Gaming visionaries

Sacramento startup builds digital games for the visually impaired


Seeing a void in mobile gaming accessibility, a Sacramento company has unveiled an app paving the way for a seamless experience between sighted and visually impaired individuals. Plenty of mobile apps are designed to make life easier for the blind in terms of navigation, reading books and other basic life functions. When it comes to mobile gaming, however, that’s an area that hasn’t fully utilized digital technology. Independent gaming studio AppA11y was founded in 2016 by three lifelong friends—Nick Barbato, Lee Hobbs and Mitch Dobbins. In 2017, the team took a step toward filling the void in accessible mobile gaming with the introduction of Huboodle—a free gaming app that uses Apple’s VoiceOver screen-reader to allow chat functionality. There are currently eight games available in seven languages that allow users, both sighted and visually impaired, to compete on a level playing field. Their goal is to link people all over the world, regardless of disabilities, through fun and exciting mobile gaming experiences. Two of the three founders were available for a Q&A to show SN&R readers a glimpse into their world.

Can you elaborate on how the visually impaired are able to operate these games?

Barbato: iOS is the leader in accessibility. If you go to your settings on your iPhone and turn on VoiceOver accessibility, once that’s activated, through coding, you can tie it into a bunch of different things. We’ve kind of dug deep on what’s possible with VoiceOver. So, with the crossword game, we have blind people that can play that really fast.

Hobbs: Basically, whatever is touched, the phone says.

Barbato: It’ll speak to them; it’ll read them hints; it’ll kind of guide them along as they go. It does a lot of stuff in the background that a sighted person will never see.

Hobbs: We’ve taken that a little bit further and given them hand gestures so they can do different shortcuts on the screen. They can do three-finger swipes up or down and it will spell a word for them, it will tell them the remaining words, and give them the timer.

You posed a question on (an online community for blind and low-vision users of Apple products) last year trying to gather game ideas. Is that where you get most of your ideas?

Hobbs: Partially. We found that what we like isn’t necessarily what our users like, so we just try to get things out in front of them as much as possible and get their feedback on what we’re going to do next. That’s probably our best place of getting it. They’re a pretty active visually impaired user group.

Are there any new games/features in development that we can expect from Huboodle in the future?

Barbato: Probably in the next release there will be two more games. We’re going to do everything within Huboodle. We’re shooting for one game a month.

One of the various games within Huboodle has made it’s way over to Android. Can we expect a full Android transition any time soon?

Barbato: When we get the resources we can expand over to Android as well. We released one of the games over at Android. We’re in the process of merging them and getting them into one big app over at Android, and that’s got to be at least six months out. And maybe bring it to AppleTV, because AppleTV will carry the accessibility settings over.

What are the goals for Huboodle in 2018?

Barbato: By the end of the year, we’d like 15-plus games. We want to make it like the Facebook for the visually impaired—something that they have to go to once a day. We want to be integrated in their communication and just provide them with what I think is missing in their community right now.

Hobbs: When the visually impaired think of gaming, we want to be on the top of their list.

Providing this service and bringing these opportunities to people who are visually impaired, what does it all mean to you?

Hobbs: It’s rewarding. We get a lot of positive feedback, so it makes you feel like you’re heading in the right direction. Our hope is that anybody who’s not disabled or visually impaired, they have no idea what our app can do, it kind of levels the playing field.

Barbato: It’s awesome, honestly. We’ve been in software for 25 years, and usually anybody who has anything to say, it’s always negative, right? “Why can’t it do this?” and “Why can’t it do that?” We get emails daily now and it’s never anything negative. We’ve had people who have met and got married through the game, through the chat. The blind community out there and how this accessibility stuff is really changing their lives—just to be part of it and watch it grow and have them reach out to you daily and just like what you do—it makes what we do seem like it’s worthwhile. It might just seem like games, but it’s really something these people are doing daily. It’s cool.