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Toys and Tabletop Games

Microsoft's new Xbox Adaptive Controller puts disabled players back in the game

The $100 Xbox Adaptive Controller lets you plug in the gadgets you need. It's all about accessibility.

James Martin/CNET

Mike Luckett is a lifelong gamer.

He started at the age of 5 nearly three decades ago, joining his older brother who was playing the original Super Mario Bros. on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Within a few years, he was playing games like Id Software's 1992 Nazi prison break shooter, Wolfenstein 3D, and the followup sci-fi hit Doom.

Over the years, Luckett collected lots of consoles, including 1988's Sega Genesis, 1994's Sony PlayStation, 2005's Xbox 360 and 2017's Xbox One X. One of his favorite games was Vectorman, a shoot-'em-up adventure in which you're a robot in the future protecting Earth from an uprising of evil robots.

But that all changed after the accident.

Luckett had been deployed overseas and working ordnance logistics for the Army in Iraq from 2010 through March 2011, when he came home. A few months later, in August, he was driving a motorcycle when things went wrong. The accident severed his C6 spinal cord, leaving him unable to use his legs. While he can move his hands, he lost control of his fingers.

And he could no longer use a computer. "I couldn't even function, using the keys or using a trackpad or any of that," Luckett said.

But he got really frustrated when he realized that while he was eager to try Activision Blizzard's 2016 team-based shooter Overwatch, it required him to use a controller he couldn't physically get his hands around. Luckett said that's when he nearly decided to quit gaming.

Mike Lucket's game-winning setup: Two controllers, one of which is Microsoft's new Xbox Adaptive Controller.

James Martin/CNET

He wasn't the first gamer facing physical challenges. Since nearly the beginning of the industry, video games have been built with a few basic assumptions about the players: They can hear, they can see and they have two fully functioning hands. The first video game controllers, from the likes of Atari and Nintendo, were designed with joysticks and buttons.

To help them play on their own terms, some people in the disabilities community hacked together solutions by breaking apart the controllers and attaching buttons, switches and other gizmos -- changes that allowed them to send signals to the game using their feet or elbows, by bopping their head against a button or even by blowing into a tube. But building specialized controllers is onerous, expensive and time-consuming. Worse, the setup process doesn't always work.

Enter the Xbox Adaptive Controller

Now there's something that can help Luckett and others like him truly get back into the game.

It's the Xbox Adaptive Controller from Microsoft. The $100 device, to go on sale later this year, is designed to help gamers of all shapes, sizes and abilities play games however they can, on either an Xbox One or a PC powered by Windows 10. It offers ports into which players can plug switches, buttons, pressure-sensitive tubes and other gear in order to control any function a standard controller can do. Microsoft unveiled it in May, ahead of Global Accessibility Awareness Day, when the design and development communities focus their efforts on learning and sharing ideas around building products with the disabilities community in mind.

"We're coming up on 2 billion people playing video games on this planet," Phil Spencer, the head of Microsoft's Xbox team, said in an interview. "As an industry, when you start to hit that kind of impact act in terms of the broad base of people that interact with your art form, I do think we have a social responsibility."

Other tech companies are highlighting inclusivity and accessibility for GAAD as well. Apple, for instance, has announced that the blind and deaf communities across the US will be able to access a specially designed curriculum called Everyone Can Code for Swift in schools. FacebookGoogle, Microsoft, Adobe and Oath have teamed up to launch an accessibility program as part of the TeachAccess initiative.

Sitting in his wheelchair in an accessibility lab Microsoft built in its Studio B building at its headquarters in Redmond, Washington, Luckett showed me what that effort's done for him. Since he doesn't have use of his fingers, the soft-spoken 32-year-old needs both hands just to hold a controller. If he wants to hit a button or tap the joystick, he has to rest the controller against something and then bring a hand up top to do the work. If the controller needs him to use three or four fingers at once, there's just no way.

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The key feature of the Xbox Adaptive Controller is that it has ports in its back that represent each button on a standard controller. So if Luckett needs the right-trigger button to be placed just near his elbow, for example, he can put one there and then plug it into the back of the adaptive controller. Now all he has to do is tap the button, and it registers as if he'd pulled the trigger on a standard controller.

