Stay on target As a handicapped person, I need to do things differently from most folks. Though I have to take my disability into account with almost everything I do, gaming has never been an obstacle. I can pick up and use a controller like anyone else. However, this isn’t true for other disabled people. For some of us, playing with a standard controller is either uncomfortable or impossible.For years, independent companies like AbleGamers have provided controllers for gamers with disabilities. Now, Microsoft is set to release the Xbox Adaptive Controller this fall. At $100, it is a controller that nearly any handicapped person can afford. It is exactly what many in the disabled community have asked for.One of the people who helped with the development of the controller is AbleGamer’s Steven Spohn. After reading our piece on the Xbox Adaptive Controller, Steven reached out to me to talk more about the controller and AbleGamer’s involvement with it. Being aware of the work AbleGamers has done in the disabled community, I didn’t hesitate to speak with Steven about the controller.During this interview, Steven and I discussed how the Xbox Adaptive Controller came to life, how it differs from similar controllers released in the past, the unique challenges the team faced during development, and whether or not PlayStation or Nintendo will make similar devices for disabled gamers.How did you get involved with the development of the controller? Did AbleGamers reach out to Microsoft or did they come to you?We’ve had the pleasure of working with Bryce Johnson — who had been on the Microsoft Accessibility team for quite a while — about the Elite controller and all the things that had been coming out with that and what was going to be in the future and all that jazz. It was really pretty fun for us.Bryce had been one of the biggest accessibility champions I had met internally on a team. What happened was they did the “hackathon” with their Microsoft employees and they came up with some rough outlines on what a controller might look like if you were designing for someone with a disability. Bryce was like “Well, have you guys heard about this Adroit?” and they asked, “What’s that?” He explained that the Adroit is this controller that you can plug switches into and it would act as an Xbox controller and it was from AbleGamers.The team was super excited to hear that there was something already out there that was doing generally what they were aiming to do. They had the hackathon controller, they had what AbleGamers does, so it was a matter of making things bigger and better and more awesome for the community.So Bryce started bringing us in. Myself and Craig Kaufman spent many, many hours on the phone with Xbox and the Xbox team in order to figure out exactly what it is that the community needed.Folks have created DIY controllers for gamers with disabilities for years. Why do you think it took so long for a major company like Microsoft to make an official controller of this kind?I try not to say “first time ever” because it’s kind of disrespectful to the people who had been doing it before. It’s not even the first mass market, because that was Evil Controllers with the Adroit for AbleGamers. The competitor to the Adroit was $1200, which is ridiculous for a controller.What Xbox really did by putting it through their mass manufacturing machines was be able to bring the price point down. Having it be $100 is just off the chain. I am so happy about that because not only will people be able to afford it, but it’s going to be easier for people in situations like AbleGamers to give out grants. That’s a 75% cost reduction just on the one piece of machinery.Since a lot of these controllers are custom-made, the price always varies. It’s good that this one is only $100. That’s very affordable.It is, and that’s always what made me mad about the Adroit. It costs $395 to make and they charge $399. They only made a couple of bucks to try to recoup some of the costs they put into R&D. Even at that, it’s still a lot of money. What do you do when you’re already at the floor?You’re not making much of a profit on that.It was never about the profit for Evil Controllers or AbleGamers. It was all about getting it to the community. But it was frustrating for us because, you know, when you’re on an SSI budget, $400 is still up there. Although AbleGamers is always happy to give out the controllers, we have this huge backlog because there are so many people that want help. It’s hard. That’s another thing that makes this Xbox Adaptive Controller so great. People can go to a Microsoft Store coming this fall and just buy one. You don’t have to wait for us just to be able to get somebody to grab the soldering iron to put it together. You don’t have to wait for us to get through a hundred other people to get to your case.What do you think is the controller’s defining feature? What makes it so great for people with disabilities?On the whole, it is the fact it is so versatile. For me personally, I take the switches, and I lay it out like a keyboard in front of me, but we have so many different case studies. We have people who will put them on their headrest, or the arm on their wheelchair, or they will velcro