraft

Levay teamed up last year with two other biomedical engineering grad students from his Johns Hopkins instrumentation course: Adam Li and Nhat (Nate) Tran. They decided to design a game interface that could be operated by a player’s lower limbs.

“Next to our hands,” Li says, “our feet are probably the most dexterous part of our body.”

By the time their third prototype was built, the team had produced adjustable padded footwear that enabled a seated player to participate in computer games. Beneath each shoe’s padding are three sensors that pick up various foot movements, such as tilting or raising the front or heel of each foot.

Prosthetic foot designed for really high heels

The students designed intricate circuitry that translates each foot movement into a different command. In its most basic setup, two of the high-tech shoes can control eight different game buttons. But the inventors say that, with practice, that could increase to as many as 20 buttons.

The GEAR team has used the technology to play popular games such as Counter-Strike, Fallout 4, and World of Warcraft. The students also put four virtual characters through the same challenging segment of a video game.

When the game clips were posted online, viewers were asked to identify which character was being controlled by an amputee using the GEAR technology. Of 51 viewers who participated in the survey, 81 percent failed to identify the correct GEAR-controlled character.

“This is a very simple design,” Tran says, “but it can potentially help a lot of people, since it’s wearable and it’s adjustable.”

The students won the $7,500 grand prize in the 2016 Intel-Cornell Cup, in which student inventors were judged on innovative applications of embedded technology.

The GEAR team members are working with Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures to obtain a provisional patent. Their goal is to license their work to a company that can help make their device widely available.

Source: Johns Hopkins University