SpecialEffect is dedicated to helping people with physical disabilities play. Minecraft has been a priority for the UK-based charity, as many players with physical disabilities struggle with the dexterity required to enjoy Mojang's creative sandbox. Thanks to software called EyeMine, a free download that can be modded into the imagination simulation, there's a way for many of these players to join in on the fun, simply by moving their eyes.
"EyeMine allows you to play Minecraft using just eye movement alone," project lead Bill Donegan explains. "It's like an on-screen keyboard that lets you look at the different buttons and then do those actions in-game, and you also look within the gameplay area to do things. So for instance, if you want to mine, you look at the keyboard, select the mine action, and then you look within the game at where you want to mine."
Shortly after EyeMine officially launched in 2018, the first player the SpecialEffect team saw using the software was based in Japan, which quickly demonstrated the far-reaching impact EyeMine was already having worldwide. "They posted a video clip and it just made my day!" SpecialEffect founder Dr Mick Donegan recalls. Over the course of 2020, the charity has worked to bring a new and improved version of EyeMine to Minecraft; released in January of this year, the update brings with it a host of new features to make the software easier to use and more effective in-game for beginners and experienced EyeMine users.
EyeMine helps players control the game with Eye Gaze, a technology that can be used to control computers through eye movement with the use of an eye-tracker. As with so many of SpecialEffect's projects, the updated release known as EyeMine V2 came about as a result of player feedback. What initially started as an update to make EyeMine more stable with the latest version of Minecraft became a much larger project, with more features and settings introduced to make the overall experience of using the software and playing Minecraft even more enjoyable and accessible.
Adjustable keyboards have been added so that players can change their own settings for certain gestures, such as walking speed and mouse sensitivity, while combat has also seen some improvements to make automatic bows and arrows more efficient. Additionally, an Ironsights mode helps players zoom in for more precision as they build, default settings are also easier to adjust for beginners playing the game with EyeMine, and a saved toolbar lets players quickly access their favorite or most-used Minecraft items.
One of the biggest improvements is the new dwell building functionality that allows players to choose where to place blocks by looking at a spot directly in the world of Minecraft to speed up the process of building. Mick tells me all about Becky Tyler, a long-time EyeMine user who built a pet emporium in just three hours using the new dwell feature; previously it would have taken her two days to build.
Becky tells me over email that she first tried out EyeMine back in 2016, and has since gone on to provide lots of feedback to SpecialEffect about features that could be added to improve the software for all of its users. As well as being one of the charity's ambassadors, Becky also runs her own YouTube channel EyeGazeGirl, where she posts videos that show her using EyeMine to play Minecraft with her eyes.
"I really enjoyed building my pet emporium! It was so much quicker in the updated version of EyeMine, which made the process a lot less repetitive and laborious," Becky says. "I love finding all the animals to put in the shop too, including some fish, which were new in version 1.13 of Minecraft, so I hadn't had access to these before."
A lot of work has been done to ensure that EyeMine can be used by as many people as possible and suit the needs of a variety of player levels. With a range of settings to cater to those who are entirely new to Eye Gaze technology as well as long-time users, EyeMine can also work with a number of different eye-trackers including lower-cost ones. From basic setups with fewer inputs on the on-screen keyboard to more advanced settings for experienced players, the software can be adapted to the individual needs of each player.
Minecraft for everyone
Not unlike the updated version of EyeMine, the charity initially began developing the software for Minecraft in response to requests from Eye Gaze users who expressed an interest in playing the game after watching others enjoy it on YouTube.
"People tend to say, 'I would like to play this game,' and we'll try and find a way for them to play it," Bill explains. "And a lot of the time that's on consoles with controllers and we adapt physical controllers, but we do a lot of work with Eye Gaze as well. This was a bit of an overlap in that we just had a small group of people who are Eye Gaze users that were really into Minecraft; they watched YouTubers, but they couldn't actually play themselves. So it was always in our minds."
"And then it just so happened that we tried this communication software that we used on another project of ours that was just exclusively for Eye Gaze access to communication and computers," Bill continues, "which is, again, like an on-screen keyboard, essentially, that we can adapt to the user. So we tried playing with that to see what we could do [in Minecraft]."
Bill goes on to tell me that the moddable nature of the Java Edition of Minecraft is largely why SpecialEffect had so much success with Minecraft. Once they discovered Eye Gaze controls could have an effect in-game, such as movement with WASD keys, it demonstrated that Minecraft could pick up the input and something could be developed. Not long after, programmer and technical consultant Kirsty McNaught joined as a volunteer and started looking into building something that could be optimized for the game.
"We always had a bit of a view that we want to give access to Minecraft, but we might learn stuff to play other games with Eye Gaze as well. Because it still is, and particularly at the time, very restricted in what you can do in terms of games with Eye Gaze. It's got all this opportunity, but playing games [with it] is underdeveloped. So Kirsty started work on it, and it turned out this other piece of software called OptiKey, an open-source communication keyboard, is available that you can play around with a lot more. So then she decided to use that instead of building something completely from scratch."
Levelling the playing field
Once SpecialEffect had a software program that could work within the game, the continued development of EyeMine from user feedback has taken it to where it is today. The work done with Eye Gaze technology also led to the launch of the new Eye Gaze Games website late last year. The website features a selection of games that can be played using Eye Gaze, and every game is freely available for everyone to download and try. As well as offering up a library of games for players with physical disabilities to enjoy, Bill and Mick say they hope that it will also show game developers what's possible when it comes to using Eye Gaze in games
"Hopefully someday there'll be access to more games, but right now there isn't. So we created this suite of games called Eye Gaze Games," Bill says. "It's an underserved area, so it's just trying to offer more games and also show other people what's possible, and some elements of best practice from what we've learned through the years using Eye Gaze".
"There's a range of games like chess that you can play against anybody around the planet, and a driving game and that sort of thing, just to introduce people to Eye Gaze," Mick says, "including developers as well, so they can see that it isn't actually rocket science it's just about your interface design. Even just by getting in and tweaking your interface, you can let a lot more people enjoy your games."
From its initial launch to the latest updated version, EyeMine continues to help people around the world enjoy Minecraft. From building pet emporiums to playing with friends and experiencing all of the possibilities of Mojang's adventure, Mick hopes that the free software will encourage more people to try using Eye Gaze technology.
"We're hoping that by helping people use gaze tracking for fun, it's going to encourage more people to actually experience Eye Gaze," Mick adds, "and realize how exciting and liberating it can be."
You can read more about the new and improved version of EyeMine here.