Villanova Engineering Students Turn Mario Kart into Tool to Improve Focus of Children with Attention-Deficit Disorders

Villanova Engineering Students Turn Mario Kart into Tool to Improve Focus of Children with Attention-Deficit Disorders

Mario Kart, Nintendo’s iconic go-kart-style racing video game first released 26 years ago, could now help improve children’s ability to focus, thanks to a group of Villanova University engineering students.

For their senior project, four engineering students—Nathan Cheong, Dan Tagliaferro, Stephanie Jones and Scott Miller—worked with faculty advisor Mark Jupina, PhD, assistant professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, to design a system that measures players’ brain waves to assess their level of focus while playing Mario Kart. The more focused the player is, the quicker they will be able to move in the game, while lapses of focus slow the player’s Kart down. The students’ goal is to help children with attention-deficit disorders improve their ability to focus, while having fun at the same time in a low-pressure environment.

Here’s how it works: the player dons a pair of neurofeedback glasses made by Narbis, which use sensors to track brain activity. The glasses connect with a device called the Makey Makey, which sends signals based on the measured brain activity to a tiny computer called Raspberry Pi (about the size of a bar of soap). Using Raspberry Pi, the students designed a program to run in the background of Mario Kart. As the player’s focus level changes, the background program adjusts the speed of the Kart accordingly.

The students 3D-printed a box to contain the Raspberry Pi, on which they also installed a line of ten lights on the box that display the player’s focus level based on their brain waves; that way both the player and observers are able to better track changing concentration levels.  

The students spent the fall 2017 semester designing and bringing the entire system to demo. Their next goals include incorporating a PlayStation controller for more natural game play—the system currently uses a computer keyboard—as well as enabling game play for multiple users at the same time and simplifying the components of the system. Once they have made the system more portable and user-friendly, the students envision it as a useful tool for therapists working with children to enable them to monitor their progress in improving focus levels, while providing the children with a communal activity that is constructive and entertaining at the same time.