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Man with muscular dystrophy shows how AI can be used for good with 'Project Gameface'

"Muscular dystrophy takes, and this actually added an ability. So it's the first time I've gained something in a physical sense."

Video game streamer Lance Carr using Project Gameface

Scientific discoveries and technological advancements have always been a double-edged sword. Nuclear fission gave us a powerful source of clean energy and as well as the most destructive weapons humanity has ever seen. The internet gave us unparalleled access to the entire library of human knowledge and also unparalleled exploitation and porn. Social media has connected people around the world in ways previous generations barely dreamed of and also resulted in a toxic online culture that threatens to shred the fabric of society.

Now, after several dozen movies imagining the best and worst-case scenarios, we're at that fork in the road with Artificial Intelligence. The sudden leap in AI tech hitting the mainstream has us all wondering what comes next. But for all the AI fear and uncertainty, there are some pretty incredible, humanity-boosting ways it is being used that may signal some hope for that future.


For instance, AI is allowing facial expressions to control computers. Case in point: a project inspired by quadriplegic video game streamer Lance Carr, whose rare form of muscular dystrophy only allows him to control his face and head movements. Carr had been using a head-tracking mouse (an expensive piece of accessibility equipment controlled by head movement) for gaming, but after his house caught fire during a livestream on Twitch in 2021, he lost everything.

"Video games are my link to the world," Carr explained in a video describing the project. "But I had to stop gaming because this house burnt down along with my adaptive equipment."

Carr got connected with some folks at Google to co-design Project Gameface, a fittingly-named tool that allows users to use facial movements as game controls. Linking several different AI models together, the project uses a mesh of 468 points on your face and converts them into telemetry to make mouse movements and clicks. For instance, raising your eyebrows can make the mouse drag or click and opening your mouth can move the cursor.

The best part is that since the project is open source and only requires a webcam for input, it will be widely accessible to people who want or need to use it. And for those who don't have full use of their limbs, it may be a game-changer as it has been for Carr.

"Muscular dystrophy takes, and this actually added an ability," he said. "So it's the first time I've gained something in a physical sense." He shared that the technology is so precise that he's able to write his name in cursive using only his face through a webcam.

Watch:

Though Google says it's still in development, they have made it available for preview through GitHub for people who want to give it a spin and help contribute to its improvement.

The potential dangers of AI may be making people nervous, but let's be sure not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. In the hands of people who are focused on helping humanity progress wisely and responsibly, AI can be a powerful, life-changing tool that makes people's lives better.

As Lance Carr said, "My hope is to definitely give this technology to everybody who could use it," the gamer added. "I just want to make a lot of people's lives better and easier."

Here's to those using ever-advancing technology for good.

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The surprising thing her friends worried about when she came out as trans.

People thought my nerdy interests would change. They didn’t — but my relationship with them did.

In June 2015, I picked up the phone and dialed my old friend Rick’s number, guided by the muscle memory of having done it so many times before.

This time, the topic wouldn’t be our excitement over the new Dungeon Master’s guide or some neat piece of esoterica we had learned in Mr. Zebracki’s history class. This discussion would be much more abstract.


“I have something to tell you, Rick,” I began. “I realized recently that I’m transgender, and I’m planning on transitioning genders at some point in the next year or so, so that I can live my life a little more honestly.”

After a moment of silence, Rick said exactly what I was hoping to hear: “You’re one of my oldest friends. If that’s what you think you need to do, of course I support it, and I’ll help you however you need me to.” But he also had some questions: Would I still play video games? Would I still like Star Wars?

Rick and I bonded in high school over our mutual love of nerd culture, which we had embraced long before anyone else thought it was cool.

It started with daily after-school pilgrimages to the comic shop to buy Star Wars cards, our beloved pastime that occupied us for hours. The amount of time and money we spent on them was ungodly. As we grew older, Star Wars cards eventually gave way to encyclopedic knowledge on movies, music, anime. Rick even found a way to make sports nerdy with his encyclopedic knowledge of the history and statistics of any given game. It was more than an obsession. It was in our DNA.

