For some people, video games are an essential aspect of life, and picking up a controller to block the world out for a while is a release with unquantifiable value. It’s how they maintain their sanity.
So what does a person do when the ability to operate a video game system is taken away by something like a car accident or injury caused by war?
Ben Heck, the star of element14’s web series “The Ben Heck Show,” has been building Xbox 360 and Xbox One ‘accessibility controllers’ for people who have lost the use of an arm or hand. Heck’s technical assistant on the show, Felix Gardner, joined the low-volume, controller building process earlier this year.
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3D printing plays a key role in the builds. The two use the technology to create a variety of parts such as actuators, internal structures, and even the all-important buttons that dot the device, according to Heck.
“[3D printing] has been really useful, you wouldn’t have been able to that in the past,” Heck said in an interview with Product Design and Development. “It would have worked, but you would have had to stick everything together with hot glue.”
To modify the controller Heck or Gardner take the original device apart, followed by the implementation of face buttons. One of the two then create the controller’s directional pad and add a 5-way tactile switch. Next, patterns are laser cut in the controller’s front shell so that they know where to add holes. Finally, Heck or Gardner hand drills and hand wires the controller.
Aside from the 3D printed parts, the controller is pieced together by hand. The end product features a 3D printed knob replacing what was originally the second analog stick, which is placed against the leg opposite the hand that is being used. The gamer than moves their arm to move the stick.
For example, if the controller is made for a person who only has a functional right hand, the joystick for the leg would be put beneath the left bottom of the controller. A 3D printed directional pad, or D-pad, for a right-handed Xbox controller is then placed to the right of where the original D-pad was placed. The buttons that would have been on the left side are then placed on the right side, below the traditional x, y, a, and b buttons. The second analog trigger is moved to the back right of the controller. Finally, the parts of the controller that no longer have use due to the modification are hidden by 3D printed covers.
Most of Heck’s ideas for his inventions come from fans of the show who submit ideas that they want to see come to life. In fact, Heck describes himself as more of a facilitator than an inventor. “It’s about outreach and walking in someone else’s shoes,” he added.
The accessibility controller was inspired by a veteran who lost an arm in the Iraq war and wanted to know if Heck could construct a controller that would allow him to play again.
Presently, Heck and Gardner are only putting together Xbox One accessibility controllers. They’d like to delve into PlayStation 4, but the controller is much more difficult to hack.
“The reason we only do Xbox One right now is because Xbox One has two circuit boards inside the controller which is actually really handy for hacking, and there are very obvious places to tack on signals,” Heck explained. “Whereas the PlayStation…it’s very difficult. We basically couldn’t do it at a reasonable price.”
Heck continued in a frustrated tone, “Sony loves to redesign stuff. They’ve already had three revisions of their PlayStation 4 controller, it’s insane.”
Heck estimated that he has built around 350 controllers for individuals who have suffered a variety of ailments. Currently, Heck and Gardner are building about one controller per week, but he expects that pace to increase around Christmas.
Heck is surprised to know that some of the gamers who are injured in war want to use their modified controllers to continue playing video games based on war.
“I think we learned this when we went to Walter Reed [National Military Medical Center]…people can get badly injured in a real war and they want to come back and play Call of Duty or Battlefield, and you wouldn’t think that they would want that, but they do,” he said.
Heck said he doesn’t get emotional about serving people who look to him to help restore their ability to game. However, he does recognize the significance of the act.
“One thing I have learned over the years is when someone is injured, and it doesn’t matter how they’re injured, the most important thing is helping them get back to their previous life,” he said. “We can’t help them with everything, but letting them get back into a sense of normalcy is really important.”
To look over Heck’s modified controllers and his other inventions, go to benheck.com.
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