In an effort to try various approaches to realize a future where anyone can share in the excitement, the design team at the Sony Group worked together with people with visual impairments to develop, from scratch, a game called "XR Catch." What exactly is this game all about? What kind of impact did the process of creating this game have on the team? We interviewed Teruhiro Nakagawa, Takaaki Shirai, and Ippei Tambata, who is a Design Producer at Creative Center.
XR Catch is an experience of exchanging virtual balls with a good tempo, just like playing catch. The virtual ball thrown from your hand flies to your opponent after three tones. Relying on the rhythm of this sound, the opponent catches the virtual ball.
Tambata : The project began with a workshop on inclusive design1 we conducted in July 2021 with people who have visual and hearing impairments. At the workshop, Nakagawa-san brought up how he "wished that he would be able to casually play catch with his son." At first, I thought that would be difficult to achieve, but hearing this firsthand at the workshop gave me courage, and I wanted to take on the challenge. Then I discussed with our designers and R&D members of the company the question of what kind of sensation it is people are after when they play catch. We came to the conclusion that people must be after the rhythm and tempo of the back-and-forth, between the suspense when the ball is flying after being thrown and the relief when the other person catches it. So, instead of designing a game that utilizes a special glove and a ball, we decided to focus on the experience of catching the ball itself. Through trial and error, we created a prototype game that uses a smartphone, and Nakagawa-san and Shirai-san immediately agreed to give it a try. This was November of last year.
Nakagawa : I used to be able to see, so in the past, I have had the actual experience of playing catch. After becoming blind, I thought I would never be able to play catch again, but then I tried the prototype. And while it's not the same thing as catch, it brought back the feeling of communicating and playing with the other person, which made me really happy.
Shirai : I was three years old when I became blind, so I have never played catch in my life. I also have no idea of what throwing the ball looks like or what it would look and feel like to catch one with a glove. But I still wanted to try out the prototype because I love baseball. When I first heard that we were going to try a prototype game of playing catch, I thought they would bring us some kind of device that uses a ball and a glove, but it was actually a smartphone game, so then I thought it would be like playing an online game with a game controller.
Also, I was worried that the game will not be for all to enjoy as something interesting for people with visual impairments is not necessarily fun for the sighted.
But then, I actually tried it, and it was really fun. I could feel the movement of the ball, and the comforting sensation of catching it. I was looking forward to seeing how the game would advance from here on.
Shirai : After testing the prototype, I told the development team that it's not fun if specific actions are performed only at specific times, so I asked them to add more challenging elements to the game. I also told them that I hope that the game would become popular among children, so I suggested that they should add some fun elements to the game, like lighting up when you throw the ball. This would make it like a fun new toy that can be played together with the family.
Nakagawa : My hand was getting tired and sore from holding the smartphone all the time, so I asked them to make it easier on your hand.
Tambata : We definitely needed to make the smartphone easier to hold. In order to make it more user-friendly, we made a series of prototypes of round holders that fit in your hand comfortably, and where, instead of having to press the small volume buttons on the smartphone, the buttons can be pressed by squeezing the holder with your hand.
Nakagawa : When I tried the game today, I was amazed at how much it had improved in just four months. It also made me realize just how much more enjoyable the game had become now that it no longer puts strain on your hand.
Shirai : The last time I tried the game, I remember that the sound beeped three times, as it approached you in a straight line. This time, however, the sound had changed so that even I, who have never seen a curveball with my own eyes, could feel the curve that the sound was drawing as it approached me. Because of that, sometimes it felt that the ball was approaching faster than I had thought, so I had to extend my hand to the front to catch the ball. And sometimes it felt like the ball was coming from the right direction, so I moved my hand to the right to catch it. It felt amazing how naturally my body moved in response to the sound.
Tambata : We had a hard time trying to adjust the sound, to convey the feeling of an approaching ball and its trajectory, while also leaving some room for the user's imagination. What we found out is that everyone had their own way of perceiving the same sound, and it is fun to see what kind of action the person takes even for someone who is just watching. This was not our intention, but just something that we happened to discover while we were playing around with the game with everyone.
Nakagawa : Even though I am blind, I feel very happy that these kinds of workshops are held and prototypes made, and that our opinions and sensations are valued. In the future, I hope to see a world where more and more people, no matter if they are blind or sighted, and no matter their capabilities, are happy to be alive and enjoy living their life.
Shirai : People tend to place a lot of importance on food, clothing, shelter, studying, earning money, and so on, but I believe that simple entertainment is also really important for human life. That is why I would like to see us evolving into a society where everyone can freely choose to play and have fun if they wish to do so.
I also believe that, in order to realize something that anyone can really enjoy, it is important to have an inclusive and accessible project, including people with disabilities in the project's development from the start, and to make something that they find interesting.
Tambata : It is very difficult to create user experiences that make everyone smile. If you want to develop an idea that truly makes everyone smile, you have to both look at and see things from different angles, but even then, there is a limit to what one person can do alone. I believe that new values are created in this type of an inclusive project, where things are looked at from everyone's perspective, things are perceived through different senses, and when everyone can freely throw out ideas and others can catch and adapt them from their own perspectives.
"XR Catch" came from the voices of people with visual impairments and has since been developed together with them. We will continue to develop the game as an inclusive project, with the goal of bringing a smile to everyone's face.