Microsoft is about to make gaming a lot more accessible for millions of people, thanks to a new completely customizable physical interface
A video-game controller is a pretty natural fit for most people’s hands. Its contours slide perfectly into our palms, and all of the various inputs – control sticks, buttons, triggers – are located where our thumbs and fingers naturally rest. It’s almost like it was poured into our open grasp.
Overcoming physical challenges
But now imagine trying to wield that same controller minus some of your fingers and/or thumbs. Or a whole hand. Or both hands. Suddenly playing a game becomes as difficult as trying to play every instrument in a band at the same time. This is the challenge faced by millions of would-be gamers around the world whose bodies don’t match up with a traditional video-game controller. It’s not that they don’t want to play games or don't have the skill, it’s that they don’t have access to an interface that matches how their bodies interact with the physical world.
But things are about to get a little easier for these passionate players.
Now within reach
After years of research, prototyping and testing in cooperation with gamers with disabilities and non-profits dedicated to the cause of making games accessible to everyone – such as Warfighter Engaged and SpecialEffect – Microsoft is addressing this oft-neglected segment of the player population with its just-announced Xbox Adaptive Controller, which is set to launch later this year.
The new controller is essentially a flat rectangular hub into which you can plug devices designed for players with various disabilities, including foot pedals and large reinforced buttons (sold separately). The hub has two sturdy saucer-sized pads assigned to do the work of the A and B buttons, along with an oversized D-pad and an Xbox home button. The rest of the traditional controller’s dozen-plus inputs – action buttons, shoulder buttons, triggers, thumbsticks, menu buttons, etc. – can be assigned to individual disabled-friendly devices via a row of 3.5-mm jacks on the back of the hub. This allows players to come up with their own customized interface for each game they play.
When playing a driving game, for example, a one-handed gamer could plug a Wii-style nunchuk controller with a single thumbstick into the control-stick port and use it to control steering, then plug a pair of foot pedals into the trigger ports to control braking and acceleration. Rejig the connections and those same devices could be used to control a Mario-style platformer, with the player controlling running and jumping with their feet rather than the action buttons on a traditional controller. Players can even set up and quickly switch between discrete control profiles for games with frequently changing controls as the characters they inhabit switch between walking, driving and flying.
The Xbox Adaptive Controller can facilitate thousands of these device combinations, which hopefully means people with all sorts of disabilities will be able to work out custom interfaces that meet their specific and unique physical needs so that they can play their favourite games. And it’s designed to be truly plug-and-play, meaning there’s no extra software or technical know-how needed. You can swap out devices on the fly in the middle of any game without even needing to press pause – a boon not just for players with disabilities but also the people who look after them, some of whom may not have much experience dealing with video games and consoles.
What’s more, gamers with physical disabilities will appreciate the attention the controller’s designers have paid to little details. For example, rather than forcing players to fumble with double-A battery replacement – a surprisingly tricky task if you don’t have at least one fully functioning hand – the Xbox Adaptive Controller has a built-in rechargeable battery. The 3.5-mm jacks, meanwhile, have little grooves above them to help guide plugs into their holes – handy for those with shaky fingers. Plus, the jacks are designed to work seamlessly with most existing buttons, pedals, controllers and other peripherals already available to gamers, meaning those who’ve already been trying to cobble together their own jury-rigged controls may not need to reinvest in any new hardware beyond the hub. And those big saucer-shaped A and B buttons atop the hub are designed to take more than just a standard thumb tap. They can handle the weight and pressure of elbows, chins and feet, and are satisfyingly forgiving – responsive regardless of which part of their surface is pressed.
Basically, playtime is primed to get a lot better for people with disabilities. From twitchy shooters like Call of Duty: WWII to vast role-playing games such as The Elder Scrolls Online, the world of gaming is about to open a little wider for many of those who’ve often felt shut out.
The Xbox Adaptive Controller, which works with both the Xbox One console and Windows PCs, will retail for about $130 when it launches in Canada later this year.
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