Leveling the playing field

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In 2011, a product developer named Fred Davison read an article about inventor Ken Yankelevitz and his QuadControl video game controller for quadriplegics. At the time, Yankelevitz was on the verge of retirement. Davison wasn’t a gamer, but he said his mother, who had the progressive neurodegenerative disease ALS, inspired him to pick up where Yankelevitz was about to leave off.

Launched in 2014, Davison’s QuadStick represents the latest iteration of the Yankelevitz controller — one that has garnered interest across a broad range of industries. 

“The QuadStick’s been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever been involved in,” Davison told TechCrunch. “And I get a lot of feedback as to what it means for [disabled gamers] to be able to be involved in these games.”

Laying the groundwork

Erin Muston-Firsch, an occupational therapist at Craig Hospital in Denver, says adaptive gaming tools like the QuadStick have revolutionized the hospital’s therapy team. 

Six years ago, she devised a rehabilitation solution for a college student who came in with a spinal cord injury. She says he liked playing video games, but as a result of his injury could no longer use his hands. So the rehab regimen incorporated Davison’s invention, which enabled the patient to play World of Warcraft and Destiny. 

QuadStick

Jackson “Pitbull” Reece is a successful Facebook streamer who uses his mouth to operate the QuadStick, as well as the XAC, (the Xbox Adaptive Controller), a controller designed by Microsoft for use by people with disabilities to make user input for video games more accessible. 

Reece lost the use of his legs in a motorcycle accident in 2007 and later, due to an infection, lost the use of his upper body. He says he remembers able-bodied life as one filled with mostly sports video games. He says being a part of the gaming community is an important part of his mental health.

Fortunately there is an atmosphere of collaboration, not competition, around the creation of hardware for gamers within the assistive technology community. 

But while not every major tech company has been proactive about accessibility, after-market devices are available to create customized gaming experiences for disabled gamers.

Enter Microsoft

At its Hackathon in 2015, Microsoft’s Inclusive Lead Bryce Johnson met with disabled veterans’ advocacy group Warfighter Engaged

“We were at the same time developing our views on inclusive design,” Johnson said. Indeed, eight generations of gaming consoles created barriers for disabled gamers.

“Controllers have been optimized around a primary use case that made assumptions,” Johnson said. Indeed, the buttons and triggers of a traditional controller are for able-bodied people with the endurance to operate them. 

Besides Warfighter Engaged, Microsoft worked with AbleGamers (the most recognized charity for gamers with disabilities), Craig Hospital, the Cerebral Palsy Foundation and Special Effect, a U.K.-based charity for disabled young gamers. 

Xbox Adaptive Controller

The finished XAC, released in 2018, is intended for a gamer with limited mobility to seamlessly play with other gamers. One of the details gamers commented on was that the XAC looks like a consumer device, not a medical device.

“We knew that we couldn’t design this product for this community,” Johnson told TechCrunch. “We had to design this product with this community. We believe in ‘nothing about us without us.’ Our principles of inclusive design urge us to include communities from the very beginning.”

Taking on the giants

There were others getting involved. Like many inventions, the creation of the Freedom Wing was a bit of serendipity.

At his booth at an assistive technology (AT) conference, ATMakers‘ Bill Binko showcased a doll named “Ella” using the ATMakers Joystick, a power-chair device. Also in attendance was Steven Spohn, who is part of the brain trust behind AbleGamers.

Spohn saw the Joystick and told Binko he wanted a similar device to work with the XAC. The Freedom Wing was ready within six weeks. It was a matter of manipulating the sensors to control a game controller instead of a chair. This device didn’t require months of R&D and testing because it had already been road tested as a power-chair device. 

ATMakers Freedom Wing 2

Binko said mom-and-pop companies are leading the way in changing the face of accessible gaming technology. Companies like Microsoft and Logitech have only recently found their footing.

ATMakers, QuadStick and other smaller creators, meanwhile, have been busy disrupting the industry. 

“Everybody gets [gaming] and it opens up the ability for people to engage with their community,” Binko said. “Gaming is something that people can wrap their heads around and they can join in.” 

Barriers of entry

As the technology evolves, so do the obstacles to accessibility. These challenges include lack of support teams, security, licensing and VR. 

Binko said managing support teams for these devices with the increase in demand is a new hurdle. More people with the technological skills are needed to join the AT industry to assist with the creation, installation and maintenance of devices. 

Security and licensing is out of the hands of small creators like Davison because of financial and other resources needed to work with different hardware companies. For example, Sony’s licensing enforcement technology has become increasingly complex with each new console generation. 

With Davison’s background in tech, he understands the restrictions to protect proprietary information. “They spend huge amounts of money developing a product and they want to control every aspect of it,” Davison said. “Just makes it tough for the little guy to work with.”

And while PlayStation led the way in button mapping, according to Davison, the security process is stringent. He doesn’t understand how it benefits the console company to prevent people from using whichever controller they want. 

“The cryptography for the PS5 and DualSense controller is uncrackable so far, so adapter devices like the ConsoleTuner Titan Two have to find other weaknesses, like the informal ‘man in the middle’ attack,” Davison said. 

The technique allows devices to utilize older-gen PlayStation controllers as a go-between from the QuadStick to the latest-gen console, so disabled gamers can play the PS5. TechCrunch reached out to Sony’s accessibility division, whose representative said there are no immediate plans for an adaptable PlayStation or controller. However, they stated their department works with advocates and gaming devs to consider accessibility from day one.  

In contrast, Microsoft’s licensing system is more forgiving, especially with the XAC and the ability to use older-generation controllers with newer systems. 

“Compare the PC industry to the Mac,” Davison said. “You can put together a PC system from a dozen different manufacturers, but not for the Mac. One is an open standard and the other is closed.”

A more accessible future

In November, Japanese controller company HORI released an officially licensed accessibility controller for the Nintendo Switch. It’s not available for sale in the United States currently, but there are no region restrictions to purchase one online. This latest development points toward a more accessibility-friendly Nintendo, though the company has yet to fully embrace the technology. 

Nintendo’s accessibility department declined a full interview but sent a statement to TechCrunch. “Nintendo endeavors to provide products and services that can be enjoyed by everyone. Our products offer a range of accessibility features, such as button-mapping, motion controls, a zoom feature, grayscale and inverted colors, haptic and audio feedback, and other innovative gameplay options. In addition, Nintendo’s software and hardware developers continue to evaluate different technologies to expand this accessibility in current and future products.”

The push for more accessible hardware for disabled gamers hasn’t been smooth. Many of these devices were created by small business owners with little capital. In a few cases corporations with a determination for inclusivity at the earliest stages of development became involved. 

Slowly but surely, however, assistive technology is moving forward in ways that can make the experience much more accessible for gamers with disabilities.

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