A new Xbox and Windows 10 controller that lets people with disabilities plug in the assistive aids they already own to play games has been welcomed by charities in the UK.
The Xbox Adaptive Controller allows those with limited mobility to use their own buttons, joysticks and switches to mimic a standard controller, so they can play any videogame.
This allows them to choose which assistive aid will make the character jump, run or shoot, for example, without relying on pressing specific buttons on the controller that came with the Xbox.
The device has delighted charities and gamers with disabilities, who say it will help them continue to enjoy something they love as well as connect with other people and be more independent.
SpecialEffect, in Charlbury, Oxfordshire, was just one of the charities that worked with Microsoft to develop the Xbox Adaptive Controller. Founder and Chief Executive Dr Mick Donegan said the device has huge potential.
“This has been a milestone collaboration for us,” he said. “Our experience in helping people with complex physical disabilities to access videogames has enabled us to provide not only very relevant advice about features and design, but also direct feedback from a user-centred perspective.
“Microsoft has a product here that has the potential to help many people globally to enjoy the magic of video games.”
There are around a billion people across the world with a disability, including 13.9 million people in the UK. Research from Muscular Dystrophy UK found that one-in-three gamers has been forced to stop playing videogames due to their disability.
The Xbox Adaptive Controller, which can be connected to any Xbox One or Windows 10 PC via Bluetooth, features 19 3.5mm input jacks and two USB ports. Gamers can plug their third-party devices into these, with specific support for PDP’s One-Handed Joystick, Logitech’s Extreme 3D Pro Joystick and Quadstick’s Game Controller.
Two, large, easy-to-press programmable buttons and a D-pad means it can also be used as a standalone controller. The internal lithium-ion battery can be recharged, eliminating the need to change small batteries.
Up to three profiles can be saved on the controller, allowing people to quickly switch between set-ups depending on the game they are playing.
Hector Minto, Accessibility Evangelist at Microsoft who has worked in the field for 20 years, said the company was in talks with other firms to develop hardware such as foot pedals and joysticks to increase the options for gamers.
“No two people are the same; everyone has their own wheelchair controller and their own TV controller adapted for their own use,” he said. “As with all assistive technology, people were making their own devices at first, but they were able to come to Microsoft and ask us to help. We were delighted to. Everyone should have a right to play games and experience a leisure activity that is enjoyed around the world.
“With the Xbox Adaptive Controller, gamers can plug in the things they already have to customise the experience for themselves. Our message is: create your own controller.”
Vivek Gohill has Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, which causes muscle degeneration and weakness. He uses the Xbox Adaptive Controller and several switches and buttons around his body to play games. While playing Forza Horizon 3, for example, he uses a button next to his head to accelerate the on-screen car, while using a different one on his wheelchair to brake.
“I’ve lost a lot of ability, and definitely couldn’t play as much as when I was younger,” said the 27-year-old, who has given feedback to Microsoft after finding it difficult to hold traditional controllers and press the buttons. “When I had to stop playing the games I wanted to, it was very frustrating and upsetting, because that was one of my favourite pastimes. By using the switches I already have for my computer or phone, the Xbox Adaptive Controller lets me have the freedom to play the games that I want.”
Gohill is one of 700 people who form part of Muscular Dystrophy UK’s Trailblazers, who campaign to remove the social injustices that young people with disabilities face when trying to live independently.
Lauren West, manager of the Trailblazers, hopes Microsoft’s actions will encourage more companies to make accessibility a priority.
“The Xbox Adaptive Controller will give people with disabilities the belief that they can get back into gaming, and that companies are taking accessibility seriously,” the 26-year-old said.
“The problem with general controllers is they are designed for one particular person. People with Muscular Dystrophy will have very fluctuating conditions and what will work for one person won’t work for someone else – someone’s head might be strong but their hands are weak, for example – so having something that can adapt to that is perfect.
“A lot of our Trailblazers have switch controls at home for computers and tablets, and it’s great they can be used in this equipment. It’s easy to assume companies care but it’s nice to know they are working hard to bring accessibility to the forefront. I hope it will encourage other companies to follow suit and realise they need to do more.”
Nic Bungay, Director of the Care, Campaigns and Information team at Muscular Dystrophy UK, agreed.
“Microsoft’s new Xbox Adaptive Controller will make a real difference to disabled people, particularly those with a muscle-wasting condition whose movements will become increasingly limited over time,” he said.
“We know from our own research that video games are important to many disabled people. It allows them to socialise and compete with others on an equal basis, which has a positive effect on their wellbeing. Despite this, more than one-in-three young, disabled gamers told us they feel excluded due to a lack of accessibility.
“By working in partnership with Microsoft, we hope that today marks the first step towards a more inclusive video gaming culture.”
George Dowell has been using a prototype controller for a couple of months and was one of the first people in the UK to try it out. The 25-year-old from Worthing, in West Sussex, broke his spine in a car crash in 2010, leaving him paralysed from the chest down. He has been working with SpecialEffect, which has provided feedback to Microsoft.
“It’s brilliant,” he said of the new controller. “Before this I used arcade sticks that can be adapted for button ports, but they were unreliable, and I often had to ask someone to help me make them work.
“The Xbox Adaptive Controller connects like a regular controller. I play FIFA and it works very well with that because you can remap the buttons to do different things.
“It’s given me more independence. The fact Microsoft has done this makes a statement, and hopefully a lot of people in situations similar to mine will hear about it and give it a try.”
Minto added: “We have made something that has the same functionality that people would have got from spending thousands of pounds with charities, and a long time adapting personal controllers.”
The Xbox Adaptive Controller will be available on the Microsoft Store later this year, priced at £74.99.