Microsoft’s Xbox Adaptive Controller started out as two hackathon projects at the company after an idea from a veteran with limited mobility. Designed for gamers with disabilities, the controller has two large programmable buttons and 19 jacks that can be connected to various accessories to make Xbox and PC gaming far more accessible for a number of players. Microsoft is now partnering with the US Department of Veteran Affairs to provide 22 rehab centers with Xbox Adaptive Controllers and allow veterans with limited mobility the ability to play games again.
These controllers, which starred in the company’s Super Bowl commercial earlier this year, will be used in therapeutic and rehabilitative activities for veterans, and they’re designed to improve things like hand-eye coordination, muscle activation, and general social activities. Gaming is a popular activity in the military, so this rollout seems like a natural fit for the existing 20-year partnership between the VA and Microsoft.
The adaptive controller is a starting point
“We think this is the right thing to do,” explains Microsoft’s gaming chief Phil Spencer in an interview with The Verge. “There are scenarios that bring people from all around the planet, of different abilities, different genders, different races, different social economic scenarios together, and we believe in that power of gaming.”
Spencer looks at the Adaptive Controller as a starting point for more accessibility work from Microsoft to improve gaming. “To enable more people to be able to play just like everybody else, is a great first step,” says Spencer. “But, you’re definitely going to see us doing more in this space.”
The Xbox Adaptive Controller debuted late last year for $99, and we’ve already seen people hacking things together to get it to work on Nintendo’s Switch console. Having this work on multiple platforms is a big point of feedback for Microsoft. “I think the number one piece of feedback that we get is ‘we wish all platforms supported it,’” reveals Spencer. That’s something Microsoft wants to address, but it doesn’t own the software that runs on Sony’s PlayStation consoles or Nintendo’s Switch hardware.
“Our conversations with other platforms about supporting the Adaptive Controllers been positive,” says Spencer. “We’ve talked to Valve about it, we’ve talked to Nintendo about it, we’ve talked to Sony about it. This isn’t something where I feel like we’ve got to break down some walls. My hope is that it’s just time.”
For now, Microsoft is looking to get a better understanding of how well its Adaptive Controller works for veterans and improve it for the future. “We want to get the feedback on how it works, in market,” explains Spencer. “We did a bunch of investigation as we were building it, user research and teams that would come in every month. This is more about us perfecting the platform and getting the feedback.”
Microsoft has worked with various occupational therapy groups, but partnering directly with veterans is a bigger step. Veterans will also be able to use the controllers for sports events like the National Veterans Wheelchair Games. The hope is that Microsoft’s push here will convince other companies to do the same and level the playing field for the billion people in the world who experience some form of disability.