Sunday, 26 February 2017

Dragon Naturally Speaking 13

For me speech recognition is a godsend. It has allowed me to keep playing games as best I can and it has even enabled me to write this blog. There are two main competitors for speech recognition, Windows speech recognition and nuance. My weapon of choice is Dragon NaturallySpeaking Premium 13. At the time of writing this you can now get version 15. However, in my case I much prefer 13 or 14. This is because for my needs 13 and 14 are the most versatile, but we will get to that later. I like Dragon because it is really good at picking my voice over the sound of my ventilator which is something for some reason windows speech recognition just could not do. The speech recognition provided by Windows still has some uses which we will also get to in later posts. Suffice to say that most of the third-party software that uses speech recognition usually does it through the windows speech recognition engine. This includes voice attack and glovepie. With the version of Dragon I have you can easily make basic text macros. These can be used to type a lot of text with just one command. I have a command called My Email Address which simply writes down my full email address. I also have ones for my phone number, lines of my address, a full address and a few commands that I used to use in the World of Warcraft chat window. The main reason I find version 13 and 14 the most versatile is because you can use natlink, vocola and dragonfly. At the moment it does not seem to be working properly with the new version of Dragon dictate. Hopefully, in the future it will but for now I will recommend the versions before 15. This is only meant to be a short post suggesting that if you are considering speech recognition for an accessibility need then you should really go with DragonDictate 13/14 but that you should also train windows speech recognition just in case.

Monday, 20 February 2017

Accessibility Considerations for Gamers with a Physical Disability

A physical disability is any condition that can make any task involving physical activity very difficult or even impossible. They can come in the form of neurological disorder such as muscular dystrophy or cerebral palsy. It can even be the result of an accident or disease resulting in full or partial paralysis. In some cases a physical disability can make it very difficult for you to use your arms and hands. There are many other issues and problems that can be caused by having a physical disability but for the sake of the context of this post we are only going to focus on arms and hands seeing as in most cases these are what are used mostly for playing video games.


Problems Gaming with a Physical Disability


Having a physical disability can cause many problems for playing video games especially when that disability has a massive effect on your hands and arms. I can think of a few main issues that can arise for gamers with a physical disability and they are:
manipulation of input devices
fatigue
slower reaction times

Let's briefly go over some of the difficulties a gamer with a physical disability might face.

All video games require some form of input device and in most cases that will generally be a game pad, mouse and/or keyboard. That is usually the main way in which you interact with a video game. If you struggle to do use one of these input devices it can be very difficult or impossible for you to play a video game as the developer intended. You might not be able to reach all the buttons and press very reliably or you might not actually be able to use the input device at all.

Lots of video games these days can be very strenuous, especially if you happen to have a condition which can affect strength say for example Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. If it takes you considerable effort to use your muscles then you can get tired very quickly playing a game. I have this form of dystrophy so I can tell you from experience what that is like. When I used to play games and use a normal keyboard I used to get tired very quickly if I had to move my hand from one side of the keyboard to the other. Likewise if I had to move the mouse cursor from one side of the screen to the other. That used to be very tiring until I found a solution. Games these days can also have a lot of repetition such as fighting games and this can especially tire you out.

Most of the competitive video games these days and many non-competitive ones require very fast reflexes. This can sometimes be difficult for someone with a physical disability because often they have slower reaction times. In most cases this is probably because it takes the muscles more effort and a bit of extra time to catch up with the brain. In many cases I have been playing a game and I can feel myself thinking DUCK and then feel my hands not respond and my game character would drop dead. This can be really irritating. It can also take a little bit more time to respond to an attack. It might take you too long to get to a button or reload and you end up dead again.

Solutions


It was my intention to break this section down into three categories for each of the problems I listed above but really they a lot of the solutions I am going to talk about can be used for more than one of those problems.

There are many things game developers can do to make their games more accessible to people with a physical disability. In my opinion some of the best things they can do are as follows:
  • make sure you have a difficulty setting where possible
  • allow for key remapping
  • allow custom macros
  • enable some cheats
a difficulty setting is really useful. In most games where I have the choice I always tend to pick easy or very easy. With a physical disability it can often be hard for you to keep up with a very difficult game which can be very unfortunate given that lots of games have very good content making them more like interactive movies. I often find that I enjoy the stories of many games which I would not be able to do if it was rock hard and I could not get past the first level. An easy mode can also make bad guys a lot less aggressive so I don't have to worry as much about my slow reaction times when I am taking fire.

My next suggestion is to allow key remapping. There are so many times when I have really struggled with a game because most of the important buttons are too far away for me. Key remapping would be a valuable addition to any game because it would allow somebody who struggles reaching buttons to put them in a more comfortable place. This would help with anybody who gets fatigued really quickly as well as they would not have to stretch as far.

The ability to make your own custom macros would be a very useful addition to a game especially for somebody with a physical disability that affects their ability to press buttons. Especially so when you have to do it quickly and often. It would be very handy to allow them to make a macro that would record a complicated combination of buttons so that less effort is required to pull off that combination. The best example of where this would be useful would be in a fighting game where you have to do usually press a complicated sequence of buttons at the right time and in the right order to do a special move. You could also make macros that step-by-step cycle through all of your weapons so that it is easier to select one quickly without letting go of your ability to move around. In lots of games I would have to stand still when I select a weapon or go through my inventory.

