V&A acquires Xbox adaptive controller set to revolutionise accessibility in videogaming


Design, Architecture and Digital
September 4, 2018

The V&A has acquired an Xbox Adaptive Controller as part of its Rapid Response Collecting programme. As the first adaptive controller designed and manufactured at large-scale by a leading technology company, it represents a landmark moment in videogame play, and demonstrates how design can be harnessed to encourage inclusivity and access. From today, the controller is on display in the Rapid Response Collecting gallery, an activity and a space which explore how current global events, political changes and pop cultural phenomena impact, or are influenced by, design, art, architecture and technology.

Xbox Adaptive Controller, developed by Microsoft. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Xbox Adaptive Controller, developed by Microsoft. © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

On the day of its launch, the Xbox Adaptive Controller was suggested for Rapid Response Collecting by not one, but four members of the Design, Architecture and Digital department’s curatorial team. We were excited by the possibilities of this kind of object not only in terms of the impact on those that use it, but also for the conversations it opens up about adaptive and assistive design at the Museum and beyond. Discussions within the gaming community around adaptive controllers are very active, and while many, often expensive, pieces of equipment already exist, to have an affordable, adaptable piece of kit marks a turning point in the design of games hardware.”

The flexibility of the controller allows for many different people to play games previously inaccessible to them, and attempts to account for the ergonomic needs of the diverse, dynamic and physical limitations anyone can have. For most hardware products, designers work with a specific interaction in mind, often handheld and for users with an assumed level of dexterity. The Adaptive Controller features two large buttons that players can programme, nineteen jacks and two USB ports that enable players to plug in additional buttons, switches and pads.

The design process behind the Xbox Adaptive Controller is very well documented and the Microsoft team have written extensively about how it began life at an annual, company-wide hackathon two and a half years ago. Here designers were able to create whatever they wanted and what they don’t normally have time for, and out of this arose a first prototype that allowed users to externalise all of the buttons to suit them individually. The idea took off and was put into development by the company.

I spoke with Chris Kujawski, Principal Designer on the Microsoft Device Design Team who heads up the group of designers responsible for the controller. When talking, Chris made clear that the design process was significantly slower than for other hardware and many lessons were quickly learned. Also important was that it was iterative, engaged and collaborative:

We couldn’t go to our typical pool of customers with the Adaptive Controller, where we might bring in a dozen Xbox gamers and they would give us feedback on a new controller. For one, it’s more difficult, there are fewer of this type of customer with physical limitations that are Xbox gamers. They don’t necessarily live in this area, it’s not easy for them to get on a plane and come here to do research, so we really had to travel quite a bit. We went to customer’s homes, we brought them prototypes, we visited rehabilitation hospitals.

Stigma was a huge consideration for the design team. It wasn’t enough for the controller to just be well designed, it had to look good. It may not seem like an important consideration given that functionality is paramount, but to not feel like you get the second-best, clunky, version of an existing product means a great deal to players often made to feel like the exception. As the Microsoft designer explained further:

When approaching a design, you have to consider the brand that you’re designing for and how this new controller fits in with the rest of the products. It sounds obvious, but it took on an extra level of importance for this product because so much adaptive technology looks like adaptive technology; it looks like something you use because you can’t use the “regular” thing. So it was really important for us to make the controller look like an Xbox product and look cool, and for it to fit in with everything else we make. We wanted this to be a desirable product on its own whether you knew what it did or not.

The Xbox Adaptive controller is an important acquisition for the Design, Architecture and Digital team, not only as an example of product design that enables participation and access, but also as a marker in time of when products such as this entered the mainstream mass-market. Design stories like these play a vital role in broadening understanding how different people interact with and use designed things in their daily lives, and in highlighting the careful, collaborative and skilled processes of design practice today.

Explore the design and culture of contemporary videogames in our exhibition Videogames: Design/Play/Disrupt, 8 September 2018 – 24 February 2019

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