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4 Agonizing Accessibility Issues with Controllers

Today’s post has nothing to do with streaming. Instead, let’s talk about accessibility, or adaptive design, and its role in the modern design of controllers. As those of you who have read my about me page know, I am a stroke victim. As such, the dexterity of my left side is limited to a degree where doing some everyday things can be a challenge and require some adaptation on my part to achieve.

Incidentally, that is also why I use the pseudonym “Monodex,” which is short for Mono-dexterous. Mono meaning one, and dexterous meaning skilled use of hands. It’s a play on Ambi-dexterous and sounds cool (to me).

For this post, I want to specifically target controller design and how it caters to the majority of people who have full use of both their hands. I don’t just mean strictly video game controller design either. I’m also including hobby controllers used for racing RC cars or flying FPV drones too.

The point of this post is to raise awareness of accessibility concerns with how people can interact with the world. There are certainly great strides being made in this regard, but I feel that there isn’t quite enough attention on the subject, and so here this post is!

1: No Alternative Designs Available – Even When They Already Exist

No Accessible Options for Certain Hobbies like RC Planes.
You can have any controller you like, as long as it is a two-stick RC controller.

The HOTAS Joystick concept is a perfect example of accessible design that isn’t being fully utilized. Expanding on my earlier hobby controller point, the lack of alternate controller designs is one of the biggest weaknesses of the remote control flying/driving hobby.

As a user of a Thrustmaster Flight HOTAS for games like Battlefield 2042 (when it releases) or Microsoft Flight Simulator 2020, I’m astonished that such a controller design isn’t also available for flying drones or RC planes. It seems like it wouldn’t be too hard to wire up the controller to run a 2.4 GHz wireless transmitter, plop a battery in it, and use the XY Joystick to handle pitch and roll. As a bonus, add a twisting Z-axis to the joystick to handle yaw.

This way, you can effectively fly a drone using only your left hand to control the throttle, while your right hand does the rest.

It’s not like they’d have to completely design something like this from scratch – create a collaborative effort with Thrustmaster to release a limited edition hobby joystick for flying drones, wings, or RC planes to test the waters. I can almost guarantee it will be a hit with that crowd. I know I would have certainly bought one up right away.

This all leads back to the core concept of providing alternate formats to suit the needs of people interested in the hobby that can’t use the traditional two-stick design. I’ve tried and promptly crashed my drone into a tree, breaking it. RIP $80.

Again, it isn’t like you need to develop a completely novel design – I’m asking you to adapt a pre-existing design for different use. I guarantee it is easier to use than the two-stick design, and I’d even argue that it gives a superior level of flight control – the longer stick means you can make smaller adjustments to your flight path, resulting in smoother flight overall.

2: Cost – Adaptive and Accessible Design R&D Pushed to Consumers

The Cost of Accessible design gets pushed to Consumers Picture of a Wallet and Joystick on a checkerboard background

The next point of contention is the cost of adaptive and accessible technology. Take, for example, that XBOX Adaptive controller. It costs $99 BEFORE you buy the other parts to add to it, which costs an ADDITIONAL $99 on top of the base controller. So that’s effectively $200 for a controller after tax.

Remind me again, how much is a standard Xbox controller?

Yes, I’m fully aware of the fact that these specialized controller designs are incredibly niche and that it has a small audience. That makes these controllers difficult to make cheaper because there isn’t as much production focused on providing these options, and they can be difficult to design for production at scale. All of this factors into their absurd cost, which all gets forwarded to the consumer.

I understand the reason for their cost, but it is this very same audience that lacks the full mobility of their bodies that are also stuck on disability, unable to work. I don’t know if you know about disability benefits, but it’s less than $1000 a month.

Now think of the cost of rent. Never mind food, heat, internet, Netflix, etc. Just rent. With what people get on disability, they cannot afford the cost of rent without getting on a list for subsidized housing, which bases the rent on a third of your income.

Now, are you seeing why I am upset about the sheer cost of one of these accessible designs? At $200 for that adaptive controller + kit, you’re talking about spending almost 1/3rd of their Monthly income for a controller to make playing video games possible. Never mind the fact that they don’t even know if they’d enjoy the hobby to risk so much investment.

It’s mind-boggling.

3: Availability – Accessibility Products Can Be Difficult to Obtain

There was a time where I was eyeing the poorly named “Stinkyboard.” It was a foot-controlled WSAD keyboard that pivoted on a pin and rested on springs. I thought, “Hey, maybe I’ll pick one of these up and maybe be a little bit better at FPS games!” As FPS games require the liberal use of WSAD, you can probably see my thought process. Given that I lack fine motor control of my left hand’s fingers, it seemed like it was designed just for me.

