Features & News

Podcast Special: Special Effect Interview

August 18, 2013, Author: Neil Hickton

Early one warm, ever-so-slightly cloudy Saturday morning in July, I journey into a part of Oxfordshire that I’ve never been to before. Seemingly leafier and a little more green than I was perhaps expecting, my car and I happily drive down the winding roads through which we approach my next exciting interviewees, Special Effect.

I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with quite a few people for the purposes of the podcast since I started interviews in February 2013, but none have been perhaps so selfless, giving and caring as Mark Saville and Gavin Tan, two of Special Effect’s amazing staff.

Special Effect, if you’ve not had the pleasure, is a charity that specialises in assisting disabled gamers get back into gaming. Their hard work has helped many people so far, young and old, with a variety of very different disabilities and abilities. It’s safe to say, they are the only charity in the UK and apparently the world, that supply this type of service, all free of charge to the disabled person.

Read on for details, plus streaming and download options. This episode and our previous podcasts are available on iTunes; please be sure to rate and subscribe! Alternatively, you can subscribe to our Podcast RSS feed.

I reach the Cornbury Park estate entrance and make my way slowly up the lane towards the main stately home. The estate is as beautiful and well-kept as you’d imagine an English countryside of middle England to look, as lush, green grass and tall trees line either side of the single road heading through the middle. I slowly take it all in as deer munch on the grasses; it’s simply breath-taking to think that somewhere in front of me is where real magic happens.

I follow aesthetically pleasing signs towards “Special Effect”, just one of a small number of different organisations that call the stables on this estate home. The surroundings and the building they find themselves in are simply stunning and they have truly been blessed by their benefactors, Lord and Lady Rotherwick for giving them a proper base of operations that is both spacious and comfortable.

Opening my car door, I hear a Peacock, his call hauntingly emanating across the courtyard that I find  myself in. A slight shiver runs down my spine, it’s quite an odd scene to behold on this Saturday morning, but it takes me only a second to realise that this is perfect for their intended guests. Access is easy, level and there is plenty of parking with lots of room.  I grab my things and make contact with Mark to let me in.

I’ve spoken to Mark a few times over the phone in the weeks leading up to today, he’s already proven to me that he’s a nice chap and I’m completely at ease. We shake hands and proceed with a little small talk while he leads me into Special Effect’s HQ. There, in a large room along one wall are some desks with a few special controller systems set up. There’s other furniture of course, including a comfy sofa and a table. In my mind’s eye it’s the kind of gaming room I’ve always wanted.

On one of tables is what looks to be a Frankenstein-like electronics experiment, where someone (probably Gavin) has opened up a few Xbox 360 controllers and exposed their inner circuit boards. Additional circuit boxes are used and made for each bespoke purpose. Preparation for someone new to be able to benefit from what it is they do here.

It’s in this room where I’m shown some of the different methods of controller that are available. Mark calls me over and kindly prompts me to sit down in front of a monitor running the racing game Dirt 3. The first thing that hits me is there are no traditional controllers in front of me, instead there’s a special camera unit pointing at me. It looks a little like a Xbox 360 Kinect, but the price is scarily (and unfortunately) more expensive.  Mark tells me that I’m about to play Dirt 3 using only my eyes.

At first I’m completely out of my comfort zone. While it’s not exactly an alien concept looking in the direction we wish to travel, I’m so used to communicating with games via a joypad that I find my hands are twitchy. Ten seconds in and I’m doing pretty well, I’m able to slow down my approach into corners, accelerate out of them and steer left and right, with the power of my eyes! It’s a liberating experience, it’s incredible and a testament to the hard work and effort that has been put in to make it all possible. My time is pretty good Mark informs me, adding that I need to keep my head still. I’m doing well, it’s a good time, I near the finish line; you know the one don’t you, the silly narrow finish lines. I crash, my car bouncing into a position where I need to reverse. How do I do that? Look at the bumper. I reverse, line up for the finish line and I’m finally over.

Gavin sets up a game of Call of Duty and prompts me to sit down in front of it. He explains that the equipment I find myself slotted into is designed to enable control via head movements and some additional light controller. A very light button in my right hand that could be mounted and placed under a finger, allows me to move forward. An Xbox 360 joypad is available to my left hand to move one of the sticks to control my left and right movement. It’s immediately natural and I’m soon moving and shooting using the configuration as if it were a single joypad.

While I play, Gavin explains that it’s down to the wealth of experience and knowledge of Special Effect’s Occupational Therapist, Gillian Taylor, opening up movement in a disabled hand or even just a finger that wasn’t previously apparent. “Gillian works with the individuals, their parents and their therapists to learn about their specific needs. A small but comfortable rotation one way or another can unlock a movement in a finger”. Gavin smiles at me, “If there’s movement, no matter how small, that’s another switch! Then it’s my job to work out how the best to utilise it!”

I’m amazed. It’s a huge big deal what I’ve just experienced here at Special Effect and I feel oddly indebted to Dr Mick Donegan and the work his team do. Okay, yes, the hardware exists to do these things, but without their experience, knowledge, sheer determination and tenacity, these things wouldn’t work as well as they do. After all, technology is all well and good, but if it doesn’t work based on specific needs then it’s useless. Special Effect combines everything possible to overcome the seemingly impossible.

As a gamer I understand the importance of being able to play video games, for pure fun, to unwind and relax or to learn something new. It’s all too easy to take for granted that our limbs, hands, fingers and thumbs have a full range of movement, to operate the varying controllers available to us. To see someone who has no physical movement other than say their head or eyes, suddenly able to play a video-game for the first time, or even better; level the playing field so they can challenge able-bodied players, is a gift. I immediately understand (as if I didn’t before) why Special Effect are important, without them the world is a darker place.

If you’re interested in fund-raising for Special Effect or would like some help and advice, you can contact them via their website Special Effect. They really are a friendly bunch of people, so get in touch!

For the full interview with Special Effect (Mark Saville and Gavin Tan) follow the link below.

In an attempt to help them raise some funds, I took with me a Naughty Dog-signed The Last Of Us poster and presented it to Gavin Tan. This poster has since been mounted and framed and will be available to bid for in a special auction in the next few months. Keep an eye on their website, twitter and Facebook for details on how you can place a bid.

Neil Hickton (left) presents the Naughty Dog signed The Last Of Us poster to Gavin Tan. Keep an eye on Special Effect’s news feeds for details on when you can start bidding on it!