The story behind Microsoft’s gargantuan new Xbox controller

The new Xbox Adaptive Controller (upper left) includes a litany of ports to plug in other devices to create a customizable experience. (Microsoft Photo)

Microsoft unveiled its newest Xbox controller this week, a ground-breaking device designed for a huge range of customization to help people with disabilities play videogames.

The Xbox Adaptive Controller looks like an oversized version of a regular Xbox controller in a big box, with two huge programmable buttons and the trademark Xbox design and branding. The $100 controller is set to debut later this year.

On the back are 19 jacks that represent the heart of the controller’s flexibility. Users can plug in a variety of peripheral devices, like additional buttons and joysticks, to customize the experience. On the underside, pads keep the controller from sliding around and several more jacks make it possible to mount the device in various ways.

Microsoft’s Deborah Bach pulled back the curtain on how the device went from an idea, to a concept refined over several years by dozens of teams and engineers at the company, to a product it is getting ready to release this year.

Despite the oversize buttons and other new features, the Adaptive Controller in most ways looks like every other Xbox controller. (Microsoft Photo)

The vision for this new controller dates back to 2014, when a Microsoft engineer saw a photo on Twitter of a custom controller made by Warfighter Engaged, a nonprofit focused on helping wounded military veterans recover through gaming. In 2015, a group of Microsoft employees put together a solution for Warfighter Engaged at an accessibility hackathon to make it easier to outfit vets with gaming devices. Another team riffed on that idea at a company-wide hackathon later that year.

The idea continued to gain steam as Microsoft invested in accessibility through its Gaming for Everyone Initiative started in 2015. Recent accessibility efforts such as the Adaptive Controller, closed captioning for games and the ability to remap controller buttons have been concentrated in a new Inclusive Tech Lab that opened last year at the Microsoft campus.

One key feature that drove the development of the Adaptive Controller was Copilot. That lets users link two controllers together, which helps if a player has a hard time, for example, holding it with both hands and navigating all its commands.

Accessibility has been important push for Microsoft for the last few years, highlighted recently by the new AI for Accessibility Initiative. The five-year, $25 million project aims to develop artificial intelligence-powered technologies to help people with disabilities deal with challenges areas like employment, human connection and modern life.

Bach notes that products like the Xbox Adaptive Controllers require a lot of time, energy and resources to create. And they don’t often bring back a huge return on investment. But Bach writes if Microsoft wants to back up the promises of CEO Satya Nadella’s vision for the company — “to empower every person and every organization on the planet to achieve more” — it has to think about designing products for everyone.

“I had a passion for it and I didn’t give up, Kris Hunter, director of devices, user research and hardware accessibility for Microsoft Experiences & Devices told Bach. “I kept saying, ‘This product is too important. It’s too important to Microsoft, it’s too important to Satya’s vision. If we really want to be intentional and we really want to walk the walk versus just talk the talk, this is the product that will do it.’