Finally it would be good if you could add cheats. I can hear the fury of many gamers already. I am going to make a future post addressing how cheating can be used as an accessibility feature in more detail. There would obviously be some caveats to this. For a start I can understand that you would not be able to put it in a multiplayer game. However, if I was sat at home playing a single player game on my own then it should surely be allowed. You would just have to make it so that if you did choose to use "accessibility cheats" that you would no longer be eligible for high scores or anything that would give you an unfair advantage. Unless of course you add a different high score list for this purpose. There are certain cheats you could add to a game that would make it much easier for somebody with a physical disability to play. Sometimes a God mode can be useful for somebody who has terrible reaction times but still wants to enjoy the story. Maybe you have a disability that causes a bit of a twitch resulting in you spending an astronomical amount of ammo. An infinite ammo cheat would be nice. Just something to consider.


Conclusion


Trying to play video games with a physical disability can often be quite taxing. There are many things that can be done to make things easier. Lots of solutions involve third party software and different types of hardware but it would definitely be much easier if a little bit more consideration was put in at the design and development stage. I would much prefer it if some of the solutions I listed in this post could be added to more games. In future posts I will talk about other hardware and software that might be useful for people with this kind of disability.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

Gaming with a Disability

I remember my very first games console, it was the NES and it came packaged with Super Mario Bros and Duck Hunt. I must have been about five years old and at this point apart from not being very strong and not being able to jump I was pretty much the same as everybody else. Playing on this console was as easy as pushing a game into it and pressing start. Whilst most of my friends spent a lot of time playing football and other physically demanding games I was able to use my hands which worked perfectly fine and play video games. Even better when I could give one of my friends the second control and play with or against them. At this point these games allowed me to compete with my friends on an equal playing field because physical skills did not matter. I mean they did to some extent but I did not have to use my full body just dexterity of my hands which as I mentioned at this point were fine. Then one Christmas I upgraded to the SNES which I thought was awesome and I could play this no problem. To me the colour, graphics and music was state-of-the-art and my favourite game was Mario kart people were no match for me. That was the last console I was able to play with no difficulty.

Eventually I had to make a choice N64 or the PlayStation. Well, I say I had to make a choice but in actual fact this choice was already made for me. The Nintendo control was absolutely massive and there was no way I could grip it without being in agony after five minutes. As much as I loved Mario I had to go with the PlayStation if only because of the shape of the control. This was the first time my disability had affected my favourite hobby. The shape of the control for PlayStation seemed to fit my needs exactly. It was the right size and the way my hand and fingers had started to get contractures I could reach the shoulder buttons and the rest of the buttons with my thumbs, the only problem I had was start and select but being able to pause the game was not really vital. After I have had this console for a few years I upgraded once for to the PS2 and got my first taste of dual shock style controllers. These were brilliant because at this point my thumbs were starting to get a bit weaker but the sticks meant that I did not have to move my hands a great deal any more but even so playing first person shooters was starting to get difficult.

At this point I had started to transition to PC games, as a reward for getting good grades at school my parents bought me my first ever decent laptop that was mine. I could not manipulate a normal mouse but the touch pad was very good for me and the fact that my left hand just rested over all the important keys for gaming allowed me to play games again with the same dexterity as I enjoyed on the consoles. When I got this laptop I could still type as well and I used it for all my work at college.

When I left college I had enrolled on a computer games programming course at the local university and I used this as an excuse to get my mum and dad to order me the best most state-of-the-art computer for playing games that they could get. This was in 2004 I think and it must have been the best part of £3000. Whilst I was at university which was a four-year course I managed to enjoy about two years of my hands not deteriorating but sadly before the end of the second year things started to go downhill. The lack of strength in my hands practically made programming impossible and I ended up going down to a course with a little bit less programming. This was a computer science course which I managed to pass literally by the skin of my teeth.

By the time I finished university I could only use a trackball mouse and my left hand was practically useless. One of my favourite hobbies was fast becoming an unobtainable pleasure. I was pretty much limited to games that I did not really enjoy all that much. There weren't many good games which only use the mouse apart from RTS games which I am not the best at and to be really good at you still need to be to use a keyboard.

When you have a physical disability that is this extreme it is hard to find a hobby. There are plenty of things you can do but most of the equipment is very expensive, in some cases prohibitively so. That's when I decided that in actual fact the only thing that I can reasonably do is use a computer. There must have been something I could do. I decided to do some research into accessibility software. I was aware of speech recognition as I had used it in college and university with very little success but that was many versions ago so I decided to shell out some money and get the most recent version at the time which I believe was Dragon NaturallySpeaking 9. Fortunately my hunch had paid off and whilst at this time the speech recognition did not really have of a function for games it allowed me to use my computer much more efficiently. All the basic tasks which I actually mentioned in my previous post such as writing letters, sending emails and just generally using the Internet started to slowly become manageable again. Especially when Windows decided to introduce a decent on-screen keyboard.

