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How Microsoft reinvented its Xbox controller to suit everyone

Mike Luckett is a lifelong player.

He began at the age of five almost three decades ago and joined his older brother, who played the original Super Mario Bros. on the Nintendo Entertainment System. Within a few years he played games like Id Software's 1992 Nazi prison break shooter, Wolfenstein 3D, and the follow-up sci-fi hit Doom.

Over the years, Luckett collected many
including Sega Genesis from 1

988, 1994
PlayStation, 2005 Xbox 360 and 2017
Xbox One X.
. One of his favorite games was Vectorman, a shoot-em-up adventure in which you're a robot that will protect the earth from a riot of evil robots in the future.

But that changed after the accident.

Luckett was stationed overseas from 2010 to March 2011 when he came home and worked for the army in Iraq. A few months later, in August, he rode a motorcycle when things went wrong. The accident severed his C6 spinal cord and prevented him from using his legs. While he can move his hands, he has lost control of his fingers.

And he could not use a computer anymore. "I could not even work with the buttons or with a trackpad or anything like that," Luckett said.

But he really got frustrated when he realized that while he was eager to try it
Blizzard's 2016 team-based shooter Overwatch required him to use a controller he could not physically take. Luckett said that he had almost decided to leave .

Mike Lucket's Build: Two controllers, including the new Xbox Adaptive Controller from Microsoft.

James Martin / CNET

He was not the first player to face physical challenges. Since the beginning of the industry
video Games
were 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 Atari and Nintendo were designed with joysticks and buttons.

To help them play on their own terms, some people in the Disability Community hacked solutions by disassembling the controllers and attaching buttons, switches and other things – making changes to them enabled her to send signals playing with her feet or elbows by bobbing her head against a button or even blowing into a tube. The construction of specialized controllers, however, is complicated, expensive and time consuming. Worse, the setup process does not always work.

Enter the Xbox Adaptive Controller

Now there is something that can really help Luckett and others like him return to the game.

It is the Xbox Adaptive Controller of
. The $ 100 device, due later this year, is designed to help gamers of all abilities and abilities play games on either an Xbox One or a PC with Windows 10 . It offers ports where players can plug in switches, buttons, pressure-sensitive tubes and other gear to control any function a standard controller can do. Microsoft introduced it in May ahead of the Global Accessibility Awareness Day, where design and development communities focus their efforts on developing and sharing new ideas for developing products for people with disabilities.

"We come to 2 billion people who play video games on this planet," said Phil Spencer the head of Microsoft's Xbox team, in an interview. "As an industry, when you start to exert that kind of influence on the broad base of people who interact with your art form, I think we have a social responsibility."

Other tech companies are highlighting the inclusiveness and accessibility for GAAD . For example, Apple has announced that blind and deaf people in the US can access a specially designed curriculum entitled "Anybody can code for Swift in schools." Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Adobe, and Oath have teamed to launch an accessibility program as part of the TeachAccess initiative.

In his wheelchair in an accessibility lab that Microsoft built in his Studio B building at his headquarters in Redmond, Washington, Luckett showed me what this effort has done for him. Since he does not use his fingers, the quiet 32-year-old needs both hands just to hold a controller. If he wants to push a button or press the joystick, he has to rest the controller against something and then bring one hand up to do the work. If the controller needs to use three or four fingers at the same time, there is simply no way.


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The key feature of the Xbox Adaptive Controller is that it has ports on the back that represent each key on a standard controller. For example, if Luckett needs the right-click button, he can place it there and then plug it into the back of the adaptive controller. All he has to do now is tap the button and he registers as if he had pulled the trigger on a standard controller.

I watched him powering Fortnite, Epic Games' hit Battle Royale shooter. Once it starts, it plays like any other person on the screen. You would never be able to tell that he used a controller with two large buttons near his wrist in addition to a separate controller. He is still able to move fast and eliminate enemies better than ever.

"It's a really cool escape," he said. "You dive into a world that you do not usually get involved in."

He does not hide his disability. His player name is MikeTheQuad .

  Microsoft Accessibility Controller

The Xbox Adaptive Controller, opposite an Xbox console and a standard controller (left)

James Martin / CNET

Gamer of all kinds

Video games are about escape as well as entertainment. In a minute, after a long day at school or at work, you sit at home, the next time you steer a spaceship through an epic aerial battle in a distant galaxy.

For some people with disabilities, and especially Millennials (the oldest of whom are now approaching 40), playing is not just a pastime; It is part of their identity. And until Microsoft joined in, they've always accepted that the activity they enjoyed has never worked well enough for them.

"It's not surprising how overwhelming it is for someone to sit there and watch someone else set up the device for them and wait 30 minutes to turn the device on," said Scott Wang, an Xbox Hardware researcher. Sometimes the Jerry Rigged buttons work. But sometimes one of them does not, 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 game restrictions 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 ergonomically shaped, with edges that glide naturally into your palms, positioning your thumbs over the top buttons and your index and middle fingers on the side and bottom triggers.

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

It's a rectangle that's just a little smaller than a tray and can easily rest on your lap. It has four big sticky rubberized feet so it does not slip on a table. And the device is angled, with a slightly higher back, to make it easier for people who play with their feet.

In an age of super thin
The Xbox Adaptive Controller looks brawny. The device is top and side mostly white to off-white.