them to a pillow, or they will duct tape them double-sided to an over-the-bed tray table. Sort of high-tech meets low-tech, this middle ground where we’re just combining our efforts to figure out exactly where it is.I know that you have your things and I have my things. Everybody does. In situations where you need a little bit of help here and a little bit of help there. The difference between a switch being fixated on one point on a piece of plastic versus being able to put it wherever you want in front of you can mean the difference between playing or not.I really love the fact it’s so versatile and I love that it reminds me of the old NES controllers. It was just two buttons and a d-pad — back to the good old days where it wasn’t like a 5-alarm controller you had to figure out a whole lot. This isn’t a feature. It’s just cosmetic. That’s not really important, but for me personally, I love that it looks like just a standard controller. People are already starting to design skins for it and they’re going to start painting them at the pro shops. I like that it’s just another controller. People are going to say “hey dude, can you hand me my controller?” instead of “hold on, let me set up my rig.”It definitely makes things a lot easier for people like us.Yeah. In the disability world, a lot of the controllers we deal with look like crap. They’re not designed to look pretty, they’re designed to function. People say: “Oh, it’s medical anyway so who cares?” Well, no. The person using it cares.How did you get in contact with the people who helped test the controller? Did you reach out to them or did they find you?It was a combination. Xbox asked us for a list of people that we recommended, the top of the top. We gave them names that we trusted, names that have helped us before. People like Geeky Gimp (Erin Hawley), people we trust with good opinions. We were able to get a bunch of people in different levels for the feedback. Some of the people on our list have had the controller for a year. I’ve been working with prototypes for three years. It was a matter of what they were able to bring to the table.Some of the feedback we got from the community was phenomenal, just little upgrades here and there that might not have been thought of either. We were pushing for the ability to have a toggle switch to do different profiles. They were accepting of that, but it wasn’t considered a top priority until feedback from the community started rolling in saying it would be great if we could flip a switch and it would be different buttons as opposed to having to reprogram over and over.My favorite prototype story happened when we first started getting involved with them (after having to sign a million and one NDAs). We got on the first video call, the lawyers on the Xbox side were still not totally sure that we were going to keep it a secret. They wouldn’t let them show us the actual first prototype version of what it looked like. They had to grab a legal pad and they drew what the controller looked like on the piece of paper and then showed us the piece of paper. Because that was legal. They were allowed to show us paper, not the physical thing.That’s nuts!It’s one of those stories that at the time was just frustrating. Now… I can’t believe we got through that. That’s so crazy.What unique challenges did the team have to overcome when developing the controller? Every person is different, so I imagine creating a controller that accounts for various disabilities wasn’t easy.That was one of the things that was important to me. It was about helping people who have extremely limited abilities use their physical prowess. The controller needed to have light-touch and the ability to use 19 switches. No one in a situation where you need an XAC, or an Adroit would ever use 19 switches. We don’t have that many muscles. But you want to have the ability there just in case. You never know.So it was important to have all the buttons available, it was important to have the profiles. For me personally, it was having the thought process in mind that this was not a controller that someone who would enjoy a standard controller could ever use. Someone who is fully able-bodied, they’re not going to be interested in using this controller for everyday gaming. It is specifically designed for people with disabilities.I think sometimes the mass market hype is really what trips it up. Whenever you’re trying to work with a company to design a controller, they want to make sure that anyone can use their product, not just people with disabilities. The thing is, most controllers are designed for able-bodied people, so what’s wrong with designing a controller for people who aren’t able-bodied? “For us, by us.” I was proud that the Xbox team really took that to heart. They really understood that the goal here was to help a certain group of gamers and we needed to focus on them. If other gamers found something useful out of it, great. If they don’t, well, there’s an Elite controller and there are other controllers for them.99% of controllers out there are for them.ExactlyHow does the controller work for you personally? What does it allow you to do more than any other controller can?It’s about removing the