Interview: SpecialEffect’s Bill Donegan

I clinch a tidy 22.9 seconds around the TrackMania Nations lap White Part 3. Minutes later James – my loudmouth colleague – catapults his vehicle into an airport control tower, simultaneously killing himself and thousands of airborne holiday goers but he at least succeeds in making it look as though he’d intended to parallel park up there. The adjudicators etch his mishap into the chambers of history at the generous time of 40 seconds. We both know he was never even within petting distance of the finish line.

The record set at the Eurogamer Expo is a time of a much grander nature: 21.94 seconds. Now, if you’re a professor of TrackMania, learned in its speedy ways, you might be scoffing with grim haughtiness. Ho, ho, ho. You could do better, right? Well here’s the thing: players at the expo notched their times with nothing but their eyes.

We’re at the SpecialEffect booth, playing with the charity’s uncanny gaze-control technology that’s not unlike Microsoft’s Kinect (brushing aside the fact that you don’t need to be the happy owner of a manor house to be able to play with it.)

SpecialEffect are at the Expo to showcase the work they do to – among other things – ensure young people with disabilities can enjoy videogames. They’re savvy too, electing to do this by allowing anyone to sit down to play TrackMania with their EyeGaze technology; at once demonstrating how slick the tech is while also generating sizeable buzz for themselves. They set a world record too, the first of its kind.

Both intrigued and unable to pass up a competitive summons, we had a quick chat with SpecialEffect’s Bill Donegan before tearing up the track (and the airport) with the EyeGaze.


What’s happening at the Eurogamer Expo?

We were at Eurogamer last year and were donated a stand by Eurogamer. We showed the different technologies that we use, so things like eye control that we’ve got here today to very basic things like switches, which are like a big button, and specialist joysticks and head control.

Last time we showed a variety of technologies that we use so this year we thought we’d promote the work that we do because people are very interested in it. So we thought we’d have videos and pictures of the sort of people we work with and the technology we use but also on the stand we’ve got a world record attempt using the eye control systems. What we’re doing is we’re playing TrackMania Nations and using a bit of software that we’ve created that changes the mouse inputs from the eye control into the cursor buttons from the keyboard so that you can use pointer control to play. It works with all different racing games but we’ve got TrackMania today.


Where does that tech come from?

Lots of the companies who manufacture the systems use it with companies to do market research so tracking what people are looking at in adverts or on supermarket shelves, that sort of thing. It’s been around for quite a while being used in special needs to control computers but recently, because of the development of some systems and improvements in the reliability, it’s taken off much more. It’s becoming more popular. We try to use it for our projects to help people access the internet and emails and all the usual stuff but also to be able to play games as well.


What’s your relationship like with game developers? Do you see many approaching you looking for advice or help?

Indie developers are really helpful. We play their game and might think, “oh if you just had this feature then all these people would be able to play it as well” and we’ll send an email off and they’ll quite often just make the change in a weekend and release it.

Big developers as well, we’ve got a meeting next week with quite a big developer so hopefully that will come off. If we can work with someone on quite a big game then hopefully others will see that it’s not such a big deal. We’re not going to say we expect all these features but we’ll put our ideas forward and they can take and leave what they want but hopefully, gradually, it’ll become quite a normal thing. There’s quality assurance testing across games, you could just put in a few more tests to make sure they’re accessible to a wider range of people. Hopefully that will happen in future.


Tell us a little about the everyday work at SpecialEffect, you’ve opened a Game Centre recently right?

We travel and visit the people we work with all around the UK and work with them one on one. We’ve also opened a centre, which David Cameron opened where people can come and visit us as well and that could be people who want to have a try at using different controllers, have a go at playing different games or developers who want to talk about their games. We still travel out to people in hospitals and hospices but people can also come and play. It’s quite a relaxed environment. It’s not like an assessment or anything, you just come and play games for an afternoon and try a few different systems.


And how’s the world record attempt here coming along?

Good, we’re hoping to pass 300 participants. I think we’re about 290 now so by the end hopefully we’ll have 300. And the fastest time is something ridiculous which I don’t quite know how… But yeah, everyone has taken to it really well. It’s quite unusual technology but it shows how far it’s come that anyone can come and sit down and it works most the time. Hopefully with events like this more people will see it. It would be great if a big manufacturer put some of these features into the Kinect or something. It’s similar technology so it would bring the cost down massively, which would be nice.


Thanks to Bill for taking the time to talk to us. You can read all about the fine work SpecialEffect do by visiting their website. If you’re reading this and it feels high time to perform your upstanding deed of the day you can donate to the charity here. Alternatively, if you’re in dire need of some new attire and you’re torn between charity and swanky new threads you can purchase a Gamers for Good t-shirt from Insert Coin Clothing who are giving all money pocketed from the shirts back to SpecialEffect. 

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