Superbowl commercials can be funny, quirky, downright weird, and even inspiring. The Monday after the 2019 Superbowl, one of my colleagues asked me if I had seen the commercial for the Microsoft adaptive game controller. I had not watched the football match so my colleague sent me a link to check out the ad online. I was so pleased to see that something like this was on the market! It also reminded me, in a more-developed way, of the "Design a Video Game Controller" activity that we had created in Spark!Lab.
Our activity worked, but needed some further development to be a good invention activity. After watching the ad, I was inspired to learn more about the Microsoft controller. I did some research and discovered that not only was the controller meant to be adaptive in itself, it was also hackable. The design includes multiple 3.5 mm ports on the back of the controller that lets you use any input or button you can create or imagine. This flexibility allows for custom controls for the gamer. These could include an extra-large button, a tube that lets you blow into it to press a button, anything you can imagine.
About a month later I had the privilege to meet with a group of AAAS-Lemelson Invention Ambassadors. I circulated around the room talking with them about their work and about the work we do in Spark!Lab to engage visitors in the process of invention. One of the ambassadors was looking at our “Create a Prosthetic Hand” activity. He and I began to chat. At some point, the Microsoft adaptive game controller came up. It turned out that he was one of the lead people on that project. We began to recognize how the adaptive controller might be a great platform for an activity in Spark!Lab. We exchanged contact information as the ambassador group left.
After a few contacts via email, our new friend at Microsoft arranged for us to get a pair of the controllers and some Xbox One game systems. Looking toward our upcoming invention themes, I saw a place in the “Perform” theme where the controller would fit. I am working with staff members Zach and James to make the most of the flexibility of the controller so we can create an engaging and fun activity.
Here is what we’ve accomplished so far:
- The activity will go live to the public during the second week of January.
- Visitors will create their own game control solutions using the Microsoft adaptive controller input ports.
- The invention prompt for the activity will read, “How would you create game controls that people with different abilities can use? What kinds of controls will you create to increase your gaming performance?” And since Ralph Baer’s workshop and one of his prototype video game consoles sits fifty feet or so from the entrance to Spark!Lab, we reference Baer on another graphic panel to give a bit of historical context to the activity.
- Rocket League, described as a “high-powered hybrid of arcade-style soccer and vehicular mayhem,” will be one of the games playable at the station. Our staff recommends that we run it in practice mode so that the activity involves game play, but is more about creating the controllers.
- The Microsoft Xbox Adaptive Controller is encased in Plexiglas with magnetic connector inputs on the face of the case. We want to encourage inventing controls over using the invented controller.
- The stereo jacks used to connect to the adaptive controller will not survive the rigors of our exhibition space, so we have used a four-lead magnetic cell phone charge connector as the plugin. We created shaped M and F connector interfaces to ensure that the magnetic connectors are always in the correct orientation for the wiring of the input.
- Each input has a four-wire lead setup so that visitors can plug either analog or digital inputs into any of the ports. This should create some great opportunities for tweaking and problem solving regarding the type of input for each game function.
- Our staff has mapped out the most likely needed controls to make the Rocket League game playable. They have also given feedback on the fact that there needs to be at least one analog input for optimal game play.
- We have spent quite a bit of time troubleshooting the magnetic connectors we are using. These have been and still are an ongoing project. At this point, we have consistency in the micro USB breakout boards. We are using the robust ones sold by Adafruit. In the past, we used a low-cost bulk item. We had so much trouble with the bulk items that I was almost ready to abandon our ongoing magnetic connector project.
- Using the new Adafruit part uncovered some inconsistencies in the internal structure of the magnetic (M) connector that has certainly been an issue during some of our earlier projects. Now we have a setup that will allow us to do definitive pin mapping on each magnetic insert. This not only makes the game controller activity workable, it allows us to reopen the idea of using the magnetic connectors on future projects.
- We have been 3D printing flexible and wearable components that interface with LEGO Mindstorms / EV3 expansion sets. These will allow visitors to physically connect the inputs to a platform of their choosing (their body, their chair, a base plate on the table). The part on the left in the photo below is TPU at 1.5 mm thick. It bends and flexes along multiple planes. The part on the right is TPU printed on a piece of orange spandex. We plan to test how well the TPU stays adhered to the spandex. We also tried printing on cotton canvas, but the material did not bind as well as it did on the spandex. Each of the wearables will have elastic/Velcro straps to secure them.
- We still need to wire the inputs and make them durable, intuitive, and compelling. Some of the inputs we plan to use are buttons, flex sensors, potentiometers, and photo resistors. This should provide for some fun and creative ways to engage with the game.
Our staff will continue testing a few of the inputs that we are developing and provide feedback on how to make the inputs work best for our space. If all goes well, the activity will be on the table in Spark!Lab for anyone to use. I admit that I am a bit apprehensive about the magnetic connections—they have been part of a much larger development process for me. I’m pretty sure the Microsoft components will work well. I am anxiously curious about how the interfaces and inputs will go over. This will likely be one area that will need the most tweaking, but that is my favorite part of the invention process.