I watched as he powered up Fortnite, the hit battle-royale shooter from Epic Games. As soon as it starts, he's playing like any other person on the screen. You'd never be able to tell he was using one controller with two big buttons near his wrist in addition to a separate controller. He's still able to move quickly and take out opponents better than I ever would.

"It's a really cool escape," he said. "You get to immerse yourself into a world that you don't normally involve yourself in."

He doesn't hide his disability though. His gamer name is MikeTheQuad.

Microsoft Accessibility Controller

The Xbox Adaptive Controller, up against an Xbox console and standard controller (left).

James Martin/CNET

Gamers of all types

Video games are about escape as much as they're about entertainment. One minute you're sitting at home after a long day at school or work, the next you're piloting a spaceship through an epic dogfight in a faraway galaxy.

For some people with disabilities, and particularly millennials (the oldest of whom are now nearing 40), gaming isn't just a pastime; it's part of their identity. And until Microsoft came along, they always accepted that this activity they enjoyed never quite worked well enough for them.

"There's no underemphasizing how mind-numbingly painful it is for someone to have to sit there and watch someone else set up the device for them and wait 30 minutes to turn on the device," said Scott Wang, an Xbox hardware researcher. Sometimes, the jerry-rigged buttons work. But sometimes one of them doesn't, so people have to go through a frustrating ordeal, troubleshooting what's not working and why.

"Microsoft's inspiration with the Xbox Adaptive Controller was to remove as many limitations to playing as possible," Wang said. 

A normal controller is small enough to fit in a coat pocket but big enough to feel comfortable in your hands. It's shaped to be ergonomic, with edges that naturally slide into your palms, that position your thumbs over the top buttons and your pointing and middle fingers on the side and bottom triggers.

The Xbox Adaptive Controller, which was codenamed Zephyr, is completely different.

It's a rectangle just a little smaller than a tablet and it can easily rest on your lap. It's got four big sticky rubberized feet too, to make sure it won't slide on a table. And the device is angled, with a slightly taller back, to make it easier for people who'll play using their feet. 

In an age of super-thin laptops and tablets, the Xbox Adaptive Controller looks beefy. The device is mostly white-to-cream on its top and sides. 

It's also black on the bottom, so it looks good even with Velcro attached. Why does that matter? Therapists say their patients hate when things look like they're for people with disabilities.

On top are two big circular black buttons that are easy to trigger with even the lightest touch on their side. To their left is a directional pad that's about 150 percent the size of a standard controller. And there are a couple buttons above the pad for sharing in-game recordings with friends and turning the Xbox console on and off remotely. One of the buttons lets you select between saved profiles in case you have setups for different people in your home -- or even want to play different types of games.

The real magic is in the back and on the sides. There are two open USB connections and 19 ports that accept a standard 3.5 mm cord (the size of the plug for your headphones) that can receive signals from switches, steering wheels, pressure-sensitive tubes and other devices the disabilities community has invented to make it easier to type, control computers and play video games.

There are 19 ports on the back of the Xbox Adaptive Controller, each to represent a function of a standard controller.

James Martin/CNET

To make it as easy to use as possible, Microsoft designed the controller with grooves above the ports, so if you reach around its back you can easily find what you need with your fingers. There are also corresponding markings on the top of the controller to guide you to the ports on the sides. And there's enough room to add labels too.

Microsoft designed the controller with a rechargeable battery that lasts about 25 hours so gamers don't have to fumble with a battery cover when it runs out of juice.

On a standard controller, "it's not easy to take the door out, to replace the batteries and put it back," said Yaron Galitzky, a general manager leading Microsoft's Xbox devices efforts. Microsoft also chose to offer charging with a relatively new plug design called USB-C, which works no matter if you use it upside down or right side up. "We looked at each feature in the traditional controller and designed it the best way for accessibility," Galitzky said.

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Microsoft even changed the way the controller will be shipped, designing new packaging with loops and flaps that make it easy for people with limited mobility to remove and set up without help.

The result, Microsoft hopes, is a device that's easily customizable, a controller that can become whatever you need so that when you switch on an Xbox or a PC, the difference won't matter. To the game, it's just another standard controller.

"We're not trying to design for all of us, we're trying to design for each of us," said Bryce Johnson, a senior inclusivity designer on Microsoft's Xbox team. "If we design for people who have a unique need, it benefits people universally."

Schematics of the Xbox Adaptive Controller from Microsoft's design team.

