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, with 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 – a controller that has captured the interest of a wide range of industries.
“The QuadStick has been the most rewarding thing I’ve ever been involved in,” Davison told TechCrunch. “And I get a lot of feedback on what that means for [disabled gamers] to be able to be involved in these games. “
Lay the foundation
Erin Muston-Firsch, occupational therapist at Craig Hospital in Denver, says adaptive play tools like the QuadStick have revolutionized the hospital’s therapy team.
Six years ago, she devised a rehabilitation solution for a student who arrived with a spinal cord injury. She says he enjoyed playing video games, but due to his injury he could no longer use his hands. So, the rehab diet incorporated Davison’s invention, which allowed the patient to play World of Warcraft and Destiny.
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 her legs in a motorcycle accident in 2007 and later, due to an infection, lost the use of her upper body. He says he remembers the lives of able-bodied people as one filled mostly with sports video games. He says being a part of the gaming community is an important part of his sanity.
Fortunately, there is an atmosphere of collaboration, not competition, around creating material for gamers within the assistive technology community.
But while not all major tech companies have been proactive when it comes to accessibility, aftermarket devices are available to create personalized gaming experiences for gamers with disabilities.
In his 2015 hackathon, Bryce Johnson, an inclusive Microsoft executive, met with the Disabled Veterans Advocacy Group Warfighter engaged.
“At the same time, we were developing our views on inclusive design,” Johnson said. Indeed, eeight generations game consoles have created barriers for disabled gamers.
“The controllers were optimized around a primary use case that made assumptions,” Johnson said. Indeed, the buttons and triggers of a traditional controller are intended for able-bodied people with the endurance to operate them.
Besides Warfighter Engaged, Microsoft has worked with AbleGamers (the most recognized charity for disabled gamers), Craig Hospital, the Cerebral Palsy Foundation and Special Effect, a UK-based charity for young disabled gamers.
The finished XAC, released in 2018, is intended for a player with limited mobility to play seamlessly with other players. One of the details players have commented on is that the XAC looks like a consumer device, not a medical device.
“We knew 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 of us without us”. Our inclusive design principles drive us to include communities from the start. “
Tackle the giants
There were others who got involved. Like many inventions, the creation of the Freedom Wing was a bit of a fluke.
At his booth at an Assistive Technology (AT) conference, Bill Binko of ATMakers presented a doll named “Ella” using the ATMakers joystick, a power chair device. Also in attendance was Steven Spohn, who is part of the think tank 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 involved manipulating the sensors to control a game controller instead of a chair. This device did not require months of R&D and testing as it had already been tested on the road as a power chair.
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 place.
ATM makers, QuadStick and other small creators, meanwhile, have been busy disrupting the industry.
“Everyone receives [gaming] and it allows people to engage with their community, ”Binko said. “The game is something that people can understand and participate in.”
Barriers to entry
As technology evolves, so do accessibility barriers. These challenges include the lack of support teams, security, licensing, and virtual reality.
Binko said managing support teams for these devices with increasing demand is a new hurdle. More people with the technological skills are needed to join the AT industry to help build, install and maintain devices.
Security and licensing are out of the hands of small creators like Davison due to the financial and other resources required to work with different hardware companies. For example, Sony’s licensing technology has become increasingly complex with each new generation of console.
With Davison’s background in technology, he understands the restrictions to protect proprietary information. “They spend huge amounts of money developing a product and they want to control all aspects of it,” Davison said. “Makes it easy for the little guy to work with.”
And while PlayStation has led the way in button mapping, according to Davison, the security process is strict. He does not understand why it is beneficial for the console company to prevent people from using the controller of their choice.
“The cryptography of the PS5 and DualSense controllers has so far been unbreakable, so adapters 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 use older generation PlayStation controllers as an intermediary between the QuadStick and the latest generation console, so players with disabilities can play the PS5. TechCrunch reached out to Sony’s accessibility division, whose representative said there were no immediate plans for a PlayStation or an adaptable controller. However, they said their department is working with advocates and game developers 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 assemble 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 is currently not available for sale in the United States, but there are no region restrictions for purchasing one online. This latest development points to a more user-friendly Nintendo, although the company has yet to fully embrace the technology.
Nintendo’s accessibility department declined a full interview but sent a statement to TechCrunch. “Nintendo strives 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, zoom function, grayscale and inverted colors, haptic and audio feedback, and other innovative gaming options. . In addition, Nintendo’s software and hardware developers continue to evaluate different technologies to extend this accessibility to current and future products. “
The pressure for more accessible material for disabled players has not been fluid. Many of these devices were created by small business owners with little capital. In a few cases, companies with a desire for inclusiveness from the early stages of development have been involved.
Slowly but surely, however, assistive technology is evolving in ways that make the experience much more accessible to players with disabilities.