In an inspired moment, Microsoft is unveiling a game controller that enables players with disabilities to play games again. It is part of a growing movement to make tech more accessible to everyone on the planet.
Mike Luckett is a veteran who suffered a spinal cord injury in a motorcycle accident in 2011. That injury left him a quadriplegic, and it could have ended his life as a gamer, as he had only limited use of his hands. But through the nonprofit Warfighter Engaged, he came into contact with the folks at Microsoft’s Inclusive Technologies Lab. And today, they are unveiling the Xbox Adaptive Controller, an accessory born from a hackathon that enables players with disabilities like Luckett to pick up gaming again on both the Xbox One and Windows PCs.
The $100 Xbox Adaptive Controller is a functioning controller, but it is also a platform that enable others to plug in control devices that can be used by people with limited mobility, said Bryce Johnson in a briefing. He’s the inclusive lead for product research and accessibility at Microsoft, and he has been one of the people pushing to get the controller made over the past few years.
“In our inclusive design, instead of targeting the majority, or the 80 percent, we target the outliers,” Johnson said. “Nineteen percent of the population has some kind of disability. That can expand to 38 percent for the temporary or situation. Twenty-six thousand people lose a limb every year. Thirteen million break an arm. We think about our products inclusively. This was just the right time.”
Microsoft was careful to create the controller in a way that preserves fairness in competitive gaming.
Yaron Galitzky, the general manager of Xbox Accessories, said, “This is an addition. It doesn’t take away from anyone else’s experience. And it enables people to do the exact same things that every other player is doing. It does not give them an advantage.”
The Xbox Adaptive Controller has 19 ports that correspond to all of the buttons on a traditional game controller, so that devices that mimic those button functions can be plugged in and used in lieu of the traditional controller. The controller will be available at Xbox.com and in Microsoft Stores later this year.
“I think this dialogue for us as an industry, about not only things like the adaptive controller, but also our online community, the content we put out, who we are as an industry, are important discussions for us to have,” said Phil Spencer, head of Xbox, in an interview.
Doing good, doing business
After his accident, Luckett found he fingers weren’t as dexterous as before. He can hold a traditional gamepad, but he can’t use his fingers to play as well as he once could. But with the Xbox Adaptive Controller and some custom devices he plugged into it, he was able to jury-rig a solution that fits him. I watched him play Overwatch, and it was a truly emotional experience to see how well he could play with the controller.
In some ways, you could see this as doing good, rather than doing business. It might be considered an extravagant use of resources to help a small number of people, each with very different physical problems. But there are an estimated 1 billion people in the world with disabilities, Johnson said. And when you consider those with temporary problems, like a broken arm, the numbers go even higher.
In that light, making games more accessible could also be a brilliant business move, generating goodwill, sales of new controllers, and an expansion of the market. About 2 billion of the world’s people play games now, and games is a $137.9 billion global market, according to market researcher Newzoo. It is also an investment in innovation that could yield benefits that come back to the traditional controller and the two billion gamers in the mass market. Microsoft’s team acknowledges it doesn’t know what demand will be, but the company is committed to making millions if necessary.
“I will say that with the Xbox adaptive controller, it’s definitely benefiting more than one person,” said Johnson, in an interview with GamesBeat. “But we did it one person at a time. What we like to think about when we talk about our inclusive design philosophy—this is very specific, but we’re not trying to design for all of us. We aspire to design for each of us.”
Gaming and healing
Luckett can configure the Xbox Adaptive Controller for his needs, yet someone else — Solomon Romney, a Microsoft Stores retail learning specialist — showed how he could play Forza Motorsport with a different configuration of the Xbox traditional controller and the Xbox Adaptive Controller. Romney does not have fingers on his right hand, and he said that forces him to think about accessibility every day.
“They found a way for me to game again,” said Luckett, who goes by MikeTheQuad. “I can move buttons to different positions so it feels natural to me. Before this, I couldn’t play at a level I wanted to play, that I knew I could play at, before I was injured.”
That’s important, said Erin Muston-Firsch, an assistive technology lab specialist at Craig Hospital, because so much of a person’s identity and social life are tied with hobbies, such as gaming.
“I’m a lifelong gamer. I get to see from both sides, as a gamer myself,” said Romney.
Romney stopped playing games for a while, as he felt isolated. He was amazed, however, when the Xbox Elite controller came out and it had swappable components. You could take buttons and turn them into paddles and otherwise change the controllers. That was a sea change in controller design.
“This was a happy accident,” Romney said. “I started playing again. And the time I invested in gaming was more rewarding. The Xbox Adaptive Controller enables me to do whatever I imagine. It’s not about the controller anymore. It fades, stops being about the controller, and it becomes just you and the game. The game and the hardware shapes around you to be the best experience.”
