Microsoft's most incomplete accessory ever, at only $100, is also its most ambitious. REDMOND, Washington— The Xbox Adaptive Controller (XAC), slated to launch "later this year," looks almost incomplete at first glance. The clean, confusing-looking slab, nearly the length and width of an Xbox One S, has no joysticks. The usual selection of Xbox inputs has been reduced down to a few menu buttons, a D-pad, and two black, hand-sized pads. Don't let the pared-down design fool you. The XAC is one of the most unique and widely useful control tools Microsoft has ever designed, and it seems poised to change the way many players interact with the games they love. The operative word is "adaptive." XAC's potential truly begins with its back-side strip. There, you'll find a whopping 19 ports, all 3.5mm jacks. No, this isn't a giant middle finger to the headphone-jack haters at Apple and Google. Rather, these ports see Microsoft connecting with, and loudly celebrating, what has long been an open secret in the world of gaming peripherals: the community of add-on devices designed for limited-mobility gamers. Oversized buttons, finger switches, blowing tubes, foot pedals, and other specialized inputs have long been built for gamers who can't hold onto or efficiently use average controllers (gamepads, keyboards, mice). Recent speeches from company heads like CEO Satya Nadella and Xbox chief Phil Spencer have paid lip service to "inclusivity" in computing and gaming, but this device, the XAC, aims to do the trick by connecting niche add-ons to standard Microsoft hardware. After exploring the ways hospitals, charity groups, and non-profit organizations already help limited-mobility gamers enjoy the hobby (and pay for unwieldy, specialized gear), in 2015 Microsoft's Xbox research group started an initiative to build an Xbox-branded hub that can bring down costs and frustration for users and caretakers alike. One year later, this skunkworks project received funding and a pathway to become an official Microsoft retail product. In fact, this project has been hiding in plain sight for over a year. The Xbox Inclusive Tech Lab opened at one of Microsoft's Redmond campus buildings in 2017, and Ars visited last year under the auspices of an Xbox One X demo and conversation. After that chat, a helpful PR agent's eyes flashed brightly as I asked about the specialized headsets and pedal-driven rigs against one wall. I'd love to see what these are about, I noted. Six months later, standing in the same room, that agent's teammates grinned from ear to ear as they pulled the veil off a table that exposed the XAC—and, crucially, its range of compatible accessories. As the above gallery shows, the XAC can be connected to a variety of peripherals, most of which offer binary on/off input—like a basic button press. Gabi Michel, a senior Xbox hardware program manager and a major member of the XAC team, told Ars that a few of the 3.5mm ports support an "analog" range of joystick and trigger presses as well. Two USB ports support joystick peripherals such as existing PC flight sticks and a new Xbox-branded, one-handed "nunchuk" from peripheral maker PDP. Thus, XAC lands as a weird product from a "first-party" gaming company, because it has to be completed by whichever gamer uses it. During its reveal event, Microsoft's hardware design team argued that this was no accident. They had to unlearn all of their previous assumptions, they said, and realize that a one-size-fits-all controller would never work for the XAC's target audience. "The old design axiom is, 'You are not the user,'" says Bryce Johnson, Microsoft's "inclusive lead" in its product research and accessibility team. Johnson is wearing a T-shirt with the all-caps phrase "MORE LOVE" on the front. Talking about inclusivity principles as they apply to Microsoft products and software, he says the old axiom has been harder to mind on the Xbox team because they do all play games in their free time. " Before Xbox, I was in Dynamics. I didnt work on accounting software all day, go home, and play comptroller all night," he adds. "But our Xbox team plays games in the day and plays games at night." When it came to designing a more accessible controller, though, members of the design team had to get into a mindset outside of the standard controller use cases they were familiar with. Thus, again and again, a mantra was repeated during the preview event: by leaving any gamers in the cold, the standard controller just wasn't good enough. Xbox One's controller was constantly praised by Microsoft staffers for being an "industry leader," but each person offered some variation of admitting that "optimizing a single use case" left a lot of potential gamers in the cold. " Emails to [Microsoft CEO] Satya [Nadella] about disability ended up on our desk," director of user research Kris Hunter says. "Wed have to direct people to