A group of graduate students from Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, MD, devised a sandal-like controller that allows a video game player to control the on-screen action with his feet. The team — dubbed GEAR, for Game Enhancing Augmented Reality — created the device for amputees or those with disabilities that inhibit use of their arms or hands.

To create a hands-free control system, the students decided to design a game interface that could be operated by a player’s lower limbs. By the time their third prototype was built, the team had produced adjustable padded footwear that could enable a seated player to participate in video games. Beneath each shoe’s padding are three sensors that can pick up various foot movements, such as tilting or raising the front or heel of each foot.

The students designed intricate circuitry within each shoe that translates each foot movement into a different command to guide the activity in a video game. In its most basic setup, two of the high-tech shoes can control eight different game buttons. But the inventors say that with practice, this number could increase to as many as 20 buttons.

The GEAR team has successfully used the technology to play popular games such as Counter-Strike, Fallout 4, and World of Warcraft. The students also set up a small online survey, putting four virtual characters through the same challenging segment of a video game. When the game clips were posted online, viewers were asked to identify which character was being controlled by an amputee using the GEAR technology. Of the 51 viewers who participated in the survey, 81 percent failed to identify the correct GEAR-controlled character.

The GEAR team members have worked with the Johns Hopkins Technology Ventures staff to obtain a provisional patent covering their invention. Their goal is to license their work to a company that can help make their device widely available.