For nearly five months, a group of four 18-year-old students have been passionately researching, designing, building, programming and testing a specialized gaming controller for a local Columbia High School student with Cerebral Palsy (CP).
Their names? Jacob Field, Nathan Fuentes, Claire Powell and Cesar Robles.
His name? José Garcia.
Their goal? To create a controller that allows Garcia to enjoy a gaming experience equal to his peers, despite the motor function limitations he faces with CP.
The group meets weekly at Gorge MakerSpace, a small shop in White Salmon that provides the tools, space and assistance for kids to experiment with woodworking, digital fabrication, electronics and robotics. MakerSpace is run by Jack Perrin, a licensed secondary school science teacher with more than 25 years’ of experience. Perrin provides the mentoring and supervision to the group, along with tools and equipment they need in building their project.
The original group was formed in November of 2018, with the purpose being to participate in a national invention competition held by Project Invent. Project Invent is an organization dedicated to the education and support of high school students becoming involved in inventing technologies that solve real-world problems. The organization holds an annual competition, Demo Day, held at Stanford University in California. This year, the competition is on May 18 and features numerous student groups from around the country sharing their innovative ideas to make the world a better place. It is here, at this competition, that Field, Fuentes, Powell and Robles hope to share their specialized controller, which they have named AdaptPlay.
“It’s great to work on something real-world that has the potential to actually change a life,” said Field. “Working with José has helped a lot with understanding and empathizing with people like him.”
The story of this group and their involvement with José goes back several months, before the idea of AdaptPlay even came to be. Back then, the group was smaller, with the current members coming aboard month by month; Fuentes from the beginning, Powell in December, Field and Robles in January. The decision to help José came first, the specific project idea coming after they reviewed his limitations and sought ways they could help.
“We picked José as a person to help and then came up with the concept for AdaptPlay after assessing his condition and how it restricts his life,” the group said. “We put ourselves in José’s position and couldn’t imagine being a teenager who couldn’t interact with our peers. The controller, which can be used for searching the web or typing on forums, became our goal to help José connect with the world around him and give him a voice.”
The controller is simple in design — two buttons, a joystick and a hat — but tasked the group with considerable work and programming in order to ensure it worked with José. The joystick is large and controls the mouse or directional keys, depending on the user’s preferred settings. The hat does the same, taking the responsibility opposite of the joystick, and the buttons are simple buttons, made larger for ease of access. Yet, beyond their appearance, specific aspects differentiate this controller from the likes of others, with the joystick and hat illustrating the thought put into José’s condition.
“The hat uses a rotation sensor that sits on the bill of the hat, connected to the computer via USB,” said the group. “We learned through testing that José has good control of his head movement. We took the concept of an eye gaze and applied it to head movement. The joystick uses optical sensor to measure the flex of metal. Basically, when you push the joystick forward, the metal cross attached to the board moves and that movement is recorded by the sensor. The sensor reading determines if the mouse moves or keys are pressed, depending on the setting.”
The components of the controller have be tested and redesigned numerous times, with the group attempting to be as adaptive to José’s condition as possible within the means of a simple controller. The group traveled to Redmond in April and visited Microsoft to share their controller design with engineers, who offered professional input. It was this experience that lead the group to using flexing metal in the joystick. There have been great opportunities and moments of pride and motivation, but also challenges and failure; this group’s journey, months in the making, has been quite the experience.
“On the emotional side, it’s been good for me to be exposed to and interact with José, just to help me gain more understanding and empathy for people with disabilities,” said Field. “It’s great to work on something real-world that has the potential to change a life.”
“I feel very privileged to have this opportunity and be able to make a product that helps someone,” said Powell. “Emotionally I’ve been frustrated, excited and stressed, which has allowed me to grow and learn.”
“Working on this project and with José has given me a new perspective on everyday things that most people take for granted,” said Fuentes. “For example, using a computer, accessing the Internet or even simply communicating with other people. Knowing that what we are working on has the potential to let José experience these things is a great feeling.”