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UCF Game Designers to Showcase Work at Smithsonian, Meet White House Staff

A team of video game designers from UCF’s School of Visual Arts & Design will visit Washington, D.C., this week to showcase its accessibility-friendly video game at the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Team members also will meet with the secretary of the Smithsonian to demonstrate the power of video games to help children and squeeze in a visit with White House staff interested in accessibility technology.

“We’re going to be busy,” said Matt Dombrowski, assistant professor of digital media. “We’re so excited. The potential to help children is just amazing.”

Dombrowski is part of a team that developed a series of nine games for Limbitless Solutions a year ago. The UCF-based nonprofit approached Dombrowski in hopes of recruiting student volunteers to sculpt and paint the 3-D printed arms the group creates and gives to children at no cost.

“It’s funny to remember how it all started,” Dombrowski said. “It was just a conversation and I said, ‘Sure we can help with painting, but what would be really cool is to create really good video games the kids can play.’”

Two years later, Dombrowski and a group of collaborators unveiled nine different games in their alpha stage. Assistant Professors Peter Smith and Ryan Buyssens worked with him to create easy-to-use hardware and software that uses electrical impulses from the user’s muscles to play the game. They worked with Limbitless Solution’s electromyography bio-sensing system to make the interface a reality. Students in video-design classes worked on game designs, and four children who received arms through Limbitless tried the games on campus in October.

“They really got into the games and were really good about providing specific feedback,” Smith said. “We took notes, made adjustments and then got a grant from the College of Arts & Humanities. That really helped us refine the games.”

The professors chose one of the most popular games among the bionic kids, Smash Bro to submit to the Smithsonian. It was designed by students Zack Henderson, Melissa Scharf and Amanda Simmons, who have since graduated. Scharf and Simmons have jobs in game design and Henderson will start graduate studies this fall at UCF’s Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy in downtown Orlando.

Smash Bro, in which the gamer’s objective is to stomp, smash, and destroy as much as possible in a city within the time limit, had stiff competition. More than 180 independent designers submitted their games to be part of the Smithsonian’s SAAM Arcade event. A panel of independent game makers and industry veterans selected 40 participants.

The one-day event drew 11,000 people last year. It was so popular that this year the museum expanded to two days beginning Aug. 4. It includes a collection of vintage games such as Donkey Kong and Pac Man, current games and the 40 selected independent games.

“Video games are a part of our visual culture and worthy of display as well as study at SAAM,” said Stephanie Stebich, director of the museum. “We are pleased to provide ‘SAAM Arcade’ as an innovative forum for video-game developers and fans as the field continues to test the boundaries between art, science and technology.”

The Smithsonian was one of the first museums in the nation to acquire video games as part of its permanent collection. Video games offer a compelling performance space, activated by artists and players alike, whose interaction creates an artistic experience. The event is supported by several industry leaders and the Entertainment Software Association Foundation.

The UCF group also will meet with the Smithsonian secretary to discuss the impact of fusing artistic design with engineering. A current National Academy of Science study, under the direction of the secretary, David J. Skorton, is focused on integrating higher education in the arts, humanities, sciences, engineering and medicine.

White House staff from the President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities is also scheduled to meet with the group and try out the video games.

“We’re really excited,” Dombrowski said. “We love Limbitless’ mission, so it was natural for us to partner with them. We want to be able to take this tech to all children who can’t play games now, to make games accessible. It really is all about the children.”

Limbitless Solutions founder, Albert Manero, said he is grateful for the support and enthusiasm SVAD has offered his team.

“We are thrilled to be working with SVAD,” said Manero, who will travel to Washington for the meetings with government officials. “They (SVAD) have been incredible partners and are helping to make both the experience and training for the bionic kids innovative, exciting and fun. We have the same passion to help children, and the games are really fun. Some of our bionic kids who got a sneak peek at some of the games keep asking when they’ll be ready to play them with their friends.”

The goal of the partnership is twofold. Limbitless hopes to use the games to help children who are selected to receive bionic arms, train and learn how to use the system before they get their arms. The SVAD team hopes to make 2.0 versions of the games that would be available for any child to play with some very simple attachments that make the experience as exciting and as easy as traditional game consoles, maybe even better.

“We’ve got a few other things in the works in this area,” Dombrowski said. “This is only the beginning.”