Yet Rick, and many others I shared the news of my transition with, still wondered whether changing my gender presentation would affect my bone-deep love of nerd culture.

Friends asked, "Can we still talk about 'Doctor Who'?" and "Does this mean you won’t play Starcraft with me anymore?" My dad even asked me if I’d still want to make beer with him the way we do every Thanksgiving. The nature of these questions made me realize how invested people were in the assumed gender alignment of the activities we all enjoyed together.

"Of course I’m still going to do all of those things!" I replied each time. From my perspective, I was making a change that would lighten my mood and allow me to enjoy life better. Yes, I would look different, and I would be happier, but I wasn’t concerned any of my passions or interests would disappear. To those who expressed these concerns, I may as well have been walking away from everything that made up my personality.

I realized at a basic level, they thought nerd culture was “boy stuff.”

Before my transition, I hadn’t thought much about how that attitude might have affected the girls’ experience. Now that I was moving from being one of the boys to "just like one of the boys," I realized how different those experiences really are.

For people socialized as men, being part of a predominantly male clique is an important part of building a self-concept. It supplies men with a healthy sense of validation and inclusion. It’s that same pack mentality that gave rise to concepts like "guy code," "bros before hoes," and "locker room talk." Without feeling a connection to it, some men feel they are missing out on a crucial part of life.

The essence of male hierarchy touches all cultures, as Katelyn Burns points out. So it should come as no surprise that it also touched communities I was involved with.

I, too, had been socialized to believe certain things were for men and other things were for women. Any crossover should be looked at as foreign and suspicious. I don’t blame men for these aspects of toxic masculinity that seep into the general population. It’s a part of the blueprint men are handed in youth. It's the same blueprint I was given and lived with uncomfortably for 27 years.

Girls, on the other hand, tend to approach being "one of the guys" as something we use to get past gender barriers and just engage with the things we like.

Women tend to see the activities we participate in as less enabled by gender (i.e., "boxing is a sport for men") and more enabled in spite of gender (i.e., "just because I’m a girl doesn’t mean I can’t be a boxer").

Women are conscious that participation in male-dominated activities tends to be at the leisure of the men involved, and that membership in the group could be revoked at any time.

For example, if one of the men begins to pursue a woman in the group romantically and she doesn’t return his interest, her continued participation may be threatened. This becomes even riskier for women in male-dominated professions like cybersecurity — my own field of expertise. In professional settings, the stakes raise dramatically. Rejection of a man’s advances can cost us more than our hobby, sometimes it can cost us our jobs.

Often, women deal with this fundamental outsiderness by creating secret spaces where we can pursue feminine interests on our own terms, where being "one of the guys" is no longer the only key for entry.

When I reintegrated into my old hobbies post-transition, I found there were entire subcultures built by women of the group, for women. These small, isolated, and distinctive societies women created were completely invisible to me before I transitioned.

It was like finding a secret room in a house I lived in for decades.

In these women-centered spaces, topics of feminine interest could be discussed openly and out of view of the men in the group. We were shielding ourselves from having to openly remind anyone that we were women. We feared if they noticed, our passageway into acceptance might close.

I watched this happen many times online, in particularly hostile ways. Once men realized an opponent was a woman, players in online games like "Battlefield," "Counterstrike," or "Halo," emboldened by anonymity, would launch into misogynistic attacks after every victory or loss, or sometimes for no reason at all. Any given round I could expect to hear sage platitudes, such as, “go back to the kitchen,” or “why don’t you make me a sandwich?” not to mention a barrage of slurs.

The nerd culture narrative is that we’re a group of outcasts who built a community to cope with the awkwardness and rejection of being a pariah in a social structure that didn’t value the same things we did. But we brought the seeds of our own inherent caste systems with us.

It perpetuated an unspoken marginalization of girls that bordered on outright contempt. It forced girls to find ways to evolve and to express themselves despite the constraints that exist when men make the rules.