adaptations. When I plug in the XAC to the Xbox One it just works. I can plug the quad-stick in, and it just works. For me, having attendants who are not always technologically savvy, having the ability to just tell them “plug that into that” makes it so much easier to play. You don’t have the headache of trying to explain, “I need you to plug the adapter in there and if it flashes zero-zero then that means you have to unplug the controller, take one of the batteries out, plug it back in, wait till it flashes zero-one, and then after that you reset the controller, then you add the adapter….” It’s like, what?Having that simplicity really is what thrilled me. Having that ability to make things work together and play nice is phenomenal. We have all these technologies like the quad-stick and the light-touch switches that are important for these setups, but they don’t always necessarily want to play well together so you need adapters to trick it into thinking it’s an Xbox 360 controller or it’s a PlayStation controller. With this, you don’t have to do any of that. You just plug it in and go. It removes frustration for somebody who can’t physically get up and do it themselves. It’s a problem you’re probably familiar with; when you know how to do something and you’re trying to describe it to someone else. You wish you could get up and go do it.Do you think other major companies like Nintendo and Sony will make similar controllers now?My thought is that the people who are behind all of these controllers are getting together and they’re speaking. Whether they’re from the same company or not. They care about the disability community, and they want to see these things push forward. I think you’re going to see some inter-company support because this is just an area that the big corporations are finally seeing does need support. We have rung the bell loud enough and finally, we’re getting responses. So I think you’re going to see that.I would love to sit here and tell you that they’re all going to make things. I think PlayStation will jump on-board, I think you’ll see manufactures jumping on-board. In 20 to 30 years, I think we’ll see Nintendo come around to thinking about it. Unfortunately, they are super uncooperative. But, that’s on them. Hopefully, they will realize that the market for people with disabilities is real and viable and they need to get on-board.Is there anything else you’d like for people to know about what went into the development of the controller?I think it’s important that people realize the price point is very important. I’ve seen a lot of negative feedback, especially on Twitter. Some of them are trolls, some of them are just misinformed people. They ask us why the controller is needed and why anyone would care. They say it’s too expensive and no one is going to be able to afford it. Some say things like “oh well, you did this, but you can’t even get your games to be friendly with people with disabilities.”Those are all valid things. Life is more expensive for us. We’re sort of used to it. I’m not saying that’s okay, I’m certainly not. I hope things continue to normalize as far as price point goes. But we’re used to things being more expensive, because we need more stuff. We need higher-end technologies and that’s always going to be more expensive. But this is helping. This is pushing it that way. Sure, maybe someone on SSI will not be able to afford the $100 controller plus ten switches, plus a quad-stick. Well, that’s what AbleGamers is around for; to be able to help financially. If you don’t want to go through a charity then you save up for it. You can save $50 a month for the next year and then you get it. This is a lot better than having to save up $1200.I understand where this negativity comes from. People think we should be able to give it out for $5, but that’s just not reality. That’s not the way these things go. I’m just happy we’re making progress and that we’re going to continue to make more peripherals and controllers. I can’t speak for Xbox, but hopefully they’ll continue working with AbleGamers and the disability community and putting out new and wonderful inventions. I know we [AbleGamers] will.Lastly, where can people go to find out more about the work AbleGamers does?You can check out AbleGamers on the web over at AbleGamer.org or on Twitter and Facebook. We’re AbleGamers everywhere. MySpace, GeoCities, your local YMCA, whatever [laughs]. You can check out our take on the Xbox Adaptive Controller on the website right now. There’s an article we’ve got up about remembering how we started with the Adroit and how it sort of evolved into what it is today.For us, having been fighting for 15 years to get the industry to notice us and coming around to supporting this community that we love and we bleed for… it’s been a dream. That’s not me selling Xbox, “I love all platforms equally.” I’m glad that they are the first ones to come around. I can’t wait for PlayStation to follow suit and I hope Nintendo eventually gets on-board. I’m really looking forward to seeing what’s next in this space. Review: ‘Gears 5’ Brings a Fresh Perspective to the FranchiseYes, Your Xbox Was Spying on You Let us know what you like about Geek by taking our survey.