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New Xbox Adaptive Controller aims to help gamers with disabilities

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As the world celebrates Global Accessibility Awareness Day on Thursday, Microsoft is introducing a new kind of controller to allow gamers to play Xbox and PC games in whatever way works best for them.

Called the Xbox Adaptive Controller, the new $99.99 device is unlike the regular Xbox One remotes designed for two-handed use. Developed out of an internal Microsoft hackathon in 2015, there are no directional pads, colorful A/B/X/Y buttons or triggers on this controller. Instead, this new remote is a white slab with two large black buttons, two USB ports and a bevy of 3.5mm accessibility ports on the back.

All of this is by design, to allow for all gamers to customize the controller to exactly what they need in order to play in the way that is most comfortable to them. The controller can be placed on the floor to allow gamers to use the two buttons with their feet and features screws on the bottom for mounting onto wheelchairs or tables. The device can be charged through its USB-C port.

“In the U.S. we estimate that 14% of Xbox One gamers have a temporary mobility limitation and that 8% of gamers have a permanent mobility limitation," Navin Kumar, director of product marketing for Xbox accessories. "We felt like we needed to do more for this audience.”

An exact release date was not immediately revealed. Microsoft says it will be out later this year, though given that some of the accessories the company has partnered to create for the controller are slated to be released next month it is possible that the wait for Adaptive Controller won't be too long.

"To be able to build a controller that is directly helping improve people's lives and to get the feedback from people, to see them just do something that they didn't think was possible... has been, really, a special experience for us," says Kumar.

By utilizing the 3.5mm standard for accessibility peripherals the Adaptive Controller can work with a wide range of already available accessories including bite switches, single-handed joysticks and foot pedals (accessories are sold separately from the controller). Each slot on the back is labeled for its corresponding traditional button, making setting up the controller as simple as "plug and play."

Since it is seen by the Xbox as a regular controller, gamers can play any Xbox One game just as they would with the traditional remote. Like the regular controller, there is also a headphone jack so gamers trash talk friends and competitors online.

"Everything that a standard controller can do, this controller can do," Kumar says.

Microsoft partnered with a number of organizations while developing the Adaptive Controller, including The AbleGamers Charity, The Cerebral Palsy Foundation, SpecialEffect, Warfighter Engaged and Craig Hospital to help ensure the device was properly optimized.

For Steven Spohn, a volunteer who also serves as the chief operations officer of Washington, D.C.-based AbleGamers, the creation of the Adaptive Controller presents a possible game-changer.

A non-profit created to help people with disabilities play games, the group previously developed its own custom accessible controller for the Xbox that, like all of its solutions, it gave away for free to those who needed it. That custom controller, optimized to individual's needs, would often cost hundreds of dollars to create, significantly more than Microsoft's target price.

The Adaptive Controller "will be in what we like to call the 'presents range,'" Spohn says. "This thing plus a couple of switches will be in the range where basically, with friends and family help, you can always raise enough money to be able to afford the whole device."

Spohn's group has helped beta test the controller in recent months, playing various Xbox games including Sea of Thieves and Fortnite. Spohn – who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy, a disease that affects muscle movement and physical strength – tested out the controller with the PC using ultralight switches that require little physical pressure to activate.

"When a company as big as Microsoft starts introducing devices like the Xbox Adaptive Controller... it gives me another tool to do my work," says Spohn. "The fact that they are able to mass produce this device and make it very affordable for the average gamer is just amazing."

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