Meet the man who makes controllers accessible to everyone

Meet the man who makes controllers accessible to everyone

Last week I sat down to meet Caleb Kraft from The Controller Project. It has to be said that Kraft is a very fitting surname for Caleb, as he is a Kraft by name, and he is certainly a craftsman by nature.

Kraft’s charity, The Controller Project, creates free downloadable blueprints to modify established controllers such as the PlayStation 5’s DualSense or the Nintendo Switch’s Joy Cons for gamers with disabilities or limb differences. In addition to that, he also uses 3D printing to manufacture these modifications and send them to those who need them. Let’s talk about nominative determinism.

The Controller project started ten years ago with a young boy named Thomas.

“I first heard about Thomas from my wife, who is a teacher,” Kraft tells me. “He has muscular dystrophy, and it impacted his ability to play Minecraft – something he loved.”

At that time, Kraft was looking to generate interest in a site called Hackaday, which focused primarily on electronics projects. Kraft saw Thomas’ story as a good opportunity to attract traffic. He was already tinkering and building things as a hobby anyway, so if he could make this boy a custom controller, that would be an easy way to get an eye on the site.

“Now I know that’s an incredibly insensitive and horrible thing to do,” Kraft admits, “but at the time I was just like ‘hey, you know, that tugs at the heartstrings, that’s a good project, and it helps us get out there – I’ll make a video of that “.”

However, when Kraft went to visit Thomas at his home, his attitude changed. “I saw the reality of the situation [and] it really touched me,” Kraft recalled. “I felt a huge need to help in any way I could.

After his visit to Thomas, Kraft began making his first custom controller, and has been doing so ever since.

“I kind of consider Thomas a successful failure,” Kraft tells me with a smile, noting that his first attempt at a modified controller was definitely not the best. “I don’t think I really helped Thomas…but [the experience] kicked off the whole basic concept of what The Controller Project is and what was needed.”

“Generally, props or custom stuff that [people] are prohibitively expensive and are in no way covered by insurance,” continues Kraft. “And these are people who, generally, have a hard time earning an income [and] spend most of their money on other aspects of their disability.

“They don’t have the money to spend thousands of dollars on a custom input device to be able to play games, even though it might have a psychological impact.”

These extended triggers attach non-destructively to a controller to allow for non-standard hand positions.

In the ten years since its inception, The Controller Project has recruited over 100 volunteers around the world who use their time and skills to come up with new customizations and, when needed, print the parts needed to modify a controller.

For those who already have access to a 3D printer, there is a whole catalog of these modification designs available for download through The Controller Project, many of which actually offer very minor tweaks that modify a controller slightly. I’m talking about simple, perhaps easily overlooked modifications, like a clip on attachment to extend a controller’s bumper triggers. However, even the slightest adjustment can make a big difference to a player’s experience.

Kraft says it’s these types of designs, where small customizations help make gameplay more comfortable for users, that have the greatest user demand.

“Even I have trouble holding a controller for too long because my hands are big and the controller is small,” Kraft explains. “Simple things like a bigger grip to fit my hands properly would make me, as an able-bodied person, more adept at playing games.”

The most basic (but not the least important) designs in The Controller Project’s library are simple stands that hold a controller in place for the user at a specific height and location. It could be on the back of a chair or even on a player’s leg.

This stand-mounted stand allows users to play games without having to grab the controller.

Then, at the other end of the scale, there are mods that completely remap a controller. Here, Kraft draws my attention to a design by engineer Akaki Kuumeri.

Kuumeri has designed a modification kit for using a controller with one hand. It attaches to a player’s leg, with the movement of their leg then being used to control the controller. Meanwhile, with an extension that clips onto the top, this kit provides access to all buttons on one side of the controller. This, Kraft tells me, is one of The Controller Project’s most requested kits.

Kraft shows off Akaki Kuumeri’s mod kit for the PS5 DualSense controller.

In addition to Kraft, I also spoke to one of The Controller Project’s clients, Nate Passwaters.

Passwaters only uses his left hand and has played games with a modified PlayStation 4 controller before. However, when he decided it was time to upgrade to a PS5, his previous modder was unable to provide him with the correct kit for the DualSense. In an effort to find a new controller, Passwaters took to the gamers with disabilities subreddit, where he came across Kraft and The Controller Project.

