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The Thrill of the Hacker Hardware Challenge

May 25 2010 | by

Ben Heck

Here at Game Accessibility Day, I’m in a three-person challenge with Adam Coe of Evil Controllers and very well-known hacker Ben Heckendorn aka Ben Heck. We’ve been charged with hacking a real Xbox game controller to modify it for associate editor Steve Spohn, who has a rare type of Muscular Dystrophy called Spinal Muscular Atrophy. SMA is a progressive disease that weakens muscles impairing motor functions.

We first interviewed Spohn, who is a serious gamer, up in his hotel room, to get a sense of how he plays video games. Steve is severely immobile. He currently has use of his right thumb and forefinger, and can use his left thumb to wedge the controller between his hands. He can slightly move his shoulders and flex his calves. Then the three of us brainstormed together. In a conference room, the two hacker experts — Coe and Heck — spliced wires, fusing them to a circuit board and building a contraption of out glue gun and cardboard. The burning circuit board caused the room to smell something terrible. Ben sniffs the glue gun: “I probably have cancer,” he quips.

Suzanne Robitaille, Adam Coe, Ben Heck and Jonah Coe

Suzanne Robitaille, Adam Coe, Ben Heck and Jonah Coe

I didn’t help much in this respect; I’ve never played a video game in my life. I helped mostly with peripherals and finding odd items throughout the hotel to cobble together the modified controller. It was lots of fun and brought me back to future problem solving days back in sixth grade.

We then presented what Ablegamers president Mark Barlet, who is leading Game Accessibility Day, called “amazing conceptual art.” The circuit board was hacked so that a series of switches activated by Steve’s calf muscles and shoulders are used to access the control buttons. At the same time, a bean-bag-ish, stress-ball-ish pad we fashioned out of burlap and plastic (we couldn’t find rice or sand to fill the bag) would allow for a variety of buttons to “sit” on the pad wherever the user felt it was most comfortable for him. The goal was to use both products to allow multiple combinations of actions for more advanced games like Call of Duty.

The modded controller will be on display at Wednesday’s accessibility hub at Games for Health in Boston. The team anticipated it would cost several hundred dollars to lose the cardboard and glue gun and create a truly modified controller for people with severe physical limitations. We hope Steve likes it!


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