Daniel Melville interview: What it feels like to have a Metal Gear Solid bionic arm
Daniel Melville was born without a right hand. But the 29-year-old man from Reading in the United Kingdom is ready to do some high-fives now that he has a new bionic arm. And it’s not just any bionic arm. It’s a real 3D-printed prosthetic based on the Metal Gear Solid video game series.
Open Bionics and Metal Gear Solid publisher Konami teamed up to create a Venom Snake bionic arm for Melville, who has served as an ambassador for Open Bionics for a few years. I talked with Melville back in 2018. The company had created an artificial limb that was based on the character Adam Jensen from the sci-fi game Deus Ex: Mankind Divided. But that are wasn’t all that functional. It did look cool. The new prosthetic is different — it enables Melville to use is arm muscles to activate the bionic arm. He can get it to do things like pick up a Lego brick and place it. And Melville can use the new arm to play some PC games.
The progress made in just a couple of years shows how we’re moving to a world that blends organic and artificial objects, just like the designers and writers envisioned in Deus Ex. That game envisions a future in which people augment themselves with artificial body parts, like powerful bionic limbs. Jensen helps root out a conspiracy against “augs,” or augmented humans, who are discriminated against by “naturals.”
Melville is the first speaker we’ve booked for our GamesBeat Summit 2021 event, which will take place on April 28 and April 29, 2021. Keisha Howard, founder of Sugar Gamers, will moderate the session.
Here’s an edited transcript of our interview.
Above: Daniel Melville has a bionic arm from Konami and Open Bionics.
GamesBeat: How is the arm going for you? I was curious about whether the arms have made progress in the time since we first saw them.
Daniel Melville: It’s changed massively, to be honest. The Deux Ex one, you spoke to Chris about that? The original Deus Ex one, when I was part of that project, that was made to fit only my arm. With these ones, you can change the covers, and it’s come a long way. All of it, the electronics, the sensors and all that, is in the arm. Before, it was all there, but I had to unplug it all the time. It couldn’t do different grip patterns and things like that. It only had open and close. It wasn’t as dextrous as this is.
GamesBeat: How does that work? There’s a certain point where you’re changing what you do with the arm, and that helps you control it.
Melville: It’s the pulses in your arm, the muscles in your arm. How you’d do that is how I would close it. If you were to tense your muscle like so, it opens. It’s not to do with my brain exactly. It’s all to do with your muscles. It’s reading inside — the sensors are here. Every time your muscles pulse, it works out what you’re trying to do, and when it comes to actual grip, you just change that to a different grip pattern and it’ll know you’re doing something new.
GamesBeat: What does that enable you to do, practically?
Melville: For me it’s been a lot of different things. Holding a pen, for instance. I can draw with this. I’ve put videos on my Instagram doing random drawings, like Adam Jensen. Just random stuff. I like to see what you can do with it. It’s pretty dexterous. I can pick up Legos. I’ve built some Lego with it. It’s pretty helpful for stuff like that.
It’s pretty good for PC gaming, but it’s not good for console gaming. A lot of people ask about that. You can hold a mouse and everything like that, but with a controller, it doesn’t have wrist rotation. For the moment that rotation is manual. That’s where I’d like to see it go next, more wrist movement. Instead of me having to change it, it would be cool to see that.
Above: Daniel Melville has a 3D printer in his home.
GamesBeat: How have they advanced the sensors that read the signals from your muscles?
Melville: I don’t know all the ins and outs, to be quite honest. Because so much of it is made up of trade secrets, I don’t know everything. But it’s changed, in the last six years — in two week’s time it’ll be six years since I started helping them. It’s mainly to do with the sensors and the motors in the arm. I could be holding an egg and it won’t just break. It knows when to stop.
GamesBeat: It looks pretty good, even knowing that it was 3D printed. It looks like something manufactured. 3D printing has come a long way.
Melville: Oh, massively. I don’t have the original Deus Ex arm. Open Bionics has that in their collection. But I have one of my old arms here. You can see how the covers have changed. None of these make a difference in how you use it, but it’s great for anyone who wants to show off their personality. They have ones from Marvel, like Iron Man. They have some Star Wars ones. Someone like myself, in their late 20s, having an arm that’s related to a video game I love is great, but they’re also accommodating older users.
GamesBeat: You mentioned PC gaming. You can control a mouse with it?
Melville: Yeah, pretty well. I haven’t played on the PC in a little while, because I’m trying to be good during lockdown and play through the games I’ve had on my PlayStation for ages. It’s a bit like anything. The more practice you go through with it, the better you get. The more I use a mouse, I get better at it. But it is difficult at times. I’m getting used to it.
