'U' researchers develop AR gaming system for children with and without disabilities

Tuesday, January 7, 2020 - 6:13pm

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Design by Jonathan Walsh

A team of University of Michigan faculty and students have created iGYM, an augmented reality system allowing both able-bodied individuals and those with mobile disabilities to engage in physical games together. 

iGYM is designed to mimic physical sports by projecting an interactive court onto the floor. It can host multiple games featuring virtual goals and balls. Players interact with the projections to virtually kick and pass the ball to score goals.

Art & Design professor Roland Graf, one of the team’s leaders, said the game creates an even playing field for children with disabilities so they can compete and play with their able-bodied peers.

The team consisted of students and faculty from the School of Art & Design, the School of Information, the College of Engineering and the School of Kinesiology. Graf stressed the importance of having an interdisciplinary team to bring the research project to life.

“What united us was really a shared mission,” Graf said. “This is the fruit of great interdisciplinary teamwork and also really working with the parents and the kids that are testing the game, they are also a part of it.”

Graf said he was grateful to be able to engage in this type of applied research. 

“Developing technology explicitly to promote social change and the removal of social and physical barriers is just something that feels very fulfilling to make steps towards,” Graf said. “I’m just privileged that the University gives me the freedom to decide in which direction I want to develop technology. The freedom I have as a researcher and academic is to go for the truly life-fulfilling work.”

Hun-Seok Kim, an Engineering assistant professor, also found the project’s goal to be important. 

“It is a unique project for our research team as it directly connects technology development and research to an application with immediate social impacts,” Kim said. “Unlike other more theoretical research, this project allows us to directly engage with people outside of academia.”

Graf said participants have had positive responses to the project. He said players appreciated its inclusivity for both those with mobility disabilities and those without.

“We had a couple of kids ages 7 to 16 years test the system, and they found the game competitive, regardless of whether they use wheelchairs or not,” Graf said. “My favorite quote from our studies that sums beautifully the idea of what inclusive play can be is a participant who played the game using a wheelchair said it’s basically adapted for everyone, even people with no physical disabilities.” 

Information senior Emma Shpiz, who has been a research assistant on the project since the winter 2017 semester, noted her previous experience working with children with disabilities.

“I have a lot of background in working with kids, especially throughout high school,” Shpiz said. “I was really involved in clubs where we were using sports to build relationships and have a combination of fun and learning for different kids with different disabilities. Also, having a couple different family members who have various disabilities (made) this something that was really important to me.”

Shpiz said she was drawn to iGYM because of how unique the project was.

“I was honestly shocked that nothing like this had been done before,” Shpiz said “It’s kind of very different in the field. Obviously, there’s a lot of work towards different games for people with different disabilities, but just finding this really niche space where it keeps it competitive for both sides was really exciting for me.”

Shpiz realized how iGYM could improve inclusivity for people with disabilities when she interviewed a 5-year-old girl with a disability and her mother, who found the game very effective for her daughter.

“We were sitting in the interview asking her pretty generic questions after she had played the game, and all of a sudden her mom, she starts crying and was like, ‘This is so incredible, I’m so glad you guys are doing this, I’m dying for this game to be placed in my daughter’s school,’” Shpiz said. “For this to be something that I think could have a really big impact is my biggest takeaway.”

Kim said iGYM has merited positive reactions from children, parents and researchers alike, who found the project very rewarding.

“We had a case where these two brothers had never played a physical game before because their abilities are quite different,” Kim said. “We saw some teary eyes from the parents, and it was a very rewarding moment to see them and also researchers having a lot of fun.”

Graf said he and his team foresee iGYM entering the market in the future and are currently working on making the system more robust before consulting with an industry partner. The Houston YMCA and spaces in New York have made inquiries about having the system installed.

Kim said the future of iGYM holds many different possibilities due to the versatility of augmented reality systems.

“Possibilities are virtually limitless,” Kim said. “AR systems can overcome the limitation of physical surroundings by augmenting the reality. For example, iGYM augments each player’s ability to allow inclusive play among people with different physical abilities.”