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Blind computer users are playing by ear

There are about a million blind people in America, and they've got as much right to save the universe as anybody else.

Justin Daubenmire thinks so. When he's not designing Internet commerce software for a company in Boardman, Ohio, Daubenmire, 32, spends his spare time like many another computer geek, blowing away aliens on his home PC. But Daubenmire, who is blind, created these aliens himself. They're part of a game called Troopanum, a deceptively simple piece of software that places the fate of the planet in the player's hands -- and ears.

Indeed, Daubenmire has produced two other titles designed for blind people with a yen for digital amusements. He's one of a tiny band of game devotees who specialize in computer games for the blind -- games that use precisely recorded stereo sound rather than lavish 3-D images to guide players through the action.

Many early PC games were text-based adventure stories, in which the player typed in commands such as ''pick up sword" or ''run away." Blind computer users armed with ''screen reader" programs to read text aloud can play such games as readily as anyone. But programmers were seduced by the delights of high-end graphics, leaving blind players on the sidelines. Daubenmire hopes his software will get them back in the game.

Daubenmire modeled Troopanum after the classic arcade games of the 1980s. ''Troopanum is almost like a carbon copy of Galaxian, Space Invaders, and Missile Command all in one," he said. Basically, the player must try to shoot down wave after wave of attackers as they come scrolling down the screen. Only this time, there's no screen. There are only sounds, playing through the computer's stereo speakers. Guided by sound alone, the player zips back and forth, trying to blast the enemy without being blasted himself.

Daubenmire didn't have games in mind when he graduated from Youngstown State University in Ohio with a computer science degree. The company he founded, blindsoftware.com, was supposed to produce mundane office productivity software for people with vision problems. But his customers wanted more. ''I started seeing an increase in people requesting games," Daubenmire said. So much of an increase, in fact, that he established a business unit, BSC Games, just to tap this market. His first title, Troopanum, premiered in 2002. Since then he's upgraded the game and rolled out two more titles, Pipe 2: Blast Chamber and Hunter. Demo versions of each game are available for free downloading at www.bscgames.com. Each of them has sold between 500 and 800 copies at $35 each.

The price isn't bad, considering the $50 price tag on most high-end computer games. But then, most of those games contain lots of expensive programming aimed at creating realistic three-dimensional graphics. That's hardly Daubenmire's problem. Instead, he and his colleagues have to translate all the action of a computer game into sound.

Game instructions are narrated by a cool female voice, provided by a voice-over artist. ''She's from the UK," said Daubenmire, ''which added a wonderful, wonderful twist to the work." Then there's an array of distinctive sound effects produced by a professional sound engineer. Every attacking spaceship or monster makes its own sound, which grows louder as it approaches the player. Threats also ''move" from side to side, thanks to the clever use of stereo. ''You're listening for objects, and you're centering them," said Daubenmire. When the bad guy is squarely in range, there's a lock-on sound -- time to hit the ''control" key and blast him.

This kind of sound-based play isn't exactly alien to the world of sighted gamers. For years, computer games have featured surround-sound capability. Players with high-end audio systems can hear attackers sneaking up from the rear, giving them an edge in competitive online play. For many serious gamers, a top-notch sound system is almost as important as superb video performance.

Joshua McClure established WidowPC in Georgetown, Texas, to cater to the demands of elite gamers. But when Daubenmire asked him to design gaming computers for the blind, McClure discovered an entirely new market. ''We started out not even knowing there were blind gamers," McClure said. But no matter -- ''We know what it takes to do a high-performance audio PC."

WidowPC's blind gaming machines start at $1,255 and go up to $3,000 depending on the options selected. Though that may sound pricey, the machines are actually a little cheaper than high-end computers for sighted gamers. That's because a really good graphics card for 3-D images can cost up to $600. Any old graphics card is good enough for a blind user. That lets WidowPC concentrate on producing high-quality sound. For serious blind gamers, WidowPC offers a machine with an eight-speaker surround-sound system. It's a rig designed to reveal every audio nuance of a game. ''This is a system that is put together just for blind people," McClure said. He estimates that his company has sold three or four dozen of them. ''That's awesome for us," said McClure. ''We love it."

Blind gamers are still unable to play most mainstream games, and that's unlikely to change. The International Game Developers Association last year issued a white paper urging game designers to make their software more accessible to people with a variety of disabilities ranging from vision problems to paralysis. But since the great majority of games rely on visual cues, there are limits to what can be done for people who can't see at all.

But then, few sighted gamers have ever known the challenge of battling through the blackness of space guided only by the sounds of approaching enemies. Taking on one of Daubenmire's action games can test the skill of even the most experienced players. And yet, anyone can do it with his eyes closed.

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