The Xbox Adaptive Controller: A Step Forward for Disabled Gamers

We live in a world that serves the majority; our goods and services are designed to be used by the widest possible audience so as to maximize effectiveness and profit.  For those of us who fit into any given majority, that works out just fine!  But for those in the minority, it makes life more complicated and difficult.  Just ask any left-handed person, for example, how many things in life are made with right-handed people in mind: school desks, spiral bound notebooks, and can openers are just a few common items that clearly cater to the those in that majority.

When it comes to video games, one particular minority group has a very hard time participating: people with limited mobility due to disabilities.  Game controllers simply aren’t usable for them, and they have to rely on jerry-rigged setups and unusual control schemes in order to play anything at all.  Creating a suitable device and setting it up is a challenging, and expensive, process; as a result, those with limited mobility are often on the outside of the gaming community looking in as everyone else is enjoying themselves.  So when Microsoft announced the Xbox Adaptive Controller (XAC) last week, a controller specifically designed for those with limited mobility, it was a special moment that stood out in a number of ways.

AdaptiveControllerInline1

When viewed from above, the XAC looks simple; two large buttons (which can be programmed to function as any button from a standard Xbox controller) take up most of the space on the device, and a d-pad sits off to the side.  The size and curved surface of the buttons make them easy to press, and there’s enough empty space for a person to rest their hand between the two.  The gentle slope of the controller and the firm grip it keeps on whatever surface it rests on also contribute to its ease of use.

But while the controller’s ergonomics are important, it’s the myriad inputs on the back and sides of the controller that make the XAC stand out.  Each input along the back is a 3.5mm jack that’s mapped to a specific button from the standard controller, while the USB ports on each side act as the thumbstick inputs.  This allows users to plug in all manner of custom control devices, from buttons, to joysticks, to foot pedals, and more, and be able to play any Xbox game.  The XAC functions as a hub for all the other devices needed to make gaming possible for people with disabilities, a hub that’s flexible enough to meet the needs of many different gamers.

XAC top and back

Perhaps the biggest surprise of this story, though, is that Microsoft, a massive technology company, is the one spearheading this initiative.  For the longest time, disabled gamers have had to rely on amateur engineers, charities, and hospitals to make gaming an option for them, and the limitations of such an approach are readily apparent: the high cost of production and the challenges of working with third-party software make this approach far from ideal.  But now that one of the biggest companies in the world has stepped into this space, gaming is a much more attainable hobby for those with limited mobility.  Creating a device like the XAC – a device that’s comfortable and flexible enough to prove useful to this underserved demographic – simply wouldn’t be possible without the kind of money, expertise, and manpower that a company like Microsoft can put into it.  Hopefully this invention will spur the imagination of other developers, both inside and outside Microsoft, to continue to find ways of including disabled gamers in the gaming community.

To read more about the XAC, check out this in-depth article over at arstechnica.  And to see the controller in action, take a gander at the official video I’ve embedded below.

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