GamesBeat: How have you managed console gaming before now? Have you used something like Microsoft’s adaptive controller?
Melville: The Xbox adaptive controller was an amazing idea, and I’m surprised that PlayStation didn’t do it themselves. But I grew up with my dad playing PC games. I was more of a PC gamer when I was young. My friends were going toward console, though, and so — funny enough, my parents won a PlayStation the day it came out, and they sold it, because I have an older brother. They thought it wouldn’t be fair if he could use it and I couldn’t. But then they saw me playing one at my after-school club.
The way it works — I can’t show anyone unless I make a video of this. But essentially I have to use my knee. After 29 years on the planet, I’ve learned how to use a console controller. It’s just adapting, working out how you can play with it. In my attic, in my memory box, I have a controller that was just for people with one hand. It had all the buttons on one controller, but it was really cumbersome. I thought, “What’s the point of this?” So I just adapted. It’s one of those things where you just have to have the determination to do it.
Above: Danielle Melville tried out a Deus Ex: Mankind Divided bionic arm in 2018.
GamesBeat: How did you play PC games before this? Did you have other ways to use a keyboard?
Melville: When I started playing PC games, it was more of your clicky sorts of games, like Theme Hospital, Command & Conquer. Games you didn’t really need the extra controls for. The first game I played that needed all of it, I found it quite difficult. I used my left hand for the mouse, without the bind, and then the keyboard with what I have. I played Tomb Raider on the PC and found that kind of difficult, but the more I played it, the better I got. I just found my way to how to do it.
GamesBeat: I know some games have made strides. Was the Last of Us Part 2 more accessible for you?
Melville: Funny enough, I’ve done some stuff for PlayStation Access on accessibility and stuff. I didn’t know, until I started doing that, that they had disabled access built into games like that or Spider-Man. I just played the game normally and platinum’d it. And then I thought, “Oh crap, there was an easier way for me to do this?” I didn’t know until after I started doing testing. I’d been playing the games like any other person, and I’ve kept it that way. It feels a bit weird to go over to Access. It’s just too odd for me.
GamesBeat: I wonder how many other people like you there are, playing games and just figuring out how to do it. I remember Microsoft saying something like at any given time, 20 percent of people playing could be challenged on accessibility in some way or another.
Melville: I have quite a lot of friends with missing limbs, especially upper limbs, and nearly every single one of them that I know have found their own way to play a console or a PC. My friend Joe, he also has an arm by Open Bionics, and he’s really good at PC. He’s in a similar situation to my arm, but he’s missing his left and not his right. So let’s say you have a racing game. He can press the R trigger much faster than I could, because I have to use my knee. Or in a shooting game they can press R2 a lot easier. In Spider-Man, on the other hand, it’s easier for me to play, because there’s more to do on the left side than on the right.
GamesBeat: Is there anything you’d like the game industry to do more of as far as helping improve accessibility?
Melville: We’re getting there. I feel like PlayStation should do a bit more, but then again, saying that, I’ve done some testing in that way about some stuff. As far as accessibility, I think Xbox has it the right way with the adaptive controller. I thought that was really cool, so why doesn’t PlayStation do this? I’m hoping they’re going that way.
Have you heard of a company called Special Effects? I love those guys. A couple of years back, with a load of other people, we did a game jam. This is back when I did game design, before I moved to 3D printing. We did a 48-hour game jam and raised a lot of money for Special Effects. I think it’s a great cause.
Above: Danielle Melvilled donned his bionic arm with an Adam Jensen outfit from Deus Ex in 2018.
GamesBeat: Yeah, they’re quite famous over here.
Melville: Until I’d done this thing for them, I’d never heard of them, but now I preach to anyone who doesn’t know about accessibility. If you think I can play games, you should see these people who are much worse off than I am. It’s one of these things where — if you’re challenged on it, you try. I personally feel that we’re getting to a stage where they’re making it much easier to access, games for everyone with every type of disability.
GamesBeat: How intensive a gamer would you say you are?
Melville: There was a time when I was thinking about getting into Twitch and everything else, because I have a small business here where I love. I’d love to get more into it. But I and my partners have lost a lot of business because of COVID. We all play games, but there are times where I go through phases and just do not stop playing games. I just can’t stop playing. And then there are times where I take a massive break from it. At the moment I’m slowly getting back into it.
I’d say that I’m less of an esports player. I find them very interesting, and I love to watch it. But I only play online with friends. I won’t play Call of Duty online with random people. I just get angry. I’m the kind of person who prefers story-driven games. That’s more my thing.
GamesBeat: Have you ordered any of the new consoles?