Nerd culture is always going to be a part of me and my history. I wouldn’t be who I am without it, and I’m glad that I still have a place in my communities no matter what I’m wearing, what my name is, or how I look. In many places — at my local gaming store, at my friends’ houses, and in these women-centric spaces I never saw before — I’ve found the accepting and understanding community that nerd culture is supposed to be.

I’ve also realized how far we are from being that all the time, for everyone.

The road to acceptance runs directly through a minefield of toxic masculinity, and women’s participation is often tentative — and requires we leave our woman-ness at the door.

Our identities are complex. The interests of women are broad and deep, as is our capability to adapt to situations in casual and professional settings. Being the versatile creatures we are, women will always find a way into communities that interest us.

We have a chance to set aside any preconceived expectations we have of gender and fight the goblins together. We’re going to need all the help we can get.

This story first appeared on The Establishment and is reprinted here with permission.

Margaret Marshall and Rachael Kauffung have found a delightful way of dealing with all the negative news from the past 12 to 18 months.

The two friends, who first met as co-workers at Amazon, have a major yen for games of all kinds and began holding weekly game nights as a way to de-stress.

In looking for new games to play, however, they noticed a lack of options that left everyone feeling good at the end of the night. Popular indie card game Cards Against Humanity brands itself "the party game for horrible people" while other games like Risk or Monopoly pit players against each other. Even games like Pandemic that require player collaboration to win can be kind of a downer at a time when Zika and Ebola have been part of the global conversation.


So the friends created a brand new game, one designed to make people feel good.

They called it Sway: A Game of Debate and Silver Linings.

Unlike other games, where players weigh worst-case scenarios or fight over hypothetical boardwalks while trying not to go broke or land in jail, players win Sway through the power of positive thinking.

Photo via Sway, used with permission.

In each round of the game, players go head-to-head in 30-second debates on various topics (both silly and serious) and win if they can “sway” the judge for the round. The twist? Players can only use positive arguments.

Oh, and occasionally players are challenged to present their arguments in Scottish accents or while doing a challenging yoga pose to get extra points. And when you win, you do a happy dance.

Just kidding. Dancing is totally optional. Photo via Sway creators, used with permission.

In the spirit of positivity and silver linings, Kauffung and Marshall have also decided to donate part of the game's profits to a charitable cause.

Image via B+ Foundation.

Kauffung's father, who recently lost his own battle with cancer, had always been passionate about fighting pediatric cancer. So for every game purchased, Silver Linings Games (the company that makes Sway) will donate $1 to B+ Foundation, an organization that supports families of kids with cancer.

Marshall and Kauffung hope playing Sway helps people remember that there's more to life than winning or being right — and that there's a silver lining to everything.

"[Sway is] not about winning or being right," Marshall and Kauffung explain in an email. "It's about silliness and silver linings and having a good time with people you care about (even if you disagree with them)."

As someone who recently played Sway for the first time, I can honestly say it's super easy to learn, definitely challenging, and filled with unexpected hilarity. It's a great way to dissolve tensions that may have built up between families and friends without letting competitive gameplay bring out the worst in you.

Not to mention, there was a study conducted at the University of North Carolina that found consistent positive thinking can make you happier, healthier, and more productive.

Photo via Sway creators, used with permission.

Whatever your way of reflecting on the positive things in life may be, it's important to remember how many reasons you have to laugh, cheer, and embrace the people around you. After all, it's hard to be mad when you're watching your friend try to explain the benefits of arachnophobia in a thick Boston accent — because that is not easy, but it is hilarious.

Want to learn more? Here's a fun video from the creators about Sway:

Jordan Belamire's story starts in a snowy, medieval fortress shooting arrows at zombies and giant spiders.

The fortress wasn't real, of course; it was a level in a video game called QuiVr. She was actually standing in the living room of her brother-in-law's home in Redwood City. In her hands were two motion-sensing video game controllers and strapped to her head was the HTC Vive — one of the best and first consumer-level virtual reality (VR) headsets available.

A man using the HTC Vive. Photo by Sam Yeh/AFP/Getty Images.


Belamire was completely immersed in this virtual snow-blanketed landscape.

"Never had I experienced virtual reality that felt so real," Belamire wrote of her time playing QuiVr. "I was smitten. I never wanted to leave this world."

