Company Offering Computer Games for Blind, Sighted Users Has Roots at UMass Amherst

AMHERST, Mass. - A company with its roots at the University of Massachusetts has introduced a computer game that allows people who are visually impaired to compete on an equal footing with sighted competitors. Although a handful of other games enable blind players to compete against each other, Zform’s game is the first that puts opponents on equal footing, regardless of their eyesight, say company founders. Zform officially launched its first game last week. The game is an accessible version of the five-card draw poker. A synthesized voice tells visually impaired players what cards they have been dealt, what moves other players have made, and what cards have been thrown down. It can be downloaded from the World Wide Web. The company also has other accessible games in development.

"For the first time in their lives, people who are blind can play and interact on the Internet with other people, including people who are sighted," said Paul Silva, the company’s chief operating officer. "And nobody knows who’s sighted and who’s blind unless people want to give that information out about themselves."

The company’s technology demo was an accessible version of the popular Quake, in which audio cues take the place of visual images on the computer screen. Quake is a fast-paced game in which players "move" through a three-dimensional environment of rooms and hallways. "What we did was give every visual element an audio representation," said Silva. "We took what was on the screen and essentially piped it through the speakers, using sound to express the visuals." He clicks the mouse, demonstrating: as the player faces different directions, virtual walls, floors, and ceiling give off various sounds, so that a player can interpret his or her progress through the maze.

Zformwas just a spark in its founders’ eyes when then-students Silva and Jeremie Spitzer were hallmates and physics majors in the Washington Tower dormitory at UMass. The friends were searching for a way to ‘hang out’ with Tim Keenan, a friend who was majoring in computer science, and who is visually impaired. "College guys like to throw a football around, and they like to play computer games," said Spitzer. "Obviously we couldn’t go out and throw a football with Tim, so we decided to create an accessible computer game instead."

"It’s great to be naive," said Silva, "because we’d stumbled on a very difficult problem to solve. If we’d been more aware of the technical pitfalls and the enormity of the programming issues, we might have shied away instead of growing to meet the challenge."

In the four years since then, Silva and Spitzer have become the new company’s chief operating officer and chief executive officer, respectively. Zform employs seven people, including Keenan, who is the company’s lead accessibility engineer and directs all of the audio content in the games. The young executives hand out business cards that feature their contact information in Braille as well as print.

The effort to establish the new company was supported by several different communities at UMass, according to Silva. A computer class taught by Leon Osterweil, current dean of the College of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, helped with some of the initial programming for the uncommercialized demo. The result, Silva said, was that the students gained programming experience in a real-life project, while the newly minted company executives learned to lead a team of 80 people. Another boost came from the EntreClub, a student-run organization dedicated to helping students hoping to create a business. The club offers business tools, networking opportunities, and a yearly business-plan contest. Winning the contest gave Silva and Spitzer $1,000 in seed money. The Lemelson Assistive Technology Center supplied an additional $10,000 in seed funding, "and then we did the traditional friends-and-family fundraising," said Silva. Zform spent its first 18 months housed in offices at the Mass Ventures building in Hadley, but recently moved to new quarters in a Northampton office park.

The first hint they got that the product had serious commercial potential was last year, when Spitzer brought a demonstration model of the software to the annual conference held by the National Federation for the Blind. "People were lined up to try the games," recalled Spitzer. "They were very enthusiastic, because they’d never had this opportunity before." The company has received appreciative emails from clients from the U.S. to Singapore, Spitzer said.

The company relies on online distribution, according to Silva, because it is an easy and cost-effective way to reach Zform’s audience. Players can download a game and try it out during a 15-day free trial. After that, subscribers can play online, against other players and in real time, for $7.95 a month. Those who sign up for a year receive a discount. So far, 25 percent of the people who have tried the games have bought them, according to Silva. (Most online software is purchased at a rate of 2-3 percent, he says). There are plans to offer a series of games in the future.

"Thereal goal is to extend interest in this to the sighted community, so that the experience of playing the games would be truly integrated. You could be playing against a blind opponent and ideally you wouldn’t know unless they wanted to tell you," Silva said. "People don’t want to feel handicapped and they don’t want to be excluded."

Paul Silva can be reached at paul@zform.comor or 413/585-9692.