Feb 13, 2011

Wii Just Dance2 and Kinect Dance Central: UI and Usability Approaches; Challenges for Developing Accessible Games (revised)

I love to dance- I studied dance through college, and off and on as an adult.   I have a DDR (Dance Dance Revolution) game-floor pad somewhere in my attic gathering dust.  I'm ready for new challenges.

I'm planning on buying a couple new dance games for the Wii and the Kinect. There is more to this story, given my interest off-the-desktop, post-WIMP HCI (human-computer interaction), interactive multimedia and games, and a career as a school psychologist dedicated to young people with disabilities, I'm excited to see where new technologies, interfaces, and interactions will take us.

So what do the wise men of usability have to say about new ways of interacting with games and other applications?

"Kinect has many great design elements that clearly show that the team (a) knows usability, (b) did user testing, and (c) had management support to prioritize usability improvements, even when they required extra development work." -Jakob Nielsen

Jakob Nielsen, one of the godfathers of usability,  shared a few words of wisdom about the Kinect in his 12/27/10 Alertbox post: Kinect Gestural UI: First Impressions.  Although he did not review Dance Central, he concludes that the game he reviewed, Kinect Adventures, was fun to play, despite usability problems.

If this is a topic that interests you, I recommend you read Neilsen's post, and also take a look at which are outlined in the post.  Also take a look at recent essay Neilsen co-authored with Don Norman, another godfather of usability: Gestural Interfaces: A Step Backwards In Usability

Why is this topic important to me?
I have been involved in the Games for Health and Game Accessibility movement for many years.  Lately I've been exploring the OpenKinect project with an aim to create ways of making movement-oriented games accessible for young people with more complex disabilities.  For example, there is a need to have dance and movement games modified for students (and adults!) who need wheelchairs or walkers.  There are students who have milder mobility challenges who love to dance, and the current games don't address their needs.  Some of my students have vision or hearing impairments, too.  They deserve a chance to play things designed for the Kinect.

"OpenKinect is an open community of people interested in making use of the amazing Xbox Kinect hardware with our PCs and other devices. We are working on free, open source libraries that will enable the Kinect to be used with Windows, Linux, and Mac."

Note:  I currently work as a school psychologist with students up to age 22. My main office is adjacent to a large OT and PT room at Wolfe, a program for students who have special needs.   We just had a large interactive whiteboard installed in the room that is begging for us to connect it with the school's Wii,  and soon (we hope), a Kinect.   If we are going to use dance games to help promote healthy activities among our special students, the games need to be accessible for students with cognitive, motor, and other limitations.

Although I can dance, I understand what the world is like through the eyes of many of the young people I work with who have motor coordination and sensory integration problems that interfere with their ability to  move and dance, let alone access fast-paced dance games on the Wii or Kinect. 

My initial plan is to look at what the new dance games might be like from the view of someone who doesn't know how to dance, and admits that they have "two left feet" - an perhaps, no sense of rhythm.  Where would I start?

Wii's Just Dance2 seems to offer some support for learning how to dance through the use of simple movement icons, in the form of outlined figures, that provide information about how to move with the dancer on the screen. As you can see from the video below, the gamer is provided with information about upcoming moves throughout the game.

I decided to take a look at Just Dance2's  MIKA "Big Girl" (You Are Beautiful) because some of the adolescent females I work with have weight concerns that interfere with their health. During the teen years, this can become a vicious cycle, resulting  in less movement, and less participation with peers in physical activities, such as playing dance games.  If a teen has depression as part of this mix, we know that exercise can help,  and a fun dance game might be a life-saver, in more ways than one.

The screen shots below show how the movement icons are used in the game:

I thought it would be useful to learn more about the story behind the making of JustDance2.
At 2:22, Alexia, the project's usability expert, makes her presence known. From what I can tell, she focused on aspects of the game that would make it more usable for non-dancers, including those with "two left feet", to play the game.  (I don't know if there was anyone consulted about accessibility concerns for the game.)

Kinect Dance Central
Dance Central uses a different approach when it comes to "teaching" people how to dance along through the game. It would be interesting to test out Dance Central and JustDance 2 with the same set of people to get a better feel for what works and what doesn't.  Below is a video that previews, in split-screen, the interaction that takes place in Dance Central:

Dance Central Full Motion Preview

In Dance Central, gamers are provided with information about the moves through icons that cycle up the right hand side of the screen.  The level of dance-coordination to keep up with the moves is challenging at times, even for people who are OK at dancing.  Players can select dances according to level of difficulty. 

Kinect Usability with Regular People

Steve Cable (CX Partmers) shared his team's look at usability issues related to the Kinect by testing several games, including Dance Central, with groups of people in his article, "Designing for XBox Kinect - a usability study".  The quote below is from the Steve's article:

"We’ve loved playing with the Kinect. There’s no doubt that the game play is lots of fun. In-game menus are a barrier to that fun. Kinect should allow players to move through menus quickly and compensate for inaccuracy.

We felt the Kinect would benefit from some standardised global controls – much like a controller uses the A button to select and the B button to move backwards. We also think it needs a more responsive pause gesture – one that doesn’t interfere with the user’s game play.

Most of our participants found the Dance Central menu to be more effective, more efficient and more satisfying to use. Here are our recommendations for designing a Kinect menu interface:
  1. Allow users to make selections through positive gestures, rather than timed positions
  2. Place options on a single axis to make them easier and quicker to select
  3. Allow users to control menus with the game pad if they prefer
  4. Use large easy to read text
  5. Don’t make users scroll through options unnecessarily – it takes too long
  6. Users will be distracted if used in a social setting – test your menus in a social context to see if they are prone to errors
  7. Avoid the cursor metaphor, it’s not what gamers are used to seeing in game menus, and makes it harder to implement alternative joypad controls"

Below are screen shots that provide examples of how the movement icons are displayed in Dance Central:

Just Dance 2 Review: Get your body moving. No, really. Give it a shot.
Kexa MacDonald, 10/19/10

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