It's also black on the bottom, so it looks good even with Velcro. Why does that matter? Therapists say that their patients hate when they appear to be disabled people.

At the top are two large round black buttons that are easy to operate with the lightest touch on their side. To their left is a direction block that is about 150 percent the size of a standard controller. And there are a few buttons above the pad to share in-game recordings with friends and remotely turn on and off the Xbox console. With one of the buttons you can choose between saved profiles if you are set up for different people in your home or even want to play different types of games.

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

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

James Martin / CNET

To make the operation as easy as possible, Microsoft has provided the controller with grooves over the ports. So if you grab around your back, you can easily find what you need with your fingers. There are also corresponding markings on the top of the controller that lead you to the ports on the sides. And there is enough space to add labels.

Microsoft has equipped the controller with a rechargeable battery that lasts for about 25 hours, so players do not have to fumble with a battery cover when there's no juice left.

On a standard controller, "it's not easy to open the door, replace the batteries, and replace them," said Yaron Galitzky, a general manager who ran Microsoft's Xbox devices. Microsoft has also decided to offer loading with a relatively new connector design called USB-C that works, whether you use it upside down or right side up. "We looked at every feature of the traditional controller and designed the best path for accessibility," Galitzky said.


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Microsoft has even changed the way the controller ships, and has developed new loop-and-flap packaging that makes it easier for people with reduced mobility to remove and set up without assistance.

Microsoft hopes there's a device that's easily customizable, a controller that can become anything you need, so when you turn on an Xbox or a PC, the difference does not matter. The game is 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, an inclusion designer for the Microsoft Xbox Team. "When we design for people with a unique need, people benefit everywhere."

Circuit Diagrams of the Xbox Adaptive Controller by Microsoft's Design Team

James Martin / CNET

Accessibility Culture

In recent years, the tech industry has been paying attention to accessibility.
has extended its Apple Watch programming to track everyday movements for wheelchair users. Both Apple and
has added a number of features and apps that make it easier to hear and read mobile phones and other devices. Facebook teaches his computers, describe photos for the blind .

Microsoft has developed things like a portable motor designed to sense the tremor in Parkinson's patients and then shake in an opposite motion so that they can do simple things, like sign their name or have a cup of coffee drink. The world's largest software company developed a free app titled Seeing AI that describes whatever you imagine – whether it's reading a restaurant menu for you or figuring out how much money you keep.


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And last year, in the Xbox group, the company released a feature called Copilot that lets you use two controllers to play with one character. This made it a hit with parents and young children who wanted to play together. It also helped players with disabilities to more conveniently use two controllers in different positions, or even mix a hacked controller with special keys along with a standard.

Meanwhile, it found unexpected success in the Disability Community with its Xbox Elite Wireless Controller containing four paddles on the insides of the grips that acted as additional buttons to make it easier for gamers, such as Press keys without having to take your thumbs off the joysticks. Since many parts, such as these joysticks, are interchangeable, the accessibility advocates found that they could create parts for disabled players.

The Xbox Adaptive Controller is the next step and acts as a controller, which is also a hub for almost any specialized key, switch or joystick designed for someone with a disability.

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


Jenny Lay-Flurrie leads the accessibility efforts of Microsoft


One of the reasons why Microsoft has invested in this technology is a changing corporate culture, said Jenny Lay-Flurrie, director of accessibility efforts. "It's the principle of inclusive design," she said, meaning that the needs of the disability community are taken into account throughout the design process, not just at the end. The process, she said, is about "how to think about how this product will work for a human being, including the part of them that is diverse – whether gender, disability, or anything else."

Lay-Flurrie, who became deaf after a fight against measles, followed by a series of ear infections as a child, has attempted to change Microsoft's culture towards inclusiveness since his arrival nearly two decades ago. One of the first projects she worked on came from a hackathon in which a team created a wheelchair that you can control with your eyes.

Their goal is to make engineers think of people's disabilities not as suffering for which they need to develop specific designs, but as a challenge to make the technology even easier.

"The best way to describe this is: The World Health Organization defines disability as a mismatch between the individual and the environment," she said. "Mostly I'm not broke, some people disagree, I have a disability that's not right for me."

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

"This is not a big win-win for us," said Xbox boss Spencer. "It's about how we make sure we build something that is additive, constructive, and brings in more players."

That's certainly the case for Luckett. The Xbox Adaptive Controller allows him to delve deeper into his passion for video games. These games function both as a social outlet and as a way to sharpen his mind when playing real sports like wheelchair rugby. "I was mentally strong so I could go through it," he said.

For the next game he can not wait, it's the western epic of Rockstar Games called Red Dead Redemption 2, due this October.

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

And where he used to worry if he could even play, he can just enjoy using Microsoft's new controller.

First published on May 16 at 10 o'clock. PT.
Update at 10:45 PT : Added information from the interview with Jenny Lay-Flurrie of Microsoft.
Update May 17 at 7:55 pm PT : Added information on Global Accessibility Awareness Day.
Update on May 18 at 5:00 pm PT : Information and details on compatibility with Windows PCs have been added.
Update July 25 at 7:00 pm PT : Added information on the shipping box of the device

At par : An interview with Jenny Lay-Flurrie, Microsoft's Accessibility Head, about how design works changed in technology.

Tech Enabled: CNET reports on the role of technology in providing new types of accessibility.

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