Enter the maze

Where games controllers are going next

A young man playing a remote-controlled game

The Nintendo Wii has caused a storm by changing the way we interact with games. So what's the next step forward in games controllers going to be?

Actually it may already be working in a research lab in Essex, and perhaps surprisingly it's based on work to help the disabled.

Nowadays, everyone plays computer games. Well, almost. Simon Lucas and his team in the human-centred robotics group at Essex University realised that many disabled people aren't actually able to use standard gamepad controllers so they miss out.

What could be done about it? Well, fortunately the Essex team had already developed a technology to allow people who are paralysed to control wheelchairs. Why not adapt that for games? Then even the severely disabled could play.

Give the signal

The technology involved uses what is known as 'myoelectric signal processing'. That just means that special sensors detect the small contractions in a person's muscles, turning those movements into electronic signals that can be used to control a computer. The actual sensors are quite small so can be attached next to just about any contractible muscle. The system is therefore very flexible.

First, Malcolm Lear, an electronic engineer in the team built an electronic control box that does everything a standard Xbox 360 controller can do. This was originally designed for a robotic car racing project, the idea being to test the car's vision system on a realistic car racing game. This virtual test environment has many advantages over the real world for early-stage testing, not least of which is the fact damage to a virtual car is more easily repaired (just restart the game)!

Playing a game on the prototype system

For this project Malcom’s control box processes signals from a special sleeve containing sensors that pick up the wearer's muscle movements. From there the signals go to a PC (the laptop shown in the photo), which uses the wheelchair control software developed by Mohammadreza Asghari Oskoei and Huosheng Hu to control the game.

The PC also takes input from a standard Xbox 360 game-pad, allowing a second user or carer to bypass the myoelectric control. That's useful in helping to set up the game, because many console games have a complicated set of menus to navigate before gameplay can begin.

Iron Man or abs of steel?

The technology is currently just a prototype, but has important applications not just as entertainment but also as a form of therapy for disabled users. No doubt once it is in production, games designers will come up with lots of new games that make use of this new kind of controller. For example, how about playing an Iron Man game where you control Tony Stark’s suit from sensors around your body? It may also have applications to home fitness, allowing couch potatoes to control games just by contracting their stomach muscles for example. That might give the same benefits as the Nintendo Wii Fit system without even having to leave the couch!