Development of an Adaptable Video Game Platform for Educating Young People on the Field of Assistive Technology

Amanda Irving
Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center – New Jersey Institute of Technology
Newark, NJ 07102


An adaptable video game platform has been created and is utilized to create video games for children with orthopedic disabilities.  Additionally, an interface has been designed so that those without computer programming experience can create a new video game customized to function for their interests, capabilities and preferences.  This new interface can be used as a tool to educate young people about Assistive Technology, orthopedic disabilities and rehabilitation engineering.  Demonstrating to young people how disabilities affect their peers and giving them the opportunity to build their own Assistive Technology is a novel experience that will affect them at a pivotal age.  This paper describes the adaptable video game platform and discusses its potential contributions.


video games, adaptability, assistive technology, recreation


Orthopedic disabilities such as cerebral palsy commonly cause dysfunction in upper limb mobility.  This can cause decreased range of motion, strength, endurance and grasping ability in one or both upper extremities.  Activities common to growing children may become difficult or impossible when faced with overcoming an orthopedic disability.  Playing video games is one such activity which is not purely recreational, but also has implications in research and rehabilitation (1).

High end virtual reality video game platforms such as V-Tree or IREX offer low immersion virtual reality environments.  These systems both use a ‘green screen’ type environment to differentiate the user from the background, and then duplicate the user into the game they are playing non-invasively.   The cost of these systems make them difficult to acquire for outpatient facilities and even less practical as an at home resource.  The more affordable PlayStation EyeToy is available with the off-the-shelf Playstation 2 gaming station.  Sony offers various games fun attractive games that use the EyeToy which tracks player gestures dynamically to control the game.  The primary disadvantage of using the Playstation VR system is the lack of control with respect to difficulty and gaming characteristics.  The Playstation EyeToy demonstrates the potential of low cost cameras as input to a virtual reality based rehabilitation tool (2). 


We would like the system to act as a tool for recreation, rehabilitation, and education.  Can we build an adaptable gaming system that is robust and entertaining?  These two features positively affect the usability of the gaming system.  Is the creation of video games a viable tool to educate children about how disabilities affect their peers?  Can middle school aged students perform engineering problem solving and planning without extensive technical experience?


A platform that assists in the creation of adaptable video games has been created at the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Technology for Children with Orthopedic Disabilities.  Each game exists as a saved environment with programmable objects acting as game pieces.  These virtual mobile objects are capable of moving in a pattern, changing shape, color or size and even disappearing altogether.  Each game piece is capable of assessing its environment and calculating its distance from the nearest object in a specified direction.  The behavior and appearance of these pieces may be altered in a repeatable manner, generally triggered by interaction with other pieces or the boundary of the environment.  This programming of each object takes a basic proficiency in the programming language MATLAB.
An additional input used to define game piece behaviors is snapshot data from a local webcam.  The webcam currently in use is a Logitech Quickcam Pro 5000.  An object in the environment may be programmed to define its position based on analysis of the webcam’s snapshots.  A color detection scheme has been devised to use the photo information to locate the most probable position for one of three colored markers: red, green or blue.  The red, green or blue marker is implemented in a variety of ways.  The marker can be anything the child can grasp, wear or attach to themselves like colored tape or a Velcro band.  This allows participation by all children regardless of range of motion, strength and grasping ability. 

The gaming environment is representative of the view of the camera, so there is much flexibility in the experience of the player.  The closer the player is to the webcam, the smaller the displacement required to move a game piece from one side of the environment to the other.  For someone with very limited range of motion there is opportunity to participate in a game using subtle movements to achieve success.  A player with greater range of motion or using the game for rehabilitation the webcam can be placed further away to make the game more challenging.  Each player has an opportunity to view a snapshot of themselves in their environment to aid in the decision of where to place the webcam.  The orientation and position of the webcam is not limited; placing the webcam at a side view of the player or pointing down from above will not change the game content.  This is especially relevant to game design of someone with very limited mobility (i.e. severe spinal cord injury) or someone who is restricted to a specific linear motion (i.e. pronation/supination, or fine movement of individual fingers).

Using this platform games have been created with success by NJIT students with programming experience, but in order to share the platform with students in the middle school demographic, some technical issues needed to be addressed.  At the middle school students’ stage of education, it is assumed that they are a novice programmer at best.  An interface was built to allow a new designer all the functionality of controlling their game pieces without requiring programming experience.  When the rules and behaviors of each piece were established, the code was created and assigned to the specified game piece automatically. 

