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Microsoft’s Adaptive Controller Aims to Bring Video Games to Everyone

Microsoft wants to bring gaming to absolutely everyone with its new Xbox Adaptive Controller.

The tech giant announced its Adaptive Controller in May, and it was met with wide fanfare for providing access to video games no matter a person’s physical abilities.

During E3, representatives from Microsoft allowed me to spend some time with its controller to see its multiple uses. With two large, circular buttons on its surface, and 19 3.5mm ports in the back, the Xbox Adaptive Controller can serve as a hub device to connect any number of different inputs mapped to specific button presses. It allows users with limited mobility to configure their controller in the way that works the best for them.

My demo used “Minecraft” and a basic augmented set up to show a use case of how the controller could be implemented.

The set up was simple. In one hand we had a joystick controller that was essentially a Wii Nunchuck and on the floor was a foot pedal. Both were connected into a single controller input through the Adaptive Controller.

For the specific demo, the joystick toggle acted as the movement input, until I pressed down on the pedal, in which case it became the camera. Using this simple control set up, that I acclimated to fairly easily, it became instantly understandable the different configurations that could allow many to experience whatever video game they wanted. The same variations unfolded when using the joystick’s triggers. Without pressing the pedal, the trigger allowed you to move on a Y axis, and by pressing the pedal, the trigger helped you mine.

“We wanted to do something that addressed input for gaming,” Microsoft Inclusive Designer Bryce Johnson said. He was part of the Adaptive Controller’s initial conception three years ago, when it was initially conceived from one of Microsoft’s yearly Hackathons. There, he said, they understood the need to expand the controller’s offering and so they began a multi-year process to educate themselves.

Microsoft began working with organizations that represent a number of different communities, like those living with Cystic Fibrosis. They listened to what gamers in those spaces wanted and it matched with Microsoft’s experience.

“Microsoft has a rich history of multiple modality,” Johnson said, referring to the various mouse, keyboard, voice, and touch that the company has used over the decades to register input. “I’ve been amazed at how many people get [the Adaptive Controller] right away.”

Johnson said Microsoft wanted to be as inclusive as possible in the development of this controller. Everything from the form factor of the device to the controller ports were considered in an attempt to make it as approachable as possible.

“This device works in an already existing ecosystem,” Solomon Romney, a Microsoft Store learning specialist, said about the 3.5mm ports. In their research they found that most other accessibility devices used this input and they wanted to follow suit.

But the decisions weren’t solely relegated to technological standards, Bryce said they also took aesthetics in mind when the device was designed. To Microsoft, according to him, it wasn’t just about having something that allowed gamer to play, it was also about having something that let gamers feel like gamers.

“One of the biggest thing gamers asked for was a controller that looked like a controller, not a medical device,” Bryce said.

And so the controller, with its slanted form, gripping rubber feet, and 30-hour battery, was designed to appeal to the gaming community.

“We realized that we are experts at making this,” Romney said, holding up the Xbox One controller. “But we are not experts at making adaptive hardware.”

To solve this problem they reached out and they listened. According to Bryce, Microsoft was in contact with many organization and communities like The Able Gamers Charity to understand the best way to bring video games to a population that had largely gone unserved.

Romney said that Microsoft Stores are intimately tied to the effort to meet with people and help explain the different ways that the Adaptive Controller can provide access to video games.

“Adaptive technology can be very expensive, which is why we wanted to make this as affordable as possible,” Bryce said about the $100 price tag.

This is a campaign that Microsoft plans to continue. Romney said that the company’s stores are working with communities to bring more opportunities for people to test out the Adaptive Controller, and for the first time Microsoft is a major sponsor of the Special Olympics.

All of this goodwill seems to be genuinely well placed. To its credit, Microsoft seems to have fully undergone the development of this controller. It seems earnest in its partnerships with organizations that aim to push the company in a more accessible direction.

My demo of “Minecraft” highlighted that experience. Testing out the game with a variety of different controller setups underscored not only how available video games could be to all audiences, but also how modular a controller set up could be with a platform like the Adaptive Controller.

Microsoft is also partnering with other third-party input manufacturers that include binary on/off switches, foot pedals, breath-control devices, and more to ensure that as many people as possible can use its controller.

Preorders for the adaptive controller began on Monday for the U.S., and Microsoft expects to release the controller in September.

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