nonprofits or to hacking resources." The Xbox team eventually launched two initiatives on the console, each meant to help limited-accessibility players on a default-hardware level. Xbox One's "copilot" mode lets multiple controllers function as the input for a single player. Players can also access a full button-remapping control panel to reassign controller buttons to function as they see fit. These were a good start, but Microsoft reps still received plenty of questions over control-related problems. Strange online hack attempts, like fans cutting Xbox One controllers in half just to spread buttons out to more easily reachable places, also suggested that more needed to be done for these players. All the while, XAC was being built behind the scenes. An early version (which we weren't shown) first emerged at Microsoft's annual Hackathon in fall 2015, and by spring 2016 three interns were assigned to fine-tune its design and "business case" pitch. Months later, the XAC appeared at the next Microsoft Hackathon, and this version passed the first-blush test. Once that prototype gained enough Hackathon traction, Hunter's job was to decide if and how Microsoft would build the thing. An early thought of passing the XAC concept along to a third-party hardware maker was quickly shut down. "We decided early on that this was something Microsoft had to build," Hunter says. "This was our opportunity to prove that we were serious about assistive technologies for all gamers. We had to use that a lot to sell this internally." Hunter was also frank about the difficulty of getting members of Microsoft's business team to get on board. "We got the question: how many [units will sell]?" Hunter says. "We were like, we dont know! And we won't know until we ship. The traditional business success metrics... this doesnt fit into any of those normal metrics. We had to move the goalpost. The [return on investment] is different. This is about allowing more people to play."
In an inspired moment, Microsoft is unveiling a game controller that enables players with disabilities to play games again. It is part of a growing movement to make tech more accessible to everyone on the planet. Mike Luckett is a veteran who suffered a spinal cord injury in a motorcycle accident in 2011. That injury left him a quadriplegic, and it could have ended his life as a gamer, as he had only limited use of his hands. But through the nonprofit Warfighter Engaged, he came into contact with the folks at Microsofts Inclusive Technologies Lab. And today, they are unveiling the Xbox Adaptive Controller, an accessory born from a hackathon that enables players with disabilities like Luckett to pick up gaming again on both the Xbox One and Windows PCs. The $100 Xbox Adaptive Controller is a functioning controller, but it is also a platform that enable others to plug in control devices that can be used by people with limited mobility, said Bryce Johnson in a briefing. Hes the inclusive lead for product research and accessibility at Microsoft, and he has been one of the people pushing to get the controller made over the past few years. In our inclusive design, instead of targeting the majority, or the 80 percent, we target the outliers, Johnson said. Nineteen percent of the population has some kind of disability. That can expand to 38 percent for the temporary or situation. Twenty-six thousand people lose a limb every year. Thirteen million break an arm. We think about our products inclusively. This was just the right time. Microsoft was careful to create the controller in a way that preserves fairness in competitive gaming. Yaron Galitzky, the general manager of Xbox Accessories, said, This is an addition. It doesnt take away from anyone elses experience. And it enables people to do the exact same things that every other player is doing. It does not give them an advantage. The Xbox Adaptive Controller has 19 ports that correspond to all of the buttons on a traditional game controller, so that devices that mimic those button functions can be plugged in and used in lieu of the traditional controller. The controller will be available at Xbox.com and in Microsoft Stores later this year. I think this dialogue for us as an industry, about not only things like the adaptive controller, but also our online community, the content we put out, who we are as an industry, are important discussions for us to have, said Phil Spencer, head of Xbox, in an interview. After his accident, Luckett found he fingers werent as dexterous as before. He can hold a traditional gamepad, but he cant use his fingers to play as well as he once could. But with the Xbox Adaptive Controller and some custom devices he plugged into it, he was able to jury-rig a solution that fits him. I watched him play Overwatch, and it was a truly emotional experience to see how well he could play with the controller. In addition to Warfighter