VR is a essentially a series of games brought to life by a headset that immerses you in a 3D, 360-degree simulated environment. The headset tracks your head movements so that if you look up in real life, you'll see the simulated sky. Look to your left, and there's a fast approaching enemy. Look to your right, and you see a fellow player, signed in to the game with you.

VR promises to be at least the next big thing in entertainment. At most? An interactive technology as ubiquitous as TV or the internet.

But VR is not without some unexpected problems — and Belamire's experience with the game soon turned sour.

Belamire booted up a multiplayer version of the same game, launching herself back into the same, snowy, virtual world. This time, however, she had other real life players — virtually — beside her.

Photo by Hannelore Foerster/Getty Images.

Between waves of attacking zombies, a nearby player began groping Belamire's avatar — grabbing at her chest with a disembodied 3D floating hand.

It was just as weird and creepy as it sounds.

"I must have laughed from the embarrassment and the ridiculousness of the situation," Belamire said. "Women, after all, are supposed to be cool and take any form of sexual harassment with a laugh. But I still told him to stop."

The other player didn't stop. In fact, he chased and followed Belamire, continuing his virtual assault despite her multiple pleas to stop. Frustrated, she had no choice but to rip off her headset and log out of the game.

Belamire left the game wondering if virtual reality was destined to become yet another space where women are chased out by targeted harassment.

Photo by Glenn Chapman/AFP/Getty Images.

She wrote of the experience in a blog post (which has since been deleted) and then, presumably, expected that to be the end of it. After all, tech companies have been notoriously hit or miss when it comes to responding to online harassment.

Then something unexpected happened. Belamire got a response from the game company.

"The first thing I felt was that we had let someone down," wrote Andrew Stanton, a developer for QuiVR. "We should have prevented this in the first place."

Stanton and fellow developer Jonathan Schenker were deeply saddened and disturbed by Belamire's experience in their game but used it as motivation to solve the problem. "No one should be able to treat another player like [Belamire] had been treated again," Stanton said.

They introduced an in-game solution in the form of a superpower. With the push of a button, players were granted the ability to create a personal bubble around their avatar that makes anyone who enters it disappear from view. It's a simple and innovative solution that puts the power directly in the player's hands to control their personal player-space in a virtual world.

"We don’t know if this solution will work perfectly," Stanton wrote. "And it’s certainly not the only solution; like everyone in VR, we’re just learning how to approach these very real problems. "

VR is a young technology, which means now is the time for developers to implement forward-thinking solutions to these inevitable problems.

Virtual reality essentially promises a new plane of reality. One where you can be whoever you want to be and one where, ideally, you have a reasonable expectation of privacy and safety.

Mark Zuckerberg has been a big supporter of VR technology and its potential to extend beyond gaming into social interactions. Photo by Glenn Chapman/AFP/Getty Images.

Harassment and bullying are an unfortunately ubiquitous part of the gaming community. Game creators across all platforms are addressing it in different ways. Riot Games, for example, built a "player behavior team" filled with psychology Ph.D.s to analyze, study, and tackle the rampant harassment they found in their online communities.

VR has the potential to be a mainstream entertainment platform that reaches more people than standard video games. The difference is that VR games feel real to those playing — meaning things like virtual sexual harassment feel just like real-world sexual harassment and can cause the same emotional trauma. To that end, solutions are badly needed to protect players like Belamire who had her experience ruined in mere minutes.

Photo by Josep Lago/AFP/Getty Images.

The developers of QuiVr plan to make their "personal bubble" technology available to all VR game developers — and Jordan Belamire thanked them for addressing her concerns so quickly and efficiently.

Wherever this whole VR thing goes, it should be a place where everyone can have fun, where no one has to be subjected to sexual harassment or bullying or unwanted attention.

It's a lofty promise, but VR is inherently untied to the laws of reality. Giving players bully-stopping superpowers is simply a matter of writing code. Maybe the future of VR is the future of personal empowerment. Maybe not.

At the very least, you should be able to kill some zombies in peace.