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Microsoft Hopes Its Adaptive Controller Will Help Those with Disabilities to Game

Jack Gardner

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It's hard for people to game if they don't have reliable control over two hands. That very simple premise has given rise to various organizations like dedicated to hacking traditional controllers or even fabricating entirely new and specialized controllers on an individual basis for wounded veterans, people born with disabilities, and those who have been through traumatic accidents. These groups, like AbleGamers or Warfighter Engaged, have spent years working to find solutions for people who love gaming, but find it difficult or even impossible to use a traditional controller. 


Yesterday, Microsoft announced something amazing: The Xbox Adaptive Controller. This device will release later this year and can be customized to a very wide variety of specialized peripherals to create set ups that anyone can play with regardless of physical ability. The back of the controller has clearly labeled plug-ins for a variety of external buttons, switches, and joysticks that can then be physically placed anywhere for the most convenient use by the player. It can be used to play Xbox One and Windows 10 PC titles and supports button remapping. It can even save three different game profiles so that it can switch seamlessly between different game types on the fly. 


Solomon Romney, a retail learning specialist for Microsoft, has had months to test out the final build of the Adaptive Controller. "I can customize how I interface with the Xbox Adaptive Controller to whatever I want," he said. “If I want to play a game entirely with my feet, I can. I can make the controls fit my body, my desires, and I can change them anytime I want. You plug in whatever you want and go. It takes virtually no time to set it up and use it. It could not be simpler." Romney was born without fingers on his left hand, which makes operating a traditional controller difficult. "I get to redesign my controller every day and get to choose how I want to play. For me, that's the greatest thing ever."


For Microsoft and the people who worked on the Adaptive Controller, this is the culmination of years of effort to justify the creation of a niche peripheral designed for an often under-served group of gamers. The journey began back in 2014 when Twitter, through a twist of fate, connected a Microsoft engineer with Warfighter Engaged, a nonprofit that works with wounded veterans to keep them gaming. The organization's founder, Ken Jones, was a mechanical engineer and struggled to create gaming equipment to meet the specific needs of all the veterans who came to Warfighter Engaged seeking help. 


That connection blossomed into an awareness at Microsoft for this underlying need in the game industry for accessible gaming equipment. The next year, Microsoft held its annual Ability Summit, an event dedicated to getting the company to consider accessibility in its devices and solutions. For a hackathon tournament, the winning entry was a device that was able to work with the Kinect to track movement and read those as button and joystick inputs on a traditional controller. Another team took that idea and refined it into a prototype device that could attach to an Xbox One controller and allow other input devices to be connected.


Around the same time, Microsoft launched the Gaming for Everyone initiative with the goal of broadening the community of people who can play and enjoy games. Headed by Kris Hunter, the director of devices user research and hardware accessibility, and Bryce Johnson, a senior Xbox designer, the initiative worked quietly to make the Adaptive Controller a reality. 


What really solidified the idea of what the Adaptive Controller would eventually be was the launch of the Xbox One's Copilot feature in 2017. Copilot allows players to link two Xbox One controllers as if they were one device. The original idea was that it would allow players to play a single player game together without transferring a controller back and forth. However, they discovered it was also used by those with disabilities to game in creative ways Microsoft hadn't expected, such as using a head or foot to operate the second controller. 


That realization brought together all of the different ideas that Microsoft had been toying with since that chance 2014 Twitter encounter. Instead of using a device like that from the hackathon or the subsequent controller add-on, Copilot could be used to attach a device that allowed for more flexible gaming inputs that could cater to a wide variety of people. Making a device like that would allow for it to be sleek, elegant, even. It wouldn't be an afterthought, but a fully executed and produced device worthy of the Microsoft brand. 


Those pushing for the device to make it to retail apparently met with internal opposition to the idea, but advocates like Kris Hunter wouldn't let the idea die. "I had a passion for it and I didn't give up," she said. "I kept saying, 'This product is too important. [...] If we really want to be intentional and we really want to walk the walk versus just talk the talk, this is the product that will do it."


Microsoft turned to the nonprofits who had helped bring this niche to light at the very beginning. Warfighter Engaged, AbleGamersSpecialEffectCraig Hospital, and the Cerebral Palsy Foundation, came together to consult on how to best design a controller that would fit the needs of the people they worked with every day. Ideas like spreading out the 19 input jacks across the back of the device to make them easier to differentiate, a rectangular shape to make it comfortable in a gamer's lap, or threaded inserts to secure the controller to a standard wheelchair, lapboard, or desk all came about from conversations with these nonprofits. The  The design process even led to something Microsoft is considering adding to all future products - a groove above each port to provide a tactile reference for where things are supposed to be plugged in. 


"One message heard clearly from the accessibility community was 'don't infantilize the device' — don't make it look like a Fisher-Price toy," said Bryce Johnson. "People often don't want to use adaptive technology because it looks like a toy." That became a guiding principal behind the design of the Adaptive Controller. First and foremost, Microsoft wanted the Adaptive Controller to be something proudly carrying the brand as a symbol; something that adults wouldn't feel embarrassed to use in front of friends or family.


With a price of $100, the Adaptive Controller positions itself as the most affordable option for those looking for accessibility solutions in gaming. The price is an important to keep in mind for all of the hospitals and patients out there who previously needed to find a custom build for their particular needs or forgo gaming completely. If the work we're doing to raise money for Children's Miracle Network Hospitals through Extra Life can go toward helping kids rediscover their ability to game with the help of the Xbox Adaptive Controller... well, that's an incredibly exciting thing. 



The Xbox Adaptive Controller will release later this year and we will likely receive more details when E3 rolls around. 


Don't forget to sign up for Extra Life to help sick and injured kids in hospitals around the US and Canada by playing games!

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