How Xbox’s Adaptive Controller Will Unlock New Worlds

The standard Xbox controller makes a lot of assumptions. It assumes you have two hands to hold it. It assumes you have two thumbs. It assumes you have a fluid range of motion to get to all of the buttons, that you have the reach to get to bumpers and triggers, and that you have the endurance to hold it.

And if you can’t do any of that, there’s a barrier that means you may not be able to play the games you’d love to play. That’s why Xbox created the Xbox Adaptive Controller.

The controller is three years in the making, starting off as a hackathon project. Microsoft holds these one-week hackathons every year, and back in 2015 the team worked with Warfighter Engaged – a charity that makes controllers for veterans.

The following year, the team brought in more charity partners – the UK-based SpecialEffect and the US-based AbleGamers. Both of these groups create custom setups, using everything from modified joypads to eye-tracking technology to help gamers with disabilities enjoy playing. They worked with the Cerebral Palsy Foundation, and Craig Hospital – a spinal cord hospital in Denver.

“These charities each approach the way that they work with people with disabilities very differently, and that in turn helped us shape what this product is,” Bryce Johnson, the Inclusive Lead for Microsoft Hardware (and one of the inventors of the Adaptive Controller) tells me.

SpecialEffect can put a technician and an occupational therapist into a car and pretty much drive to anyone’s house in the UK. AbleGamers can’t really do that in the US, Johnson tells me, so AbleGamers has to rely more on being able to put together solutions into a box and then send it to someone, whereas SpecialEffect will go to your house and set it up for you. Both solutions are traditionally very expensive.

“Both approaches are unique and are important and they’re wonderful, but when we created this we had to think about how we could support both of these types of organisations, and amplify them,” Johnson says.

So although the Adaptive Controller was designed in conjunction with these charity partners, it is for the caregivers. Xbox wanted to make sure that this device was simple enough for caregivers to put together a controller for the people in their lives.

“I don’t want them to have to go into software,” Johnson says. “I mean, the software makes it powerful, but the simplicity is giving people the choice and all of the options being readily available.”

So that’s why there are 19 ports on the back, representing every function of the controller. Every button on the controller, plus two extra ones, and two USB ports for joysticks, thumbsticks or flight sticks. USB HID joystick devices can be plugged into there, too, and you can set up a rig to do that.

It can be used anywhere an Xbox controller can be used – so it will work on PC as well. In fact, it’s actually better to use on PC because the configuration app is available with Windows 10.

Every function on the Adaptive Controller can be remapped. If that sounds familiar (Elite Controller, anyone?) it’s because it is. The team is building on what they’ve done with the Elite Controller.

The Adaptive Controller sits slanted, which came from recommendations while working with occupational therapists – and it helps make it easier to use with your feet. The controller is also quite wide – intentionally wide – so that it can sit on your lap, and so that it can be used in conjunction with Copilot.

Copilot is a feature that has been on Xbox for a year now, and it basically allows you to go into the system and say, “See this controller, and this controller? They’re the same controller now. Thanks.” So if you’re a gamer who can’t bring their hands together to use one controller, for example, you’ve got a solution.

“One of my favourite ones is if I don’t have the ability to hold down a trigger for a really long time, like, say, in Forza, I could remap these two buttons [points to alternate buttins] to basically brake and trigger forward Then I just have to let gravity do the work, right?”

It is clear that using the controller is an incredibly customisable experience.

Johnson gave me a demonstration of a one-handed Minecraft profile. You can build and save up to three profiles in addition to the default one. You can save and shift between these profiles on the fly, depending on what you want to play, and who is playing.

Johnson hits a button on a hand-held joystick, and it’s mapped to be A. He jumps. He presses the trigger. He’s running around. He hits a floor pedal, and runs forward.

Since the announcement of the Adaptive Controller, there has been a huge response from gamers who would benefit from the device.

“I think it’s been overwhelmingly positive because we were really intentional about bringing a lot of folks in,” Johnson says. “While we did bring in all of those charities to consult with us, we also engaged with gamers with disabilities, and we had them in their homes.”

50 to 60 people were involved in the trial, Johnson says, “so we did definitely learn a lot. I think we will still learn a lot. I think once this comes out and once people start to use it more, I’m confident that we will get some really great insights.”

The Adaptive Controller will only be sold on the Microsoft Store ($129.95), along with a set of peripherals that have been vetted, to make sure they work as intended. There is a big focus is to get more third-party manufacturers of peripherals on board. Both Logitech and PDP are involved at this point.

“I think it’s very important for us that we put a device out in the world that gives our gamers options.”

Gizmodo Australia travelled to E3 as a guest of Xbox.

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