Together with a software solution released last year — Copilot, which enables two players with two different controllers to control the same character in a game — the adaptable controller can bring a lot different mobility options to people who were entirely shut out in the past.
The project started in 2015 during a hackathon, said Evelyn Thomas, the accessibility program manager for Xbox.
The project didn’t win, but Leo del Castillo, the head of Xbox hardware at the time, was very supportive and he dedicated some engineers to it. That, and many subsequent decisions to dedicate resources to the project, was critical to getting it done.
“The trade-off that was there, and people in the room know it was real—the precious resource we have in this organization is people,” Spencer said. “The trade-off you make is, do you do this or do you do something else?”
Galitzky said the timing was good because under Nadella, the company was undergoing a cultural transition from a know-it-all organization to a “learn it all” company.
The outside partners — Craig Hospital, Able Gamers, Warfighter Engaged, the Cerebral Palsy Foundation, and SpecialEffect — gave valuable feedback that shaped the product design. The team had to step back and think about why it’s so hard to change batteries in a device, or plug in a cord.
“There is an inclusive attitude in the U.S. and the world,” said Erik Johnson, chief medical officer at Warfighter Engaged. “The community had to be ready. Microsoft rides the coattails of what humans want. This controller is such an enabler for human independence.”
Erik Johnson used gaming in therapy for 12 years, as he saw how it could bring wounded soldiers back into a social community.
Designing a shippable product
Even so, it took a while for the project to find its footing.
“This is a project that lived for a while as we were trying to make sure we had the product right. I’d see it at reviews every so often,” Spencer said. “We were excited about the opportunity, but it was always unclear whether we were going to create something that was helpful, or something that was just us trying, but maybe not succeeding. It was great when we started to get some validation from people outside of us here, when we were working with them. That’s really when we greenlit it as more of an official project, something that we really wanted to land.”
In fact, Kris Hunter, director of user research for Microsoft’s WDG division, said there had never been a hackathon product that had turned into a shippable product. Her role was to put the business together. And the design had to be easy enough to set up, since caregivers and occupational therapists aren’t always tech savvy but have to be the primary helpers in configuring the solution for their patients.
“This requires engineering experience to do this, and not all of the nonprofits have this resource,” Hunter said. “This was expensive to do. If gamers contacted us, we would refer them to a nonprofit, where they got in a queue and had to wait for a rig to be built for them.”
To serve that community, Microsoft decided not to make the Xbox Adaptive Controller into a closed vertical product. Rather, it is an open system, and Microsoft will provide the specification to all third parties that might develop custom hardware accessories to go with it.
Scott Wang, the design researcher for Xbox Devices, collected research on accessibility in games. He believed that software solutions like Copilot could help with accessibility, but ultimately he believed an accessible input device was the best way to help. He went to visit people in homes to do research.
“There is a certain tenacity in the community,” he said. “They are not electrical engineers, but they want to play games. The have to learn technology just to play games again. With daisy-chain solutions, it could be very discouraging. We thought the barriers should be much lower.”
Added Muston-Firsch, “We had a game night for everyone at the hospital. If it took a long time to set up, you saw people lose interest. That was a huge barrier.”
Chris Kujawski, an industrial designer and senior designer, went through numerous designs to make something that could comfortably rest on someone’s lap. They tested everything from the size of buttons to leaving space between the buttons to reduce palm touches.
“We wanted it to be as adaptable and flexible as it could be,” he said.
Overall, the process of designing the product took about 18 months of continuous work. Tiffany Nguyen, a reliability engineer at Microsoft, said they had to test for many different conditions, like what happens if someone spills a can of soda on the controller or runs it over with a wheelchair.
Changing their own lives
Ultimately, the project moved on and became a reality only because so many people had a passion for it. Spencer said he was touched by people who went through real hoops to play games.
“To see the commitment and passion they have—I’d almost say, at some level, for certain people, whether it’s mobility or function, that gaming can be a real outlet. We’ve seen it in so many cases, like the work where our consoles end up in children’s hospitals. People who play games online as a way of social interaction, when maybe that is their form of social interaction,” Spencer said. “There’s a business opportunity to get more people to play, where these two things can really intersect. The opportunity to open up gaming to a constituency that isn’t able to play as easily as you and I can, and the goodness in bringing more people to the platform—that’s a pretty special moment.”
“Of the 10 years I’ve been at Microsoft, this is the most special product,” said Hunter.
Galitzky echoed that comment.
“I shipped many products,” he said. “This is the most special product I worked on. The most impactful one. I’m super-proud to be part of the team. Going through this experience just changed our lives. I won’t look at products the same way. We are not stopping here. We will take this to more devices, more products.”
“All of us have been on a world-shifting journey,” Bryce Johnson said.
And Kujawski said, “This is the most important product I’ve designed here. It will impact someone’s life in a positive way.”