To make a controller for everyone, Sony had to reinvent the wheel

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PlayStation fans didn't know what to expect when Sony took the stage at CES 2023. The company has a history of using the tech expo to showcase new gaming hardware like the PlayStation VR2, but its plans for the show aren't ones that will be leaked in advance. Eager PlayStation fans left in the dark tuned in to the CES livestream to see what the future of PlayStation might bring.

But no one expected a UFO to land on the stage.

Instead of introducing a new console, Sony used its platform to shine a light on accessibility with an unconventional controller. It showed a round disk covered with panels that made it look almost like a white steel barrel. It was called Project Leonardo at the time and would offer gamers with specific needs a new and highly customizable tool that could make playing on PS5 more possible. The project will officially launch a year later as the PlayStation Access Controller, allowing more gamers than ever to enjoy games like the following. God of War Ragnarok And Marvel's Spider-Man 2.

This was not an easy task. The road to the Access Control Device's launch in December 2023 was filled with research and iteration as Sony tried to solve a tough problem: How do you create a device that fits many different accessibility needs at once? This requires throwing the idea of ​​traditional controller design out the window and really thinking about how to reshape the future.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution

PlayStation's commitment to accessibility goes back a long time, but there was a pivotal moment in 2016. Uncharted 4: A Thief's End Complete with a revolutionary suite of accessibility options. According to a tweet from developer Naughty Dog celebrating the game's fifth anniversary in 2021, these options were: Used by 9.5 million players In that case. This statistic makes it clear that there's a hunger for accessible games on PlayStation, and Sony's own market research confirms it. In September 2018, Sony would begin designing a controller that could benefit gamers with a wide range of disabilities.

In fact, this would be difficult to achieve. The needs of gamers with disabilities can vary greatly, making the idea of ​​a single-device solution nearly impossible. For John Zarganis, director of product operations at Sony Interactive Entertainment, the first step was to find some key barriers that a piece of assistive technology could help eliminate.

The Access Controller sits on a table with the PS5 DualSense.
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“We realized that accessibility needs are wide-ranging and there is no 'one size fits all' solution,” Zarganis tells Digital Trends in an email interview. “Our approach focused on identifying common challenges that people with many types of disabilities face when using a traditional controller. We identified three common challenges we wanted to address: 1) Physically holding the controller; 2) Correctly interacting with buttons that are traditionally small and clustered closely together; and 3) Interacting effectively with the thumb sticks and/or front shoulder buttons.

With these issues in mind, the team set out to create a controller with an alternative form factor that could solve these pain points. The end result needs to be customizable and work in a variety of directions, allowing users to tailor it to their specific needs. There was only one question: What would such a controller look like? There were plenty of examples of accessibility tools, like Xbox's Adaptive Controller, but PlayStation knew it had to innovate to get it right.

“We challenged our engineering and design teams to produce a variety of alternative form factor designs to address these three common challenges,” says Zarganis. “Four distinct concepts emerged from these efforts: A large-scale desktop controller; a lap board or keyboard style layout and two different split controller design concepts. “The round, split controller design quickly emerged as a common theme and became our preferred solution to provide users with the most flexibility.”

Access Controller – Design Story | PS5

And thus the UFO-like shape of the Access Control Device was born. The final design is a round pad surrounded by white panels that double as large buttons. This setup is completely customizable, as players can remap what each panel does when pressed and even place interchangeable button labels on them. Even the panels themselves can be changed to different sizes and shapes. A round, black joystick protrudes from one side, which can also be personalized with stick covers. Users can even connect two Access Controllers to each other or to any PS5 DualSense model to further customize their experience.

It may not be like any controller you've seen before, but that's the point. When a standard gamepad becomes a barrier to entry, the wheel begs to be reinvented.

Collaboration is very important

Getting the right design was only part of the equation. True accessibility requires deep attention to detail that goes well beyond the surface. For example, just adding a few options to a game's settings menu is not enough. This also needs to be paired with accessible game design. The Access Controller team will understand that it will need broader collaboration to make sure the controller is not just a good idea in theory, but something that can work together. PlayStation games.

“Our PlayStation Studios partners were extremely helpful in shaping the design of the Access controller,” says Zarganis. “It was a great opportunity to create a controller that would complement the great working and accessibility features that studios were already incorporating into their games. We've worked with a number of game studios, including Santa Monica Studio, Insomniac Games, Naughty Dog, Bend Studio, Media Molecule and Guerrilla. All teams provided very helpful feedback in terms of features they would like to see included.”

PlayStation Access controller button labels lie on a sheet of paper.
Digital Trends

Collaborations like this were key to ensuring the project reached its full potential. But the most important part of the project will be working closely with experts in the accessibility field to fine-tune the controller. Will establish connections with organizations such as PlayStation AbleGamers And Special effectswill provide valuable insight into the needs of gamers with disabilities and share the specific types of setups gamers use.

“They have consistently helped us focus our efforts on trying to solve specific obstacles that might prevent users from interacting effectively with the standard controller, rather than trying to solve specific conditions,” says Zarganis.

This philosophy will help PlayStation fill some of the gaps in its design. While the team wanted to create a controller that was customizable enough for many gamers to use, the reality is that some users will need to replace it with their own external options. Zarganis says dynamics were the most challenging part of finalizing the controller.

“Expert guidance helped us understand that the Access controller would be part of a larger ecosystem of accessibility solutions,” Zarganis emphasized. “To take advantage of familiar solutions that may already be available in the user's home environment, our controller must be designed to provide as much compatibility as possible with solutions such as wheelchair mounts, third-party switches and joysticks. It was a difficult balance as we wanted to make the access controller compatible with these solutions, but also make it easy to install, configure and start playing right away. “The guidance of our expert consultants helped us converge on what we consider to be an easy-to-configure, compatible controller that allows the user to quickly derive their own solution for optimal gaming.”

“Accessibility is an ongoing task…”

Feedback like this only improves Access Controller. In particular, it will lead to features such as 3.5mm expansion ports that will allow users to connect the Access Controller to external devices as needed. Up to four additional devices can be attached to a single Access Controller, and this number doubles when using a two-controller setup. This layer of flexibility is what makes the controller such a significant step forward for adaptive gaming technology.

There's a feeling that PlayStation is just getting started, too. Zarganis confirms that the company is committed to accessibility and ensuring that its games can be enjoyed by as many players as possible. Access Controller sounds like a basic first step, just like Unknown 4 As for in-game options. PlayStation hasn't given up on this on the software side, so perhaps the Access Controller is just the beginning on the hardware side.

“We believe passionately in breaking down as many barriers to gaming as possible for our gaming community,” says Zarganis. “Accessibility is an ongoing mission that is important to all of us and the gaming industry as a whole.”

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