Melville: No, I saw the price and thought — no, I’ll give it a while. Even when the PS4 first came out, I gave it a year-and-a-half. There weren’t many games at launch, and there aren’t that many this time. But the first games that came out, I thought, “Wow, this is game-changing.” They used those aspects for the first wave of games that came out on the console, but never used it again. Something like Infamous: Second Son, where you had the spray paint? That was a cool way to use the controller, but they don’t use that anymore. I don’t understand why they add things that they’re never going to use.
Another company that I think needs a bit more accessibility, now that you have me thinking about it, is actually Nintendo. I don’t think they do a lot for people in the disabled community. For myself, playing the Switch with this, I’m literally button-mashing. I’m one of the better Super Smash players among my friends, but I can’t — I love the GameCube. It’s my all-time favorite console. The buttons were perfect for me, so when I play Smash, I have to use the adaptive ones they brought out. I play my Switch with a GameCube controller, because the buttons are too small otherwise. But yeah, I’d say Nintendo needs to step it up a bit.
GamesBeat: I remember the CNN documentary that came out around the time of Deus Ex. There was a conference related to it as well. They were pushing the idea of augmented humans, and I wonder how far that’s come in the last few years. Have you followed that at all?
Melville: I have. I don’t blame them. I do think it’s not far off in the near future, that people maybe — a good five or 10 years, but we are getting there. I do worry, though. I get people — especially yesterday, when the Metal Gear Solid thing went up. I got some quotes on my phone that are a little bit worrying. People saying things like, “Oh, I’d cut my arm off for that.” Obviously I’m not going to challenge them on it, but it’s not the greatest thing to hear. If I was born with my arms, my first choice would not be to cut it off. But that’s because I’m missing a limb. Maybe otherwise I’d change my mind. But it’s one of those things — I do think people will augment themselves in the future. I’m scared to say it, but I think it might happen.
Above: Daniel Melville’s previous bionic arm could not really control things.
GamesBeat: I wonder if you could land a pretty good smashing blow with the Metal Gear arm.
Melville: I probably could, but I’d probably break the arm as well. Give it about five or 10 years, I might be Adam Jensen punching through a well. It will get to that stage. 3D printers are advancing more and more these days. I can see stuff like that happening. Open Bionics wants to keep it family-friendly and make sure people don’t do that kind of thing, but other companies? I think it will happen in the future. You might have the rocket punch hand from Metal Gear as well.
One game that I’d love to see Open Bionics collaborate on is Capcom with Devil May Cry V. Nero’s Devil Breaker. That’s such a cool arm. That’s another game I love, because — I don’t know if I’d say it celebrates it, but it makes you feel good knowing that this person has a cool bionic arm in the game. It’s only the newest game in the series that brought in that character, and I just fell in love with it, because it has so many variations. Overwatch was another game that had some cool augmented characters, like McCree. That was probably the only game I played online on my own, Overwatch, although that’s died off a bit until Overwatch 2 came out. There’s quite a lot out there.
GamesBeat: If game companies are good at creating a more dystopian view of the subject, like Deus Ex, what would be the opposite, more utopian view of where the technology could go? Where would you want to see this applied in a way that helps people? It’s interesting that these powerful tech companies have this on their radar and they’re thinking about it, like Microsoft with their adaptive controller. If they get to version 5.0 or 10.0 of that controller, maybe that could be much more helpful to people as they play games.
Melville: The Open Bionics arm is generally, as I say — it would be great to see it adapting to playing console games. I’m a bit surprised that Elon Musk hasn’t done anything with this kind of stuff. When I saw that he was comparing himself to JC Denton I thought, “Oh, my god.” But I could see stuff like that happening with major companies.
GamesBeat: Have you asked anyone about whether they think they can get to fine motor control for someone like you? Individual fingers moving and so on.
Melville: I’ve spoken to a few companies before, or people who do research on papers, university students. People wanting feedback. I don’t remember the chap’s name, but he had a prosthetic limb that he was able to control with his mind. I imagine mixing that with Open Bionics and combining it together, and you can do things — when Mankind Divided came out and that video was made, imagine if that was real in terms of the dexterity, being able to play piano and stuff like that. I can see it happening.
I’ve also been speaking to a few people from universities and other places working on haptic feedback. Let’s say I shook your hand, right? I couldn’t feel it. It would be useful to know that I wasn’t going to crush you by having some sort of feedback. Open Bionics and other companies are looking into it, but it’s not as straightforward as people think. If it were so easy, everyone would be doing it. It’s quite difficult. But that, for me, would be the next stage, having that feedback. And, Luke Skywalker style, being able to use the entirety of the hand. It does have its limits, obviously. But fewer than it used to have.
