Charity organization AbleGamers has partnered with the tech-creators at ATmakers to develop an Xbox adapter that turns power wheelchairs into game controllers.
Currently available for free from AbleGamers, The Freedom Wing Adapter is a new add-on for the existing Xbox Adaptive Controller which expands on the playability of Xbox games for gamers with disabilities.
First proposed by AbleGamers COO Steve Spohn, this third-party add-on connects the Xbox Adaptive Controller to a wheelchair via a 9-pin port, turning the joystick which controls a power wheelchair into a gaming controller.
"The Freedom Wing Adapter came about as a collaboration with a wonderful man named Bill Binko, founder of AT Makers, at an assistive technology fair here in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania," Spohn tells VG247.
"The Pittsburgh Penguins had encouraged me to do a talk about gaming and how technology interfaces with people's lives in the disability community. So, I went to do the talk and while I was there I saw someone had an XAC (Xbox adaptive controller) set up and talking to a group of people about gaming with a disability. I went to investigate and Bill immediately recognized me as one of the beginning stage consultants on the project. We got to talking and he was showing me off some of the technology that he had built. Bill made this really cool controller that allowed a Barbie in a power wheelchair to be driven by an Xbox controller.
"After some conversation, I realized that he had the exact opposite of what I was looking for. I didn't want to control my wheelchair with an XAC; I wanted my wheelchair to control my Xbox with or without the XAC. We talked about how the process of reversing the boards would be and the collaboration was born. Bill is incredibly efficient and skilled with this kind of thing. He had a prototype to be within days. We did some back and forth with testing and a few revisions until it worked perfectly."
The video above shows Spohn play Rocket League using his wheelchair's joystick to move, and a single button - typically used as a gear shift on the chair - to trigger the gas pedal in-game.
The Freedom Wing Adapter will be made available through a grant program - you can sign up over at the official AbleGamers website. A number of Freedom Wing Adapters have already been produced, with distribution said to be underway. The charity organisation is also currently working with ATMakers to publish assembly instructions for do-it-yourselfers to build the adapter themselves.
"[w]e decided if we were going to make this controller adapter, we didn't want someone to come along and patent the idea and sell it to people for a ridiculous amount of money," Spohn continues. "We wanted to give it away and let the world make the part that they need for as little money as possible."
"So, AbleGamers will be giving out these adapters through our grant program. AT Makers, in conjunction with one of their student robotic teams GRA-V, made the boards to go into the device. And now we will all be assembling these to give out to the world, free of charge. In addition, we will be listing step-by-step instructions, as well as the design on various engineering websites, so that anyone who has the ability to solder a couple of circuit boards will be able to do this for something like $37.
"It's an amazing technology that I'm super happy we are putting out into the world. What's really nice is that people spend a lot of time and money adjusting themselves so that they can sit and be positioned for maximum comfort and effectiveness in their power wheelchairs. If we can transfer that energy into their gaming set up, why not? Instead of having to figure out new positions with pillows and anything else that someone might need to be comfortable and play games, this would give them the option to enjoy these virtual worlds with the comforts they have already figured out. Their muscles already remember how to drive the wheelchair, so it's just a matter of transferring that knowledge to a videogame of choice."
The state of accessibility and gaming technology in the mainstream is "coming along," says Spohn.
First made available to the public in 2018, Microsoft's Xbox Adaptive Controller was designed to act as a hub that manages all other controllers attached to it, while also allowing Xbox One users to remap various functions using the Xbox Accessories App. And for many it's results have been life-changing.
Last month we reported on the head of Digital Jersey Academy, Rory Steel, who created a custom controller utilising the Xbox Adaptive Controller, so that his daughter Ava - who suffers from fine motor neurone problems which make it hard to perform basic functions on a typical controller - could play Zelda: Breath of the Wild on Nintendo Switch.
"We continue to see more and more companies being interested in accessibility, AbleGamers' APX certification, and increasing the inclusivity of the gaming community in general. Nintendo still has a ways to go, a long ways, but PlayStation and Xbox are kicking butt. Many, many developers now openly talk about how accessibility is important.
"Things are much better than they used to be. I wish I could say all see a day when there won't need to be advocates out there fighting for accessibility. Not sure I can say that. What I can say is that the arrow of having to raise awareness for gamers with disabilities is coming to an end. When I started streaming on Twitch in my spare time, there really weren't a lot of high-profile gamers with disabilities. Now, you're seeing more and more of us out there. And that's a welcome sight to see."