The combination of an on-screen keyboard, speech recognition and my trackball mouse was that I was gradually being able to play better games at and at this point World of Warcraft had been out a couple of years. In fact Wrath of the Lich King had recently been released and you could play that pretty much entirely with the mouse. I will admit with just a mouse you would never be the best player in the world but you could explore the world do quests and with an understandable guild you could do a few dungeons and raids. My setup was quite simple really. I used the speech recognition to press simple key combinations such as for opening my inventory and I also use it for in game chat. Then I would set the game to be played in a window and I had my on-screen keyboard just to the side of it so that I could initiate auto run and take off with my mount. This system allowed me to play this game to a relatively good standard considering the handicap. I still remember when I was awarded my Violet Proto Drake which was an achievement that took me about three years to do but I did it and I managed to do it with just a mouse and some ingenuity. There were some setbacks such as jumping at the right time was tricky and some of the things I had to do to get the Proto Drake achievement involved playing against other people who no doubt could use a keyboard and mouse. So a bit of luck was involved as well. Nonetheless I had proved to myself that if I put my mind to it I could find a way to play video games once more.

In conclusion, playing video games with severe disabilities is not only something you can do but something you could do well and at a level in competition with other people. You just have to be willing to look for the right hardware and the right software to let you get the job done. In most cases this software is free but obviously hardware is another story altogether. There are charities which can help such as special effect who will let you try hardware and then sort you out with fundraising so that you can afford it. There is also the possibility of you building it yourself which nowadays is not very hard. So remember that you don't have to rule out a very accessible hobby just because you think it might be difficult.

Thank you for reading and I hope in future I can talk more about different disabilities and the hardware and software you can use on your computer to do just about anything.

Bert out.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Accessible Computing

Unfortunately muscular dystrophy has taken away the majority of usefulness from my hands. I can basically use my thumb on my left hand and with my other hand I can use a simple trackball mouse. This makes it rather difficult for me to use my computer. Fortunately there are now pieces of software available that make it easier for me to perform basic computing tasks and with a little bit of fiddling more complex tasks as well. The aim of this post is to introduce you to the software I use to make my basic computing tasks more accessible for day-to-day use. Later on I will have a post about how I make my video games and accessible but for now just basic computer use.

Basic Use


When I think about basic computing tasks i.e. the tasks that people perform everyday on a computer I think of the following:
  • composing emails
  • surfing the web
  • updating Facebook
  • casual gaming such as solitaire, minesweeper and Mahjong.
  • Watching videos on YouTube
All of these tasks have one thing in common and that thing is that they all involve some level of typing, whether it is entering your email content or search criteria on YouTube typing is the constant. With that in mind I would like to present you with the two main pieces of software I use everyday without which using a computer would be but a dream. These pieces of software are speech recognition my weapon of choice Dragon Dictate and windows on-screen keyboard.

Windows On-Screen Keyboard


The Windows operating system comes with this rather nice tool. It is basic but it does exactly what it says on the tin. This is a standard keyboard that opens up in a window and hangs around on top of any programs you are using. This is something that is always open whenever I am using my computer. I find this is very useful for surfing the web because not much typing is actually necessary. The version of on-screen keyboard I am using at the moment is the standard that comes with Windows 10. Personally I just like to click on each key and use it that way but there is an option to scan across the keyboard and type that way. The issue I have is not with the keyboard itself but with the speed I can't actually use it. I actually used an on-screen keyboard to type my entire dissertation at about 10,000 words. Also I did this without predictive text which is a newer feature. You can get away with using it in some games but that is a topic for another day.

Dragon Dictate


when I have to write more content say an email or a blog post then using an on-screen keyboard is just not very fast. At least not fast enough for me and I am very impatient. I have to use some sort of speech recognition to get the job done otherwise it is just too much effort to type every single key.I use a Windows 10 PC so I really have only two choices when it comes to choosing a speech recognition package. The one that comes with Windows (Windows Speech Recognition or WSR) and Dragon Dictate. I put a lot of effort into WSR because it was free but I quickly discovered that you definitely get what you pay for and whilst for me this package kind of did the job it really did not seem to like my voice. I am sure that for a normal person with plenty of practice and training it would be pretty good but the problem with me is that I now use a ventilator 24 hours a day and I think the speech recognition engine struggled to pick out my voice from the sound of the breathing machine. Dragon Dictate however is much better at picking out my voice just as long as I only say a few words at a time and not particularly quickly at that. This however is still much faster than the on-screen keyboard. Every now and again Dragon Dictate seems to have a bad day and doesn't get anything right but I would say that 7 times out of 10 it is pretty damn accurate. You can easily make macros with it which I use to quite an extent especially when I do the time sheets for my care staff in Excel. There is even a tool you can get which allows you to make your own speech recognition scripts using the programming language Python which is something that I will cover in a later post. So if you want to have a crack at speech recognition I would highly recommend Dragon Dictate but maybe at the moment save yourself some trouble and get the version 13 or 14 as opposed to the new one. The new one has a machine learning algorithm to train itself to your voice which is useful but the main problem is that as of yet it does not work very well with the previously mentioned python tool.