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Game Controller Design – The Next is Here

Playing games is something that humans have done for a millennia. In fact, the first-ever recorded board game was a game called Senet. The game was played in Predynastic Egypt in around 3100BC. A game based on luck, it was thought that winners were protected by the gods and became synonymous with people coming to the end of their life and its name came to mean “the game of passing”(Senet (or Senat) is a board game from ancient Egypt, whose original rules are the subject of conjecture. The oldest hieroglyph resembling a senet game dates to around 3100 BC. The full name of the game in Egyptian is thought to have been meaning the “game of passing”.)

Well, I guess eventually board games became a little less morbid and have been a staple of many people Friday nights growing up as a kid and spending time with family or friends getting lost in a great game. Well for nearly 5000 years games were usually comprised of physical objects like a board and pieces, or cards but last century games started to go digital. 

With the creation of video games traditional physical games became intangible virtual objects. The computer kept track of the state of play, and the user would have to change the state of the game by providing an input. Thus, the controller was born. 

So in essence game controllers at their core, are input devices. From the simple rotating dials that control the Atari Home Pong Console (1975) allowing users to slide their paddle up and down the screen, to the later – now iconic – Atari 2600 (1977) joystick that gave you an even higher degree of control, I think it’s fair to say that game controllers have come in all kinds of shapes and sizes. As the complexity of games has increased, so has the complexity and sophistication of the controllers that keep players connected and engaged. With nearly 50 years of iterative development we’ve had some truly fantastic game controllers. Peak among them is the “Xbox 360 controller”. An ergonomic dream to use, there’s a reason it earned pole position as the gaming communities favourite controller. 

So here’s the thing, gaming is rapidly changing. In some ways it’s getting more complex and in others it’s getting more accessible to all. Microsoft are once again leading the charge. In acknowledgment of the increasing sophistication of games Microsoft launched the Xbox Adaptive controller; a large adaptive and configurable controller that allows people with low mobility or disabilities to be able to play the Xbox. Additional peripherals can be combined to the controller that allows users to control the games using inputs such as switches, buttons, mounts and joysticks to create a custom controllers experience. Users can control the game using one hand, one foot or one foot and even one chin, or any combination that you could think of. It’s a highly customisable and adaptable system that gives people who otherwise would have never had a chance nor the opportunity to play games that they love. 

As a result Microsoft has gained several awards for the design including one of the worlds most prestigious design awards, a Black Pencil from D&AD, as well as the Outstanding Contribution Award at the Golden Joysticks, and also Winner of the Consumer Technology Award from the Core77 Design Awards 2019 this is just to name a few but it just goes to show what an industry leader can do to make a truly meaningful impact on a community that has otherwise been left without. 

“Stepping into a different world of complexity is the challenges faced by those tasked with designing controllers that enable human-machine-interface for Virtual Reality.”

Now if you were a gamer in 1989 you may remember the release of the Nintendo Power Glove? A brilliant piece of engineering that melded man and machine into a symbiotic, unstoppable, powerhouse breaking down the cybernetic boundaries. Okay, truthfully it did none of those things, however, this was in large part what they set out to achieve with the power glove.  It was widely regarded as a flop and looked back at with a smirk, due in large part to the fact that the technology to execute their dream just didn’t exist at the time; BUT what it did do was pave the way for VR controllers

In VR you not only have to control a virtual world but you also need to see it. So we’ve seen a new wave of game controllers come to fruition that are maybe as different to video game controllers as video games were to board games. The reason being because there is another order of magnitude of complexity that is brought in by the geospatial aspect of virtual reality. Not only does the computer need to keep track of the state of the game as it did with classic video games but it now needs to be able to determine where you are in 3D space and then determine how that relates to your position within the game. So not only do controllers still have the classic input requirements of joysticks and buttons but they have the added complexity of being able to define the position of the users hands in 3D space and also the field of view and direction in 3D space of the user’s head and eyes. 

Really, it is a challenge for product designer/developer, and at the moment we’re seeing a wide range of controller solutions and VR is so much in its infancy that it would be difficult to point at any one design and say that this is the controller of the future. Judging by what we’ve seen so far though it generally consists of two handheld joysticks, and a headset. That’s about as far as the similarities go as there doesn’t seem to be a standard way of 3D tracking the user. Some use IR arrays and detectors to determine the position of the user, and some use a combination of accelerometers, MEMS magnetic field sensors, and gyroscopic sensors and others use cameras and computer vision to track users. 

If you want to be a part of the future of gaming then get in touch with us. Here at Detekt we are dedicated to creating world-class designs and making people’s dreams come to fruition. If you have a dream to create the world’s next greatest game controller to innovate the gaming industry then contact us now.