Microsoft came close to never launching its Xbox Adaptive Controller. In an interview with The Verge, Robin Seiler, Microsoft’s corporate vice president of Windows and devices, revealed just how close the accessibility-focused Xbox controller came to not shipping.
“There was a point in time when the Xbox controller that was designed for accessibility was on the cut list,” recounts Seiler. Microsoft was managing budgets, and it was about to be unfunded and never released. “Across teams, Xbox and Surface, we said, ‘No this is actually important for the world. This isn’t about revenue or brand positioning; it’s just important for people to be able to play games if they want to,’” says Seiler.
The Xbox Adaptive Controller originated from a hackathon inside Microsoft and was refined over the years in several prototypes and concepts. So a team of Microsoft employees, determined to improve the company’s accessibility efforts, decided to make it a reality, regardless of strict budgets. Microsoft employees in manufacturing in China, design in Redmond, and the Xbox team “came together and said skunkworks we’re going to make it happen,” says Seiler.
It went on to be the centerpiece of Microsoft’s Super Bowl ad in 2019, with a two-minute slot telling the stories of young gamers with disabilities who had benefited from the Adaptive Controller. Essentially, Microsoft employees rebelled against budgets and made something genuinely life-changing for people.
The Xbox Adaptive Controller has since been a success for the modding community, and it has encouraged Logitech to create a range of accessories for the Adaptive Controller. We’ve even seen Hori make a third-party accessible controller for the Switch, and it’s clear Microsoft’s big name has helped bring more industry awareness to hardware accessibility efforts in gaming.
Since Bryce Johnson first invented the Accessibility Controller at Microsoft, the company’s stance on accessibility has changed. Now, accessibility is also a big focus for Surface and Microsoft as a whole. “It turns out if you focus on accessibility, you often make a product that’s better for everyone,” says Ralf Groene, head of Windows and devices research and design, in an interview with The Verge. Microsoft has created an accessibility tech lab where it prototypes hardware designed to improve accessibility.
“It’s a huge topic for us to be inclusive,” says Groene. “Microsoft is not a niche brand. We have a large customer base, and the more we can democratize computing, the better we are. Making products not only beautiful but beautifully usable.”
Some of these improvements are almost silent, with keyboards tweaked to make them easier to read or packaging improved to be easier to open. And then there’s the obvious stuff like an Adaptive Kit to make Microsoft’s laptops more accessible with keycaps, bump labels, and more.
The Xbox Adaptive Controller and the latest Surface accessories came straight from Microsoft’s accessibility lab. The Surface Adaptive Accessories went on sale alongside the new line of Surface devices this week and are designed for anyone that might have difficulty using a traditional mouse and keyboard.
“We’re feeding our way into this topic through accessories, but it’s now a core centerpiece of the operating system, and it will follow into the products 100 percent,” says Groene.
We spent the day at Microsoft’s headquarters earlier month to talk to executives about the past 10 years of Surface and about the future of Microsoft’s devices. You can read the full interview right here.