James Martin/CNET

Accessibility culture

Over the past few years, the tech industry has focused new attention on accessibility. Apple added programming to its Apple Watch to track everyday movements for wheelchair users. Both Apple and Google added an array of features and apps to make their phones and other devices easier to hear and read. Facebook is teaching its computers to describe photos to blind people.

Microsoft has created things like a wearable motor designed to sense the shaking in Parkinson's patients and then shake in an opposite motion, allowing them to do simple things like sign their name or hold a cup of coffee. The world's largest software maker also developed a free app called Seeing AI, which describes whatever you put in front of it -- whether that means reading a restaurant menu for you or identifying how much money you're holding.

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And in its Xbox group, the company last year released a feature called Copilot that lets people use two controllers to play with one character. That made it a hit with parents and young kids who wanted to play games together. It also helped gamers with disabilities more comfortably use two controllers in different positions, or even mix a hacked controller with special buttons along with a standard one.

Meanwhile, it found unexpected success in the disability community with its Xbox Elite Wireless Controller, which included four paddles on the insides of the handles that acted as extra buttons to make it easier for gamers to, for example, hit buttons without having to take their thumbs off the joysticks. But because many of the parts, like those joysticks, are replaceable, accessibility advocates found they could create parts to fit disabled gamers' needs.

The Xbox Adaptive Controller is a next step, acting as a controller that's also a hub for nearly any specialized button, switch or joystick made for someone with a disability. 

While developing the device, Microsoft worked with nonprofit organizations like Warfighter Engaged, for which Luckett works as a social media manager, as well as the AbleGamers FoundationSpecialEffect, The Cerebral Palsy Foundation and Craig Hospital, among others.

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Jenny Lay-Flurrie heads up Microsoft's accessibility efforts.

Microsoft

Part of the reason Microsoft has invested in this tech is a changing culture at the company, said Jenny Lay-Flurrie, head of accessibility efforts. "It's the principle of inclusive design," she said, meaning that the disability community's needs are considered throughout the design process and not just at the end. The process, she said, is about "thinking through how about how that product's going to work for a human, including the part of them that's diverse -- whether that's gender, disability or anything else."

Lay-Flurrie, who became deaf after a bout with the measles followed by a series of ear infections as a child, has been pushing to change Microsoft's culture toward inclusivity since arriving at the company nearly two decades ago. One of the first projects she worked on came from a hackathon, in which a team created a wheelchair you can control with your eyes.

Her goal is to get engineers to think of people's disabilities not as afflictions for which they need to create special designs, but as a challenge to make technology even easier to use.

"The best way of describing this is: the World Health Organization defines 'disability' as a mismatch between the individual and the environment," she said. "For the most part, I'm not broken. Some may disagree. I have a disability that gives me a mismatch."

During my time on Microsoft's campus, I heard that WHO definition repeated by several people, even outside the company's accessibility team. The message seems to be getting through. 

"This isn't a huge profit driver for us," said Xbox chief Spencer. "It's really about how do we go make sure that we build something that is additive, constructive and brings more players in."

That's certainly the case for Luckett, who said the Xbox Adaptive Controller allows him to dive even further into his passion for video games. These games act as both a social outlet and a way to sharpen his mind for when he plays real-world sports like wheelchair rugby. "I was already mentally tough and so I was able to grind right through it," he said.

As for the next game he can't wait to play, it's the western epic from Rockstar Games called Red Dead Redemption 2, due out this October.

"I'm definitely excited to be able to play a game where I can actually immerse myself, and have this personification of being a quote-unquote cowboy," he said.

And where before he might have been worried about whether he could even play, using Microsoft's new controller means he'll just be able to focus on having fun.

First published May 16 at 10 p.m. PT.
Update at 10:45 p.m. PT: Added information from the interview with Microsoft's Jenny Lay-Flurrie.
Update May 17 at 7:55 a.m. PT: Added information on Global Accessibility Awareness Day. 
Update May 18 at 5:00 a.m. PT: Added information and details about compatibility with Windows PCs. 
Update July 25 at 7:00 a.m. PT: Added information about the device's shipping box.

On Equal Footing: An interview with Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Microsoft's accessibility head, about how design in tech is changing. 

Tech Enabled: CNET chronicles tech's role in providing new kinds of accessibility.