Infirmity is not insurmountable hurdle for techie

AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer
AKIRA SUWA / Staff Photographer
Posted: April 11, 2014

CHERRY HILL Dan Fischbach says computer game design is all about details.

So let's acknowledge one of those up front: Fischbach is completely blind in his left eye and legally blind - he has 20/200 vision, or less - in his right.

"Most people don't realize I have a severe visual impairment, unless I tell them," the personable Cherry Hill resident says.

Fischbach has never used a cane or a guide dog. But he's using Google Glass, as one of the "explorers" who won a contest to buy the $1,500 experimental computer.

Among other feats, "Glass" projects optical displays of real-time video and other data on a pair of lenses. It is not designed to correct a wearer's eyesight.

"If you love new technology, it's great," Fischbach says. "If you're looking for a finished product, it's not for you."

He doffs the cutting-edge specs as he sits at his kitchen table, multitasking with his golden retrievers (Max and Emily), his devices (tablet, smartphone), and a visiting columnist.

Fischbach apologizes for "blathering," but I'll take this sort of voracious discourse any day. Within 10 minutes we've touched on game industry politics, online "game jams," and the opportunities to widen the game market beyond its dude/geek masses.

I'm not surprised that people sometimes can't imagine that this gregarious beardo with the big smile has never driven a car. Except while playing a computer game.

"When I tell people I'm legally blind, they'll say, 'How do you watch TV? How can you be a game designer?' " Fischbach laughs. "And I'll say, 'The only difference is, I look at the screen pretty damn close.' "

The younger of the two children of a small businessman and a geriatric care manager, Fischbach was born three months before his due date in 1986.

He weighed 1.5 pounds and developed retinopathy of prematurity, an eyesight-destroying condition common among premature and low-birth-weight babies.

Experimental surgery preserved some sight in his right eye, enabling him to read text in print or online. A monocle-like eyepiece and a magnification and video display system called a 'Jordy' helped him navigate the Cherry Hill schools; he can vividly remember the first time the device enabled him to see individual flakes of snow falling.

Meanwhile, Fischbach's computer game education began when he was 4. "I played NES [Nintendo Entertainment System] games," he says. "I remember playing Super Mario Bros., of course."

Thus began his enduring respect for Nintendo and its characters. One of his favorites is Wolf O'Donnell, an eyeshade-wearing team leader in the company's Star Fox game series.

(Not for nothing has Fischbach nicknamed himself "Blind Wolf" on Facebook and other online platforms).

After graduating from Cherry Hill West in 2004, he earned a B.S. in information technology from the New Jersey Institute of Technology and a master's degree from the University of Central Florida's Interactive Entertainment Academy.

"The challenge for all young people trying to get into the game industry is having products and projects to show," says Todd Deery, the academy's director of admissions and communications.

Fischbach was the lead designer and associate producer of Wallet Wizard, a game developed in 2012 by a Colorado firm called SynapticSwitch. In 2013, he also was project leader for Frantic Frog.

"Dan brings a lot to the table," says Ryan Morrison, the chief executive officer of Island Officials, the Woodbury firm that developed Frantic Frog.

"He's intelligent, organized, hardworking. . . . I hope to find another project we can work on together."

When I ask Fischbach about his future, he's matter-of-fact. Determined, too.

"I've got some sight," he says. "So I better use it."

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