GamesBeat: How many new versions does Open Bionics usually come out with? Is it once every few years, or do you see more frequent updates?
Melville: Because I’ve been a tester since day one, I personally have been through so many different versions that I’ve never been able to keep them. They’re constantly updating it. But when the Hero Arm came out, they said, “Right, it’s out now,” and released it. In the last two and a bit years since it came out, there have been a lot more changes. Not only the new covers, but the actual hand as well.
This has some different motor stuff in it. I’ll show you one big difference. This is the new version of the inside of it. It’s a different type of material using 3D printers. Much more high temperature. This one I have here is slightly different as well. It’s lower temperature. One thing that’s changed is this used to be Velcro, whereas now it’s magnetic. Though that might not seem like a big difference, to me it’s massive. Say I wear a sweater over it. If I have the Velcro it’s going to get caught all over me. But I’d say that every year they have a new update for the arm.
Even the thumb, for someone like me who’s tested this for several years, you can’t tell the difference too much, but there are some differences in terms of the posture of the thumb, where it clicks and how it clicks. Here they have some — it’s not fingerprints, but it’s not too tough, and not too soft either. They’re trying to get as close to the feel of an actual finger as possible. When you pick up a pen or something like that it’s nice and easy now, whereas with the original it was a bit harder. It’s constantly advancing.
I got into 3D printing six years ago because of Open Bionics, with Ultimaker and things like that, and they’ve changed massively as well. They’re becoming more accessible to people. One thing I’d love to see in the future, it would be cool if — say I break a finger off. They could say, “Oh, we’ll just send you the file and you can print it out and fix it yourself.” That would be great, fixing it from home.
Above: One day, Danielle Melville hopes he can get fine motor control with his fingers using an artificial limb.
GamesBeat: What’s your small business that you mentioned?
Melville: I do 3D printing. I make designs for other people, a lot of different things. Nothing to do with the arm. I’m just inspired by Open Bionics. I use the computer I’m on right now. We have several printers. Before COVID I was doing workshops talking about the arm, about 3D printing, about what kids and adults can make. That was my income, but now it’s been turned on its head. I’ve had to change how I do everything for now. I’ve started finding a way to recycle my 3D print waste with my other half, Harriet. We’ve lost a lot of business for what she was doing as well. It’s a bit boring, but we’re melting stuff down and reprinting. This is all my waste material. We’re turning them into pots and things like that and selling them on the internet, because I just hate waste.
GamesBeat: With the computer, do you have something that helps you with the interface, like voice controls?
Melville: No, I’m using it like any average person. I guess it’s because I was born in the ‘90s. I was born into technology. My parents tried to treat me as normally as they thought was possible, trying to do everything a normal person would do. If I was writing, I’d rather use a dictaphone. But when it comes to easy stuff like designing, I’ll just use a mouse. I don’t really think about it. Now that you mention all these things, I really have just been too hard on myself, making it too hard. I’m massively behind on these things. But I’m usually just sending emails or using the mouse and designing. If I were writing essays — most of the time I’ll have my other half write massive emails out. She’s nice about that.
When I went to school, I was the first kid there with a disability as far as an upper limb. So they were like, “What the hell do we do?” They would give me all this stuff, but I just wanted to do what everyone else is doing. I hadn’t really thought about it until right now.
GamesBeat: It’s pretty fashionable, the Metal Gear look.
Melville: I was very lucky with it. I kept saying to Sammy and everyone else, as well as other users. “We should really try to get Konami to do something with the hand.” Other people were asking about something other than Adam Jensen, and I kept bugging them. They finally said, “We’ve gotten in touch with them, would you be interested?” Yes, obviously! I love Deus Ex, but that’s what most people wanted to talk about with me. I wanted to start talking about other games. I’d rather be known as the gamer arm guy than the Deus Ex arm guy. The next stage is another video game arm, hopefully.
GamesBeat: There’s the Star Wars one, with Luke Skywalker.
Melville: They’ve finally got BB-8 and R2-D2 covers. You never know when they might have something else. I love the fact that Open Bionics is broadening horizons in terms of what people are interested in. You have gaming, films. I’m trying to think of what else there could be where people would say, “I need that arm from this, something themed out of this.”
GamesBeat: Do you know how many of these Open Bionics is getting out to people?
Melville: I don’t know at the moment. It was doing quite well before COVID, but since then it’s been a bit — you would want to ask Chris that question, because he’d have more insight. I’m down there quite often, but I don’t know. I think they’re now back on track again. But it’s been a strange year for everyone.
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