Engaged, Microsoft also worked on the project with partners such as Able Gamers, Special Effect, the Cerebral Palsy Foundation, and Craig Hospital in Denver. In some ways, you could see this as doing good, rather than doing business. It might be considered an extravagant use of resources to help a small number of people, each with very different physical problems. But there are an estimated 1 billion people in the world with disabilities, Johnson said. And when you consider those with temporary problems, like a broken arm, the numbers go even higher. In that light, making games more accessible could also be a brilliant business move, generating goodwill, sales of new controllers, and an expansion of the market. About 2 billion of the worlds people play games now, and games is a $137.9 billion global market, according to market researcher Newzoo. It is also an investment in innovation that could yield benefits that come back to the traditional controller and the two billion gamers in the mass market. Microsofts team acknowledges it doesnt know what demand will be, but the company is committed to making millions if necessary. I will say that with the Xbox adaptive controller, its definitely benefiting more than one person, said Johnson, in an interview with GamesBeat. But we did it one person at a time. What we like to think about when we talk about our inclusive design philosophy —this is very specific, but were not trying to design for all of us. We aspire to design for each of us. Luckett can configure the Xbox Adaptive Controller for his needs, yet someone else — Solomon Romney, a Microsoft Stores retail learning specialist — showed how he could play Forza Motorsport with a different configuration of the Xbox traditional controller and the Xbox Adaptive Controller. Romney does not have fingers on his right hand, and he said that forces him to think about accessibility every day. They found a way for me to game again, said Luckett, who goes by MikeTheQuad. I can move buttons to different positions so it feels natural to me. Before this, I couldnt play at a level I wanted to play, that I knew I could play at, before I was injured. Thats important, said Erin Muston-Firsch, an assistive technology lab specialist at Craig Hospital, because so much of a persons identity and social life are tied with hobbies, such as gaming. Im a lifelong gamer. I get to see from both sides, as a gamer myself, said Romney. Romney stopped playing games for a while, as he felt isolated. He was amazed, however, when the Xbox Elite controller came out and it had swappable components. You could take buttons and turn them into paddles and otherwise change the controllers. That was a sea change in controller design. This was a happy accident, Romney said. I started playing again. And the time I invested in gaming was more rewarding. The Xbox Adaptive Controller enables me to do whatever I imagine. Its not about the controller anymore. It fades, stops being about the controller, and it becomes just you and the game. The game and the hardware shapes around you to be the best experience. Together with a software solution released last year — Copilot, which enables two players with two different controllers to control the same character in a game — the adaptable controller can bring a lot different mobility options to people who were entirely shut out in the past. Chris Kujawski, senior designer, helped come up with the design for the Xbox Adaptive Controller. The project started in 2015 during a hackathon, said Evelyn Thomas, the accessibility program manager for Xbox. The project didnt win, but Leo del Castillo, the head of Xbox hardware at the time, was very supportive and he dedicated some engineers to it. That, and many subsequent decisions to dedicate resources to the project, was critical to getting it done. The trade-off that was there, and people in the room know it was real —the precious resource we have in this organization is people , Spencer said. The trade-off you make is, do you do this or do you do something else?Galitzky said the timing was good because under Nadella, the company was undergoing a cultural transition from a know-it-all organization to a learn it all company. The outside partners — Craig Hospital, Able Gamers, Warfighter Engaged, the Cerebral Palsy Foundation, and SpecialEffect — gave valuable feedback that shaped the product design. The team had to step back and think about why its so hard to change batteries in a device, or plug in a cord. There is an inclusive attitude in the U.S. and the world, said Erik Johnson, chief medical officer at Warfighter Engaged. The community had to be ready. Microsoft rides the coattails of what humans want. This controller is such an enabler for human independence. Erik Johnson used gaming in therapy for 12 years, as he saw how it could bring wounded soldiers back into a social community.