Unfortunately, the company that designed the stinkyboard went under, and I never got a chance to buy one. This is a shame because it really was a pretty awesome concept, and people who tried it out loved it.

This is where my third point of contention lies in concerns about accessibility products. Availability. If any non-major brand releases an accessibility first product that doesn’t sell well, then they may well go the way of the dinosaur because they don’t have other products to keep themselves afloat.

Then there is also the actual “finding said product” in the first place. Until this post, have you ever heard of a stinky board or even knew foot controllers exist? If you don’t even know something exists, how will you know if it will help you? How do you know it is worth a third of your income for an entire month to buy?

4: Device Locked Controllers

Locked Down Controller Design for Consoles

This last point takes aim at the annoying practice of proprietary controllers being device locked out of the box. Take, for example, the Playstation controller. This controller features a large, flat connector that can only be plugged into a Playstation. As a result, you can’t plug a Playstation controller into a pc, or other competing consoles without the use of a third-party converter. This is just stupid.

This is the same across many different brands of similar and older generation consoles, so it is far from a new concept. But it is frustrating should you want to use a certain controller design because it is easier for you to use.

Luckily, this isn’t so much of a problem today with the advent of USB, but it still exists. For example, connecting a Wiimote to use on a PC requires that you install third-party software from some super obscure and often sketchy website. That software installs unsigned drivers made by some random guy on the internet onto your computer to unlock the full capability of the Wiimote on the PC. That, or use the dolphin emulator to play emulated Wii games using a real Wiimote.

New Life Into an Old Product

But maybe I wanted to use the Wiimote as a mouse for my setup! It would make a great presentation tool for PowerPoint slides, allowing me to interact with the screen from a distance in a natural way. Using a Wiimote in this way also eliminates the need for the age-old use of a laser pointer. I see it as a great accessible alternative to a traditional computer mouse, one that is not capitalized on. Again, a design that already exists but isn’t being used in a different way.

The big advantage of the Wiimote is that the design is familiar to many. As comfort plays a key role in the adoption of technology, and the fact the Wiimote is one of the most recognizable controller designs in the world, makes it one of the best accessibility controller options that I know of.

I understand the idea of trade secrets and all, but making your unique designs that are super accessible by nature, which promoted one of the largest adoptions of video gaming in history at all ages, is a seriously missed opportunity as a reimagined accessibility controller for multiple devices. I’d buy one in a heartbeat.

Oh, and the proprietary power connector for the Wii bar with 8 IR LEDs is also an annoying move. I know, they have battery-powered bars you can buy, and third-party ones do exist that use USB but come on.

I would love to see a Wiimote variant that has the analog stick on the main controller as well – This would make the controller a Perfect fit for my needs, especially if it was redesigned to work with computers. Not having to download sketchy drivers is also a big plus.

Pretty please?

Adapting VR Controllers For Traditional Desktop Use

Aside from the Wiimote, other potential options for accessible controller designs reside in the VR scene – controllers that have been designed to be used in 3D space. Because users are completely disconnected from their visual sense of the real world, controller design that can be easily understood by our mind’s eye is a huge factor in VR controller design.

I own a Valve Index, and the controllers are absolutely amazing in the 3D world. In fact, I think that using these controllers could work really well in a 2D environment with a little bit of tweaking. Everyday tasks like browsing the internet or checking your mail with a one-handed controller like this can be really neat – I’ve tried it in Virtual Desktop. It’s not quite the same, though, and still requires the actual Index headset to work.

What I’m talking about is disconnecting that need for the VR headset and use the controllers standalone. I can totally picture myself using the Index controller as a mouse or even a gamepad to play games like Rocket league one-handed. Of course, I already do that using a Dualsense controller, but I have to use my left hand to anchor the controller, which at the end of a gaming session, my hand often HURTS.

Being able to finish up a gaming session without pain would be a benefit I’m 100% down for. Plus, The Valve Index controllers come in a left-right pair that fit really well ergonomically for both hands, meaning that users with a limitation on their right hands instead of their left hands would get a tailor-made experience designed for their good hand.

Again, It isn’t like you have to design a controller from scratch – Just adapt those that already exist.

I’m Hopeful For The Future of Accessible Controller Design

All things said and done, accessibility is an immensely important philosophy, and the world is slowly starting to adopt it. While it isn’t quite developing at the pace that I’d like to see it at, we are substantially more inclusive today than we were even 8 years ago. Technology is improving at a ridiculous pace, and I am excited to see what the future has in store for us.

I only ask that those of you who are out there creating this amazing tech not forget the people who are physically limited in ways that prevent the traditional methods of using the technology you create.

Thank you for reading, and I hope you stay safe in this evolving world we live in.

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