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Microsoft’s trickiest product might be its most important

A project that began as a hackathon around accessible gaming has evolved into a device that speaks volumes about the company’s design ethos.

Microsoft’s trickiest product might be its most important
[Photo: Microsoft]

Video game controllers are the pinnacle of ergonomic hardware. Every button, trigger and analog sensor has been painstakingly shaped, positioned, and thought out. $100 million was spent designing the Xbox One alone; the device works so well for most people that Xbox controllers are even used outside gaming to pilot drones and control submarine periscopes. Most people. But not everyone.

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[Photo: Microsoft]

This year, Microsoft announced a surprise project called the Xbox Adaptive Controller, designed to make gaming more accessible to people with all sorts of disabilities. It features two oversize buttons that are easy to hit, not just with dexterous fingers but any appendage. It features an additional 19 ports for people to plug in any specialized controllers they might need, from sip and puff sensors to more easily graspable arcade joysticks.

[Photo: Microsoft]

It’s our 2019 Innovation by Design product of the year—and it illustrates a sea change in technology, both within and without Microsoft. Most products are built to work the same for everyone. The Adaptive Controller is meant to work differently for everyone.

[Photo: Microsoft]

“That’s the approach we took: how do we meet people where they are? How does this device adapt to you?” says Bryce Johnson, inclusive lead at Microsoft, who has been involved with the Xbox Adaptive Controller since it was first workshopped during a Microsoft hackathon (originally, the goal was to create a controller for a veteran amputee),

While game controllers might be ergonomic wonders, their inner workings aren’t terribly complex, Johnson points out. “To be completely honest, game controllers, they’re not really that complicated. Most of what a game controller is a button. Obviously, you have analog triggers and thumbsticks—those are the most complicated parts. Everything else is just a button. Giving people the ability to put a button where they need it was always the goal. We’re always trying to figure out new ways to get people to put buttons where they need it.”

[Photo: Microsoft]

The Adaptive Controller has been on the market for $100 since last year, but this was no typical product launch—the controller is an ongoing project within Microsoft.

Johnson fields questions on Twitter from people every day, asking how it can work for highly specific use cases. Maybe you’re a double amputee but want to play first person shooters that require the use of two thumbsticks. Or maybe you are paralyzed from the neck down but enjoy adventure games. The Adaptive Controller is designed with the ports and supporting software to enable such use cases, but it still requires ingenuity and improvisation, because no two disabilities are the same. That’s where Johnson and his team have stepped in to help.

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[Photo: Microsoft]

For instance, Microsoft recently flew three brothers, each of whom are living with varying degrees of muscular dystrophy, out to the company’s campus for a “controllerthon,” where Microsoft engineers and designers customize Adaptive Controller rigs for individual needs. People were invited to the controllerthon via Johnson’s Twitter account and the help of local hospitals and nationwide nonprofits.

“Muscular dystrophy is a condition that makes you progressively weaker as you get older,” says Johnson. “The 13-year-old was pretty much a regular 13-year-old, where the 25-year-old was in a wheelchair and didn’t have a lot of arm movement, couldn’t hold a game controller. The 16-year-old was somewhere in the middle. He could hold a standard game controller but had some issues.”

On paper, their condition is described as one thing. But in real life, it’s more of an unpredictable gradient. That meant all three brothers needed individualized setups. The 13-year-old has a typical Xbox controller (but was set up with an Adaptive Controller along with buttons his feet can press, for the future). The 16-year-old was given stick extenders on his standard controller, along with an Xbox Adaptive set. And for the 25-year old, Microsoft used an Adaptive Controller as a base. Then it built him a lap tray where he can rest his hands, embedding a one-handed joystick inside of it so he didn’t even have to hold the controller, he could just use the stick. The tray itself was covered in felt, so that he can arrange more buttons on the tray comfortably and lock them down with velcro.

Indeed, all the resulting rigs Microsoft has helped customize for people are fascinating to hear detailed. Each unique setup involves brainstorming new controllers to match individual people, disassembling hardware, and using Velcro and other materials to strap just the right buttons in just the right places.

“Even people with the same condition have very, very different needs,” says Johnson. “It really does come down to where does someone have movement, and where can we put a button?”

[Photo: Microsoft]

Another woman wanted to play the twin-thumbstick shooter Halo but didn’t have fine motor control with her hands. Her arms were fine, however. Microsoft was able to set her up with two joysticks she could aim with each arm instead. The Adaptive Controller lets you tune the gross motor control of limbs to match the fine motor control of fingers; she can now play Halo again as a result.

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[Photo: Microsoft]

Another person wanted to play those twin-thumbstick games, too, but only had the use of one hand. Microsoft actually has a one-handed controller that could tackle most of the task, but the user still needed the missing second thumbstick. So they took an arcade joystick and replaced its big red ball with a dome-like wheelchair controller you see in power wheelchairs. Ultimately, he held that controller in his hand, then moved the other stick with this wrist.

[Photo: Microsoft]

In other cases, the Adaptive Controller works without the use of hands or arms at all. A car-based soccer game called Rocket League can be played entirely with one’s feet. An acceleration pedal is stuck below one foot, and two buttons are mounted to a table, each on the side of the player’s knee. They hit the left button, they turn left. The right button, they turn right.

Some setups are even less complicated—like that with a person who has been working with Microsoft for some time, who has carpal tunnel syndrome. “One person said, I play Destiny when I come home from work. That’s where I hang out with my friends. I have carpal tunnel, so after two hours, my fingers are burning. I ration those two hours . . . because they’re the most important two hours of my day,” says Johnson. “We hear that story and it’s like, you can take those triggers, remap them to the Adaptive Controller, to those two big buttons.” They can use a standard controller but simply rest their elbows on the Adaptive Controller’s big two buttons for some controls.

“You might not be as hair triggered with that movement, but the challenge is about . . . repetitive movement , so let’s change the movement. Can I give you three hours a day. That was the goal.”

Microsoft’s controller has already found its way into other projects. In August, the company announced a new project focused on using the Adaptive Controller as an interface for a new kind of voting machine as part of its efforts to improve voting technology in the United States. The prototype, called ElectionGuard, uses the Adaptive Controller as the hardware for a voting machine the company hopes to test at voting sites in 2020.

And could an Adaptive Controller v2 be in the works? Johnson by no means implies it. But he does admit that Microsoft could push things further with accessible controls. While inherently flexible, the Adaptive Controller’s design was originally inspired for veteran amputees, a group that has fairly specific ergonomic needs to begin with. This meant they were serving people who often lacked fine motor control, so they built their base controller large enough to stomp on if necessary. But if they were approaching disabilities that retained their fine motor control, Microsoft could design the Adaptive Controller smaller, allowing it to fit in a cramped space on a wheelchair or someone’s person. Microsoft could perhaps even make it modular to begin with.

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“I couldn’t be happier that’s where we started,” he says, “but as we continue to explore what we do and the devices where we want to help empower people, we don’t always have to start with limb difference. We could start in a different spot and take an approach that could be different.” In other words, even the Adaptive Controller itself is built to adapt.

See all of our 2019 Innovation by Design winners and honorees here, and read more coverage of the winning designs here.

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About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach

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