U-M art professor creates augmented reality sports game for kids of all abilities

ANN ARBOR – While strides have been made in athletics for children with mobility disabilities, there still remains a gap in competitive play between kids with disabilities and kids without.

Roland Graf, an associate professor at University of Michigan’s Penny W. Stamps School of Art & Design, is hoping to change that. He and a team of researchers have created an augmented reality game system called iGYM for children of all abilities to engage and play together.

The current system uses a projector to create a court on the floor with goals on either side. The game resembles soccer and each player is detected by an overhead computer vision camera. The camera surrounds each player with a “peripersonal circle,” which can be used to hit a virtual ball and score on the opposing player’s goal.

Players can use their arms, feet, or press a button fixed to their bodies to expand the circle and “kick” the ball. The ability to expand the player’s circle without having to physically move up and down the court creates an equal playing field for children with mobility disabilities.

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According to Graf, the iGYM system was inspired by a teenager who uses a power wheelchair, James Falahee, who he met to receive feedback on a prior technology game he invented.

“James was interested in this project from a sports perspective,” Graf said in a statement. “This started our iGYM development effort and our effort to focus on the design space of inclusive play.”

Falahee has stayed on board as a play tester for the team of researchers, which includes assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science Hun Seok Kim, and assistant professor of information Michigan Nebeling.

“I think that the iGYM is very cool,” Falahee said in a statement. “My experience has been very good so far. I have even been allowed to invite friends to play with me. I think that the chance for disabled people to be able to participate in sports is very important because throughout most of my life I have been forced to sit on the sidelines and watch my friends play sports and games.”

The iGYM team has been relying on feedback from participating children and their parents to improve the AR platform. They found the kids enjoyed the game regardless of their mobility disabilities.

“I think that it is a great honor,” Falahee said in a statement. “The game will bring so much fun to so many people and to think that I was a part of it is such a privilege.”

Amy Whitesall, a graduate student who helps conduct “play tests,” said families have driven hours to participate in the study and look forward to future events.

“It’s been really rewarding to see a lot of these kids who didn’t know each other before say, ‘Oh, I want to play with him again,’” Whitesall said in a statement.

“Currently there is nothing like iGYM,” Graf said in a statement. “Other accessible gaming technologies are either limited to small screens or developed for people with cognitive disabilities.”

Graf hopes to bring the system to market as an affordable option for schools and community centers to engage local children with varying levels of mobility.

About the Author:

Meredith has worked for WDIV since August 2017 and was voted one of Washtenaw County's best journalists in 2019 by eCurrent's readers. She covers the community of Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in International Broadcast Journalism from City University London, UK.