Steve Spohn is wheelchair-bound, on a ventilator and can barely move because of muscular dystrophy, but he’s still able to play video games. He participated in last week’s Games for Health conference in Boston, where the AbleGamers Foundation hosted the Hardware Hackers Challenge, a contest to build a handicap-accessible game controller in under two hours.
The result was a very rough, but functioning prototype of an Xbox 360 controller that had buttons and joysticks that could be moved around and assigned functions.
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“I think the controller itself is important because when you’re disabled, sometimes you’re bed-bound … and really, video games are your escape and controllers allow you to get to them,” said Spohn.
The prototype, built from Xbox 360 controller parts, duct tape, Velcro and a bag of rice, was designed with Spohn’s limited range of motion in mind.
“The real benefit is that all these buttons are actually considered blank, so you can assign any function you want to them,” said Adam Coe, president of Evil Controllers, an Arizona-based company that modifies existing controllers to bring more functionally and flexibility to gaming. “You can make them all the ‘A’ button, you can make them all the ‘B’ button, you can do whatever you want.”
Coe helped build the controller along with Ben Heckendorn and Suzanne Papajohn.
The controller also included a T-shirt that had buttons in the shoulders so that when a user shrugs, buttons are activated.
Mark Barlet, CEO of AbleGamers, a public charity that advocates for disabled people to take advantage of digital entertainment, said that the shoulder-activated buttons weren’t very reliable, but that it was “a step in the right direction.”
The homemade controller is far from commercialization, but Spohn hopes it one day could come to market. “I hope it’s the beginning of a well-polished product,” he said.
“It’s important for people like me to have access to the outside world,” Spohn said. “And for some of us, that’s through games.”
Spohn can move his fingers, shrug his shoulders, speak and flex his calf. Barlet said Spohn is resistant to using sip-puff controllers, or mice you can control with your mouth, because “he feels like that’s giving up.”
(Justin Meisinger in Boston contributed to this report.)
Nick Barber can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter at @nickjb.