Computer science professor Tony Morelli creates games for children with disabilities


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Katy Kildee | Staff Photographer' Grand Rapids graduate student Jonathan Kissinger demonstrates a modification he has made to the popular video game Minecraft that allows kids to learn math skills while they play on Feb. 5 in Pearce Hall. Kissinger was motivated to incorporate learning into a game that his son loves to play.

It's an incredible challenge to do something as simple as bowl without the ability to see, but a Central Michigan University professor is working to make it easier.

Anthony Morelli, an assistant professor of computer science, first became interested in working with children with disabilities during a service learning project in college that allowed him to interact with children with severe motor disabilities.

Drawing inspiration from the experience, Morelli dedicated his time at Purdue University to creating software that would encourage people who are blind to exercise using the PlayStation Move, Xbox Kinect and Nintendo Wii.

"Kids that are blind are generally more obese or out of shape because things such as going running can be a safety issue," Morelli said. "I wanted to create something that would be accessible to them and allow them to be active in a safe environment."

Morelli's Wii-inspired games so far include bowling, tennis and "Wack-A-Mole." Since the players generally will not be able to see what is happening in the games, Morelli uses sounds and vibrations to indicate to players how to move.

The games were tested at Camp Abilities – a week-long camp in New York for children who are deaf, visually impaired or deafblind – to measure a player's heart rates and improvements in other areas, such as balance. 

"It was really cool to see people in their 70s play the games," Morelli said. "Some of them said they haven't been able to do activities like bowling since they were kids."

It was discovered that the players' heart rates showed moderate physical activity, so it would be easy for them to get the recommended 30-60 minutes of exercise a day, and their balance improved over time.

With this positive feedback in his mind, Morelli created vifit.org, a website that allows free access to his games, as long as the player has a computer.

Originally from Grand Rapids, Morelli taught at the University of Nevada before coming to CMU last fall. He teaches video game programming, java programming and is working on an independent study with a handful of students to continue creating games for disabled children.

The goal for students is to create games for children with different kinds of disabilities and to setup a social network where they can all play together or against each other. The idea is to avoid segmenting the kids into different disability categories, and focus more on bringing them together through the games.

They are also working on a concept called Dynamic Difficulty Adjustment, which will automatically adjust the game based on the player's past performance.

One of the students to approach Morelli was Mount Pleasant junior Nick Jones, who took one of Morelli's classes and was interested in the challenges involved in designing games for disabled children.

"The idea of multiple kids being able to play the same game or against each other is something that hasn't been seen much, so a special project like that is something I feel honored and excited to be a part of," Jones said. "It will be able to give these children the immersion into a game they may never have experienced before."

Morelli's games are being downloaded and altered all over the world with Spanish versions of the games being created in South America.

He is proud of the success of his games and hopes to work with different departments at CMU to further expand them.

"I'm talking with the Special Olympics and Education and Human Services people to get a few different departments involved in the project," Morelli said. "In the end, it's going to make for a stronger campus."

He is also working toward obtaining legal clearance from the Institutional Review Board to test the games with CMU students.

Though the success of his games is undeniable, Morelli is mostly thankful for the little things like seeing childrens' faces light up when they get a strike in bowling, or watching friendships form as they play games together.

"I created audio of a cat for my Wack-A-Mole game, and a couple (of) kids were arguing about what color the cat was," he said. "Eventually, I decided to make two cats of each color, but this just demonstrated to me the power of the brain and the ability for the kids to paint pictures in their heads"


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