University of Melbourne students develop customized video game controller for kid with cerebral palsy

Jerome, a seven-year-old boy with cerebral palsy (CP), has been able to play a video game for the first time, with the help of a team of University of Melbourne Biomedical Engineering Masters students, who have co-designed a customized video game controller with him.

Nearly 17 million Australians play video games regularly. Australians play for an average of 83 minutes per day, and 75 per cent of people play video games socially.

However, for children with complex disabilities like Jerome, access to video games and the benefits they offer can be challenging. Jerome’s father Rowland told Dr Sam John, Senior Lecturer in Neural Engineering, that Jerome “loved to watch games on YouTube, but would love to play a video game himself”.

Jerome has reduced motor function and does not have the fine motor ability to use a regular or modified video game controller. To tackle this problem, students Aswini Abeysinghe, Fidel Febri Halim and Karen Jones from the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technology set out to create a more accessible video game controller for him.

Dr Sam John said the group worked to develop a range of potential technologies that Jerome could use, and spoke with Jerome’s family about how he interacts with technology and assistive devices.

“It became clear that there was no assistive technology that could be purchased that was close to being helpful for Jerome to play a video game. The few that were available were too expensive and not fit for purpose, even with modifications,” Dr John said.

“We needed a bespoke device fit for purpose and designed to work specifically for Jerome, and the team settled on three technologies that had the potential to be successful.

“We used a fast-prototyping principle to build a touch button (that doesn’t need fine motor skills), a kick button (Jerome was known to use his feet to apply some pressure) and motion-tracking software (a software that records the movements of the head to work out direction of movement) as a means to enable video game control.”

Dr John said that on the first trial with Jerome, the team presented him with each of the three technologies to control a couple of video games.

“While the team expected to be surprised, nothing could have prepared us for Jerome’s reaction,” Dr John said.

For the first time in his life, Jerome was able to play a video game, instead of watching his sister play or watching a YouTube video of someone playing a game.”

Dr Sam John

Student Fidel Febri Halim said it was a heartening moment.

“It has reinforced my belief in the importance of inclusive design and technology that can empower individuals with disabilities to lead fulfilling lives,” Mr Halim said.

Benefits of video games for children with CP:

  • Video games can play a role in the lives of children with cerebral palsy by providing both entertainment and therapeutic benefits.
  • Games that use motion-sensing technology or virtual reality are especially helpful as part of physical therapy.
  • Certain video games can also enhance cognitive skills, including problem-solving, spatial awareness and strategic thinking.
  • Multiplayer video games or online gaming communities can provide opportunities for children with cerebral palsy to interact with their peers and build social skills, offering a sense of accomplishment and autonomy.

Over the next five years, the team hopes to expand the project, helping more people with motor function loss to use assistive devices with bespoke controllers designed with them, to suit their individual needs and goals.