In the lab with Xbox’s new Adaptive Controller, which may change gaming forever

A look inside the Xbox Inclusive Tech Lab as they reveal their new controller with improved accessibility. (Video shot and edited by CNE and Justin Wolfson. Click here for transcript.)

REDMOND, Washington—The Xbox Adaptive Controller (XAC), slated to launch "later this year," looks almost incomplete at first glance. The clean, confusing-looking slab, nearly the length and width of an Xbox One S, has no joysticks. The usual selection of Xbox inputs has been reduced down to a few menu buttons, a D-pad, and two black, hand-sized pads.

Don't let the pared-down design fool you. The XAC is one of the most unique and widely useful control tools Microsoft has ever designed, and it seems poised to change the way many players interact with the games they love.

The operative word is "adaptive." XAC's potential truly begins with its back-side strip. There, you'll find a whopping 19 ports, all 3.5mm jacks. No, this isn't a giant middle finger to the headphone-jack haters at Apple and Google. Rather, these ports see Microsoft connecting with, and loudly celebrating, what has long been an open secret in the world of gaming peripherals: the community of add-on devices designed for limited-mobility gamers.

Oversized buttons, finger switches, blowing tubes, foot pedals, and other specialized inputs have long been built for gamers who can't hold onto or efficiently use average controllers (gamepads, keyboards, mice). Recent speeches from company heads like CEO Satya Nadella and Xbox chief Phil Spencer have paid lip service to "inclusivity" in computing and gaming, but this device, the XAC, aims to do the trick by connecting niche add-ons to standard Microsoft hardware.

After exploring the ways hospitals, charity groups, and non-profit organizations already help limited-mobility gamers enjoy the hobby (and pay for unwieldy, specialized gear), in 2015 Microsoft's Xbox research group started an initiative to build an Xbox-branded hub that can bring down costs and frustration for users and caretakers alike. One year later, this skunkworks project received funding and a pathway to become an official Microsoft retail product.

In fact, this project has been hiding in plain sight for over a year. The Xbox Inclusive Tech Lab opened at one of Microsoft's Redmond campus buildings in 2017, and Ars visited last year under the auspices of an Xbox One X demo and conversation. After that chat, a helpful PR agent's eyes flashed brightly as I asked about the specialized headsets and pedal-driven rigs against one wall. I'd love to see what these are about, I noted.

Six months later, standing in the same room, that agent's teammates grinned from ear to ear as they pulled the veil off a table that exposed the XAC—and, crucially, its range of compatible accessories.

As the above gallery shows, the XAC can be connected to a variety of peripherals, most of which offer binary on/off input—like a basic button press. Gabi Michel, a senior Xbox hardware program manager and a major member of the XAC team, told Ars that a few of the 3.5mm ports support an "analog" range of joystick and trigger presses as well. Two USB ports support joystick peripherals such as existing PC flight sticks and a new Xbox-branded, one-handed "nunchuk" from peripheral maker PDP.

Thus, XAC lands as a weird product from a "first-party" gaming company, because it has to be completed by whichever gamer uses it. During its reveal event, Microsoft's hardware design team argued that this was no accident. They had to unlearn all of their previous assumptions, they said, and realize that a one-size-fits-all controller would never work for the XAC's target audience.

"The old design axiom is, 'You are not the user,'" says Bryce Johnson, Microsoft's "inclusive lead" in its product research and accessibility team. Johnson is wearing a T-shirt with the all-caps phrase "MORE LOVE" on the front. Talking about inclusivity principles as they apply to Microsoft products and software, he says the old axiom has been harder to mind on the Xbox team because they do all play games in their free time. "Before Xbox, I was in Dynamics. I didn’t work on accounting software all day, go home, and play comptroller all night," he adds. "But our Xbox team plays games in the day and plays games at night."

When it came to designing a more accessible controller, though, members of the design team had to get into a mindset outside of the standard controller use cases they were familiar with. Thus, again and again, a mantra was repeated during the preview event: by leaving any gamers in the cold, the standard controller just wasn't good enough.

Xbox One's controller was constantly praised by Microsoft staffers for being an "industry leader," but each person offered some variation of admitting that "optimizing a single use case" left a lot of potential gamers in the cold. "Emails to [Microsoft CEO] Satya [Nadella] about disability ended up on our desk," director of user research Kris Hunter says. "We’d have to direct people to nonprofits or to hacking resources."

The Xbox team eventually launched two initiatives on the console, each meant to help limited-accessibility players on a default-hardware level. Xbox One's "copilot" mode lets multiple controllers function as the input for a single player. Players can also access a full button-remapping control panel to reassign controller buttons to function as they see fit.

These were a good start, but Microsoft reps still received plenty of questions over control-related problems. Strange online hack attempts, like fans cutting Xbox One controllers in half just to spread buttons out to more easily reachable places, also suggested that more needed to be done for these players.

All the while, XAC was being built behind the scenes. An early version (which we weren't shown) first emerged at Microsoft's annual Hackathon in fall 2015, and by spring 2016 three interns were assigned to fine-tune its design and "business case" pitch. Months later, the XAC appeared at the next Microsoft Hackathon, and this version passed the first-blush test.

Once that prototype gained enough Hackathon traction, Hunter's job was to decide if and how Microsoft would build the thing. An early thought of passing the XAC concept along to a third-party hardware maker was quickly shut down. "We decided early on that this was something Microsoft had to build," Hunter says. "This was our opportunity to prove that we were serious about assistive technologies for all gamers. We had to use that a lot to sell this internally."

Hunter was also frank about the difficulty of getting members of Microsoft's business team to get on board. "We got the question: how many [units will sell]?" Hunter says. "We were like, we don’t know! And we won't know until we ship. The traditional business success metrics... this doesn’t fit into any of those normal metrics. We had to move the goalpost. The [return on investment] is different. This is about allowing more people to play."

Listing image by Microsoft

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