2003 Conference Proceedings

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Alan Holst
Paul G. Silva
ZForm LLC, 30 Industrial Drive East
Northampton, MA 01060
Email: alan@zform.com 
Email: paul@zform.com 
Website: http://www.zform.com

ZForm Poker is a new online interactive experience. It stimulates socialization and Internet usage in the blind and low vision community. It's educational, it's recreational, and it provides a unique social venue.

At any hour of the day or night, any day of the year, someone somewhere in the world is likely to be playing ZForm Poker. In today's plugged-in world, this may not seem surprising. What is unique, however, is how accessible the game is. Whether one uses the screen at normal size, the screen magnified, or accesses the computer with speech or Braille, ZForm Poker is engaging.

ZForm Poker is an interactive version of the parlor game, five-card draw poker. It has been specifically designed to work well with speech output, yet to the casual observer it appears to be just another fun Internet computer game. What makes it unique is the players and the technology that they are using to access it. Braille playing cards have been around for some time but there are several advantages to playing the game on the computer. First, Braille cards are only usable by blind people who know how to read Braille; that is approximately a fifth of the blind population. Second, players using the computer often find that they can play faster and with more grace on the computer because they are in a familiar environment and there are no physical issues such as locating dealt cards, won or anteed chips, etc. Third, the cyber cards never wear out through use. Fourth, the games dialog and wave files make it extremely obvious to the player where he is in the game and when he is expected to play his hand. Fifth, every ZForm player wears a good poker face. And finally, in the cyber world there are always plenty of companions ready to play.

Poker is a common analogy for life situations because it teaches calculated risk taking. One also can learn many probability lessons by playing the game. The game's easy-to-use chat feature is also noteworthy. It provides a digital back fence to meet over and a shared experience in an environment where discussions can emerge gradually. As a result, discussions and relationships can germinate and bloom in their own time. Golf, baseball, fishing, and other such popular pastimes have always been valued for the relaxation and diversion they offer, but also for the opportunity for companionship. ZForm Poker offers this experience to its customers, and they never have to leave home to enjoy it.

Participants in this session will see a few hands played on the Internet and will observe that the game has excellent graphics, so sighted users will feel welcome and entertained. Just because it's designed with the blind in mind doesn't mean that it won't work well with a mouse or that its appearance needs to be drab. The game is already being played in households with a blind and sighted spouse or with blind parents and sighted children or vise versa. Blind users will note that the wave files provide ancillary contextual clues. These clues make the game more friendly to blind users, they facilitate working with speech at higher rates of speed, and they make it easy to do such things as multitask, playing while using MSN, etc. Low vision players, who use screen magnifiers to see different parts of their screen, play the game using large, high-color-contrast buttons. The buttons are all in one place on the screen so that all the necessary information for a turn will show up in one magnification, rather than forcing the player to navigate all around the screen.

While modern screen readers and the Internet have dramatically improved access to information for the blind, the complexity of going online to random sites can be a daunting barrier for the uninitiated. Just as solitaire players became competent mouse users, we expect that ZForm players will serendipitously develop screen reader and Internet skills.

It is well recognized that games and interactive communication have encouraged use and development of the Internet; yet prior to ZForm, such experiences were not particularly friendly to blind players.

ZForm was formed to design and make games that would facilitate play between blind and sighted people. At our session, we will demonstrate how that goal has been achieved. Poker is the first in what ZForm expects will be a whole suite of interactive game applications played on the Internet. The games are designed for everyone with an emphasis on being accessible to blind players.

Unlike passively listening to music or a ball game, ZForm Poker is an active form of recreation. Sighted friends and family will enjoy playing this game as much as they enjoy playing any Internet computer game. As a result, this product stimulates online integration of blind and sighted players. We hope that you will stop by and see this new innovative, interactive, Internet-based game.

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