It's tough to play video games when you have no fingers to push buttons on the controller.
Just ask Gyorgy Levay, an avid gamer who lost both hands to a meningitis infection five years ago. But Levay and two fellow Johns Hopkins graduate students have devised a clever way get him—and others with similar disabilities—back in the game.
Their solution—a sandal-like controller that allows a player to control the on-screen action with his or her feet—recently won the $7,500 grand prize in the 2016 Intel-Cornell Cup, in which student inventors were judged on innovative applications of embedded technology.
The team—dubbed GEAR, for Game Enhancing Augmented Reality—also was a finalist in the 2016 Johns Hopkins Healthcare Design Competition, organized by the university's Center for Bioengineering Innovation and Design, which is based within the Department of Biomedical Engineering.
To master's degree candidate Levay, the project is about much more than recovering his ability to play video games.
"About 200,000 people in the United States alone have lost at least some part of an upper limb," he said, "and 20 to 30 percent of all amputees suffer from depression. They have a hard time socializing, especially young people."
Especially for those with highly visible impairments, online video games can be a boon, Levay said, because a player's appearance is not typically on view.
"The GEAR controller allows people to socialize in a way in which their disability is not a factor," Levay said. "That was a key point we wanted to make with this device."
To create a hands-free control system, Levay, who is from Budapest, Hungary, teamed up last year with two other biomedical engineering grad students from his Johns Hopkins instrumentation course: Adam Li, who is from Los Angeles, and Nate Tran, from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.
The students decided to design a game interface that could be operated by a player's lower limbs.
"Next to our hands," Li said, "our feet are probably the most dexterous part of our body."
By the time their third prototype was built, the team had produced adjustable padded footwear that could enable a seated player to participate in video games. Beneath each shoe's padding are three sensors that can pick up various foot movements, such as tilting or raising the front or heel of each foot.
The students designed intricate circuitry within each shoe that translates each foot movement into a different command to guide the activity in a video game. In its most basic setup, two of the high-tech shoes can control eight different game buttons. But the inventors say that with practice, this number could increase to as many as 20 buttons.
The GEAR team has successfully used the technology to play popular games such as Counter-Strike, Fallout 4, and World of Warcraft. The students also set up a small online survey, putting four virtual characters through the same challenging segment of a video game. When the game clips were posted online, viewers were asked to identify which character was being controlled by an amputee using the GEAR technology. Of the 51 viewers who participated in the survey, 81 percent failed to identify the correct GEAR-controlled character.
"This is a very simple design," Tran said, "but it can potentially help a lot of people since it's wearable, and it's adjustable."
For team member Li, the project was particularly rewarding because it allowed him to apply his knowledge to a real-life challenge, not just a teacher's test questions. Sometimes as an engineering student, he said, "you're stuck in a classroom, and you're learning about all these theories, but you don't get to put it into practice. This problem really allowed us to design a solution and actually implement it."
The GEAR team members have worked with the Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures staff to obtain a provisional patent covering their invention. Their goal is to license their work to a company that can help make their device widely available.
The GEAR team was advised by Nitish V. Thakor, a professor of biomedical engineering, and Luke Osborn, a biomedical engineering doctoral student. At Johns Hopkins, the Department of Biomedical Engineering is shared by the university's Whiting School of Engineering and its School of Medicine.