Image: Microsoft

Microsoft Has Created the Most Accessible Gaming Controller Ever Made

The Xbox Adaptive Controller shows that game companies can do a lot more to accommodate players with motor disabilities.

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May 17 2018, 5:00am

Image: Microsoft

Today Microsoft is revealing the Xbox Adaptive controller to meet the needs of the disabled gaming community. It looks nothing like the ergonomic game console controllers we've come to recognize over the years, but it could make gaming more accessible than ever.

It has a large, flat frame that can fit snugly on a player's lap, or sit on a surface using its four domed rubber feet to grip. The idea is to give players as many adaptive options as possible, to meet the mobility needs of as many gamers as possible. The buttons allow for less force, lower accuracy while pressing, and a larger surface to work with.

Image: Microsoft

There are a billion disabled people in the world according to the World Health Organization, making up roughly 15 percent of the population. As video games have become more complex, they have left many of those people out of an integral social activity. To tackle the problem, the Xbox team at Microsoft collaborated with partners including AbleGamers, Craig Hospital, the Cerebral Palsy Foundation, and others.

Up until now, Microsoft’s official answer for how to make gaming more accessible was to have players purchase the Elite Xbox One Controller for $150. With its myriad of interchangeable parts, many gamers discovered that they could force the controller to conform to the needs of their bodies. Between the interchangeable buttons and levers, and a feature that allows gamers to remap the various pre-programed buttons, gaming became a more viable option for some users with some types of motor disabilities.

Unfortunately the Elite controller did not solve the problem for most limited mobility gamers. For those who were left out, they needed to rely heavily on help from organizations like AbleGamers. The non-profit helps gamers with disabilities by giving grants to pay for specialty gaming equipment, along with the setup of that equipment. Wheelchair mounts, mouth controlled switches, foot pedals, and other assistive technology need to be designed individually by hand, which could cost upwards of $500. These setups also required a good fundamental understanding of how this technology worked, which is a skill most family and caregivers lack. The need for outside assistance also limited autonomy. Players who were unable to set up equipment independently needed to wait for a caregiver or family member to assist them in order to play anything. All of which restricted people with disabilities from joining in on a highly social, and personally rewarding activity.

Image: Microsoft

In early 2017, Microsoft announced the launch of a new Xbox feature called Copilot. It allowed for two controllers to maneuver a single character in a game. It was designed to allow gamers who might need assistance playing games at times, to be able to play alongside with family and friends.

The development of copilot, and the success of using the Elite controller for gamers with motor disabilities, led Microsoft to consider an untapped market. For Xbox, recognizing exclusion meant realizing that a controller, as it was designed, took a lot of mobility for granted. To use a traditional controller, gamers are expected to be able to use both hands, all ten fingers, equal strength on both sides of the body, and be able to push small buttons. Learning from diversity led the team to work with Craig Hospital to find out what people really needed from a game controller. As the Xbox team discovered with copilot, inclusive designs often help populations outside of the intended market.

The Xbox team learned that the Adaptive Controller needed to tackle both the timely setup problem for gamers, cost, and allow for gamers to setup the controller independently. The results of the endeavor was a device featuring the classic sleek black-and-white color scheme that customers have come to associate with the Xbox brand.

While other companies write off the need for adaptivity, the Xbox team has embraced the challenge with a genuine desire to bring in more gamers.

The controller has a slight slope to it, making it easier to use both on the floor, on a table, or in a lap. It has a directional pad, a classic Xbox button, menu button, and two very large, domed, black buttons that are designed to be pressed with a wrist, elbow, foot, or any other part of a gamer’s body that they choose to use. The dome shape allows for less strength to be used while activating a button. On the back of the controller are two 10-24 screw holes that are designed to be compatible with AMPS adaptable mounts, and one ¼-20 screw which is compatible with tripod mounts, though the company also recommends exploring RAM mounting options.

What really makes the design unique, however, are the nineteen 3.5mm jack inputs along the back edge. Most assistive equipment such as the AbleNet Buddy Buttons (which only need a very light touch to activate), AbleNet Pillow Switch (enabling the use of head or cheek to activate a switch), or the Big Red switch (a larger version of the Buddy Buttons, which allows for less accuracy) use the 3.5mm input design so players can use the device that works best for them.

Whether gamers need to use their feet, hands, shoulders, or head they can perform any in-game action. Each of the inputs also include small grooves to help guide an unsteady hand toward the input. Since the cost of the controller is slated to cost $99, and it can be used with equipment already using 3.5mm jacks, it greatly reduces the initial set-up costs, even if gamers need to purchase additional equipment such as the $100 3D Rudder Pad—a device that acts as a directional pad that can be controlled with the feet.

Image: Microsoft

The Adaptive Controller allows for even further customization by enabling gamers to create three independent profiles, which fits neatly into the Xbox’s already built-in remapping feature. This means that a gamer who on one profile has a Buddy Switch mapped to be the X button on the controller, can (in another profile) have it mapped to be the Y button to avoid needing to unplug the switch once it’s in. Built right into the face of the controller is the profile button, that enables users to rapidly switch between profiles while gaming if a game uses multiple buttons or combinations of buttons. Three light indicators next to the profile button inform users which profile is currently being used.

Any standard assistive tech can be used with the controller. During a demo using the Xbox game Super Lucky's Tale, an adventure where the player controls the movements of a Fox trying to save his sister, the player was able to jump around gathering coins by using a foot pedal for the jump button, a joystick as the directional pad (which does not require the use of fingers and can be controlled instead by an elbow or wrist), and the two large face buttons controlling his spin move.

Because the controller is intended to act precisely the way a standard controller does, it is compatible with all currently existing accessibility features. It can control Narrator, Microsoft’s built in screen reader on their devices, speech-to-text features, closed captions, copilot, and everything else Windows 10 and Xbox offer. Which offers true universal design possibilities.

Microsoft has truly embraced the idea of inclusive design with the development of the Adaptive Controller. While other companies write off the need for adaptivity, the Xbox team has embraced the challenge with a genuine desire to bring in more gamers. The team was able to get input from real-life users (a step far too many adaptive tech companies skip and leads to subpar products). The results have been not only a unique product, but also one that breaks boundaries and proves that not only is it possible to develop with disabled players in mind, but that it is a worthwhile business move.

By expanding its already extensive list of accessibility options (already far out stepping its competitors at PlayStation and Nintendo), Xbox is opening itself up to being the device everyone in the family can use. It’s opening the doors for thus far closed off social activity. Innovation is how businesses expand into new markets, and Microsoft is certainly setting up the Xbox as being the all-inclusive gaming package for all gamers, no matter their disability.