“[Kraft] took my address, and a few weeks later I received the adapters,” Passwaters tells me, before expressing how much those adapters have helped him.

Thanks to his new controller modifications, Passwaters says he can basically “play everything except FPS and games that have real difficult/complex button combinations.”

These thumb extensions went to a customer with muscular dystrophy who had difficulty reaching the buttons on his controller.

Tyler Sandefur, meanwhile, is an occupational therapist who contacted Kraft after one of their clients shared his love of the game with them. left paralyzed, which prevents him from using his previous game setup.

“[My client] has the ability to turn his head up/down/left/right and has some use of his shoulder and elbow but not his hand or fingers,” Sandefur tells me.

“We [started] online hunting for various adaptive technologies that can be used for games. My client [told] me he was using a joystick with a goal post attachment to move an electric wheelchair [and] I knew right away that we could use an adaptive joystick to allow him to use the controller for games.”

After collaborating with British company OneSwitch, Tyler and his client were referred to The Controller Project. When they told Caleb what they wanted to do, Caleb immediately “hopped on board” to help him. Caleb made Tyler’s client three 3D-printed joysticks (two for a standard controller and one for an Xbox Adaptive Controller), which he sent to them for free.

“Now my client is able to control a mouse cursor on his gaming laptop thanks to Caleb,” Sandefur tells me. In addition to these controllers, Sandefur’s client also uses head-tracking software that allows them to use head movements for keyboard commands.

“We have a long way to go, but I plan to set up a custom setup using the Xbox Adaptive Controller so my client can have the ability to hit any button they need so that “He can play any game he wants, at an elite/competitive level,” Sandefur says. “That’s just the beginning.”

Tyler’s client is now able to control a mouse cursor on his laptop thanks to The Controller Project (image credit Tyler Sandefur).

It is obvious that the work of The Controller Project is of paramount importance to the gaming community. However, despite his obvious passion for what he does, Kraft’s charity is limited by time constraints and limited financial resources.

“Big heist is time be time for me to 3D print these things [some modifications can take up to eight hours to print] and ship them, or time to manage volunteers. I have volunteers all over the world. But emailing these volunteers and trying to maintain quality and all of that takes time. And again, with my full-time job and my family, I don’t have enough time to increase that,” Kraft says.

“I think I could do 10 times more if I could do this full time. But I can’t afford it…I can’t afford to hire someone, even cheap, to do it full-time for me. So yeah, I mean, that’s the problem.”

This immediately raises the question of why it falls to volunteers to cater to such a large market in the gaming industry. Surely Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo should be doing more. After all, even though Kraft tells me he wishes he could help more people, he also thinks it would be “beautiful” if The Controller Project “wasn’t even necessary.”

Kraft believes that many large companies “don’t see the demand” for these changes, and “they don’t yet understand that the demand – it’s growing!”

“There’s huge demand for these features, even for people who don’t identify as having a disability,” Kraft says.

“[People want] features that make things easier to use or more enjoyable to use,” he explains, recalling an earlier survey that found that if subtitles for TV shows were left on by default, only a small percentage many users would choose to disable them manually. This is something Kraft suspects carry over into the material more than many realize.

“I know it’s unscientific, but if you just ask your friends and say, ‘Do your hands hurt after playing for a while? Does your thumb ever hurt from squeezing the buttons have been moved a bit?’ Your friends would probably say, “Yeah, that would be great,” even if they don’t identify as having a disability.

Kraft says he’d like to see a big company like Microsoft take what it’s doing with The Controller Project to “a higher level of organization.”

“I think it would be amazing to see an online configurator, where you can choose from a bunch of parts and build a 3D printed kit for your controller that does what you need, then have it printed and shipped to you,” he shares, saying he thinks something like this would be “extremely powerful” for consumers in general.

“Again, I suspect there’s a huge demand for small tweaks, small things like extended triggers so you can access it from a different angle or whatever,” he explains. “These are things that these companies could produce very easily, so you could have an online configurator for all of that.”

One of Caleb’s adapted joysticks for an Xbox controller (image credit Tyler Sandefur).

My time learning about The Controller Project has been an eye-opener, and I’m so grateful to those who took the time to share their stories with me. If you want to learn more about the work of Kraft and The Controller Project, you can find out more on the charity’s website here.

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