At a quick glance, it's easy to dismiss the Xbox Adaptive Controller as a one-off thing meant for a very specific audience. But Microsoft wants everyone who plays games to be paying attention to this device. We got up close and personal with the Adaptive Controller at E3 2018 and talked to its two biggest evangelists about what it can do and what it means for gaming.
If you haven't yet taken a peek at the Adaptive Controller, its raison d'être is pretty easy to sum up. The most popular modern game pads are acceptable if you have full use of your body, though anyone who doesn't play games regularly will tell you they're hardly easy to use. If you lack any of that mobility, though, these controllers quickly become difficult—or even impossible—to game with. Whether it's the fine motor control required to operate thumb sticks, the ability to hold triggers down for an extended period, or even having the actual fingers to press the A button once, let alone rapidly, the typical controller breaks down quickly for the less able.
The Adaptive Controller addresses all of those limitations by not only providing a controller with some built-in control options, but one that also allows gamers to plug a wide variety of peripherals into the device to make their own controller. There's already a whole industry around external input devices that all use a simple 3.5-mm jack to communicate digital button presses, and the controller can work with virtually all of these, allowing players with many different needs to come up with setups that fit their own requirements.
The Adaptive Controller is more than just a hub, though. Every element of the device has been given attention by Microsoft's Senior Inclusive Designer Bryce Johnson and his team. The team consulted gamers with limited mobility at every stage, watching how they play with existing solutions. The controller has a slight angle to it, for example, that came from the team watching caregivers angle the controllers up for easier reach. The controller not only has the big grippy rubber feet you'd expect, but it also features two different kinds of mounts on the bottom. If a beefy camcorder tripod is your solution, there's a standard camera-sized mount. If you need a more flexible option, the RAM Mounts that are already standard for countless other products can work, too.
A range of input devices that can work with the Adaptive Controller
Even the process of plugging external buttons in has been given care. There's a whole line of 3.5-mm jacks on the back of the controller, and there's a glossy indentation above each one to let users find the plugs by feel. The controller is generally matte white and black, but these glossy concave spots make it that much easier for someone to plug something in on the first try. The controller's USB Type-C connection was chosen over Micro-USB in part because plugging in non-directional Type-C cables is so much easier than dealing with Micro-USB and its range of keyed jacks.
Once you have your loadout of buttons plugged in, you can then remap them extensively using the Xbox Accessories app on the Xbox One or Windows 10. Every single button on the Adaptive Controller can be configured. Each of the jacks has a label for a default button, but that label is nothing more than a suggestion. Any button can be remapped to any other button. Further, there's even a shift function that allows you to make one button a “shift” key (just like the one on our keyboards) that changes the function of all the buttons.
In the demo I played, it was pretty straightforward to get the hang of the device. Microsoft Store learning specialist Solomon Romney showed me a config he uses for games like Minecraft that require both analog movement and camera manipulation. Romney was born without fingers on his left hand, so he maps both analog sticks to a single Wii Nunchuck-style handheld analog controller that plugs into the USB Type-A connectors on the left and right sides of the Adaptive Controller. When the shift button is depressed, the nunchuck switches from a movement stick to a camera stick, letting him switch fluidly between the two. I didn't have time to really get used to it, but it was intuitive all the same, and something I could absolutely see myself adapting to if it became necessary.
A controller for everybody
It's important that the primary focus isn't taken off of the mobility-limited gamers for whom this controller was built. There are 1.2 billion people with mobility limitations, according to Romney and Johnson, and that's no small number of folks who might be able to play games thanks to this device. Even beyond that audience, though, Romney said he's already hearing from gamers who have full mobility that are seeing creative ways to use the Adaptive Controller. This thing is a full-on battlestation just waiting to happen. If you've dedicated your free time to any number of simulator games out there or use a controller to interact with something complex, the adaptive controller can do exactly what it says in the name: adapt.
“I had a guy come down [to the Microsoft Store] with his Microsoft Sidewinder joystick. And he was so excited because now he can play Crimson Skies [with it],” Romney said. Think about how many layers there are to peel back in that statement. This guy Romney met is going to use a potentially decades-old joystick to play an original Xbox game being emulated on an Xbox One through this adaptive controller. “I've had a lot of people who said, 'I don't have a mobility limitation, but I see so many different immersive possibilities in this [controller]—you know, flying a helicopter with my feet as a helicopter actually flies.'”
Another layer of this potentially endless set of use cases is Microsoft's already-implemented co-pilot feature on Xbox One, which allows you to sync a standard analog controller to work with a second controller, allowing them both to operate the same character in the same vehicle, for example. You can share a controller with a younger sibling or your kid through this approach. But you could also use it to play a game with a standard controller while using the Adaptive controller to bring your feet into the game.
There are still some capabilities the team is working on, though. Right now, analog buttons (those with a continuous input range rather than binary on-off states) aren't really a thing. We've seen analog key switches in keyboards like the Aimpad and Wooting's products, but those aren't going to be the most friendly way to game in the living room or for the mobility-limited. Microsoft has built its own spec for analog buttons, and it's looking into ways to make them available so that racing fans can get the full range of control options out of games like Forza Horizon. The USB Type-A ports I mentioned previously will accept HID-compliant devices like joysticks and gamepad devices, but they won't accept mice and keyboards. That's a separate capability that Microsoft has promised a few times, but the Adaptive Controller isn't likely where we'll see it implemented.
The controller is priced at $99, which is practically free for what could essentially be a medical device. It has a built-in battery—a first for wireless Xbox controllers—that Romney says offers about 30 hours of life before needing a recharge. It also has room for three separate profiles, up from the two on the Xbox Elite. Finally, it has those two big buttons I mentioned before. These buttons designed for mobility-limited interaction typically go for about $65 apiece because they're for a very limited audience. This controller includes two of them on top of its other unique inputs.
Microsoft wants this controller to work for literally everybody. Whether you're trying to just make a complex modern game playable within your abilities, or you're trying to get the most out of Farming Simulator or an obscure Japanese music game, Microsoft wants this controller to adapt to you. Microsoft ended up building the Inclusive Designer position for Johnson and is bringing him and his team into other non-Xbox projects, too. We can expect the Adaptive Controller to continue to evolve and to see its influence elsewhere in the company. Our own Colton “drfish” Westrate has pre-ordered an Adaptive Controller of his own, so expect a deeper TR dive on this device in time.