A group of 23 eighth grade students from Renaissance Middle School in New York, New York were invited to a three day clinic to create games with the video game platform and learn about Assistive Technology, disabilities and engineering design.  This was part of a collaboration with the Liberty Science Center in Jersey City, NJ.

The students were guided through the standard engineering process:  Identify a problem, investigate, analyze, design, execute, review and adjust.   The students worked together in groups of 4-6 under the supervision of an NJIT facilitator.  The teams were posed with the challenge of creating a custom video game for a child with one of six common orthopedic disabilities. A hypothetical disability was chosen by each group.  The students researched the disability on their own with the guidance of a list of reputable online sources.  Over a two day period the students completed a tutorial on how to create video games, researched the restrictions of their disability, designed their games, tested and evaluated their final products.  The students not only focused on the functionality of their game, they also had the opportunity to adjust the appearance of the pieces in their game, adjusting features such as the piece’s shape, size, color, orientation and quantity.  Presentations on the third day of the clinic allowed students to share their creations and demonstrate their newly acquired knowledge of the disability on which their game was focused.  Some students chose to create games that were purely recreational and were designed to take advantage of the mobility least affected by the disability, and others chose to target the mobility most affected by the disability in hopes of having some rehabilitative benefits.

‘Explodin Colors’ is a game designed by one group of students at the Liberty Science Center Camp.  There are seven game icons spread out across a rectangular playing area.  Two large blue icons in the shape of a human hand represent the user’s position and the five other game icons are represented by a turquoise blue ocean wave shape, a yellow crescent moon, a red umbrella, a purple turtle and a turquoise dolphin.  The user’s icons work together to attack the five traveling game icons.   Photo 1: Explodin Colors (Click for larger view)

‘Explodin Colors’ is a game designed by one group of students at the Liberty Science Center Camp.  This game was designed for a player with quadriplegic spinal cord injury.  Two hand icons move under the command of the same blue marker and when the blue hand icons make contact with the other game pieces an applause is heard and the game pieces disappear.  The non-hand game pieces are mobile, moving at a lower speed and they bounce off the walls to stay in the field of play.  As the game pieces collide with each other, they increase in size, making success in the game more easily achieved.


The success of the day camp demonstrates that the learning curve on the gaming platform is very low.  Someone with motivation and a little guidance may learn all the skills necessary within a short period of time.  Video game creation is an unconventional teaching tool that had lasting effects on the students who participated in our three day clinic.  Months later, the students were still discussing the project in the hallways of their school. 


The adaptable video game platform lacks the sophisticated graphics of today’s popular video game consoles, but it offers much flexibility.  The quality of the game performance is largely dependent on the processing speed of the PC, and to some extent the capabilities of the video card.  Use of color detection instead of body shape recognition allows more non traditional gesture sets to achieve success in a game.  For example, a group from Renaissance designed a game piece controlled by the mouth for their fictional quadriplegic spinal cord injured player.  The success of the video game platform demonstrates that the system has implications in many fields including education, recreation, and physical therapy.

Using an adaptable video game platform is an innovative way to introduce young people to the field of Assistive Technology and rehabilitation engineering.  Discussions on the first day of the workshop revealed that the students did not have much prior experience learning about Assistive Technology.  In addition to the game development, during the course of the workshop they had the opportunity to view several demonstrations of state of the art Assistive Technology in development as a part of an exhibit at the Liberty Science Center and occurring at New Jersey Institute of Technology.  Upon completion the students had knowledge and excitement about Assistive Technology and rehabilitation engineering.


  1. Miller, F. & Bachrach, S., Cerebral Palsy: A Complete Guide for Caregiving.
    Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins Univ Press, 1998.
  2. Chen, Yu-Ping et al. Use of Virtual Reality to Improve Upper-Extremity Control in Children with Cerebral Palsy: A Single-Subject Design. Physical Therapy, Nov2007, Vol. 87 Issue 11, p1441-1457, 17p; (AN 27435670)

Author Contact Information:

Amanda Irving, MS, New Jersey Institute of Technology, 232 Martin Luther King Blvd., Newark, NJ 03073, Office Phone (973) 596-3043  EMAIL: