June 25, 2022

Microsoft’s trickiest product might be its most important

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.

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.

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.

It was first workshopped during a Microsoft hackathon (originally, the goal was to create a controller for a veteran amputee).

“That’s the approach we took: how do we meet people where they are? How does this device adapt to you?”

Bryce Johnson, inclusive lead at Microsoft.

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, 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.”

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.

…using Velcro and other materials to strap just the right buttons in just the right places.

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. It really does come down to where does someone have movement, and where can we put a button?”

Bryce Johnson

So 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.

“I couldn’t be happier that’s where we started 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.


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