Last week I sat down to meet with Caleb Kraft of The Controller Project. It has to be said that Kraft is quite a fitting last name 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 this, it also uses 3D printing to create these modifications and send them out to those who need them. Talk about nominative determinism.
The controller project started ten years ago with a young boy called Thomas.
“I first heard about Thomas through my wife, who is a teacher,” Kraft tells me. “He has muscular dystrophy and this affected his ability to play Minecraft – which he loved.”
At this time, Kraft was looking to generate interest in a website called Hackaday, which focused primarily on electronic projects. Kraft saw Thomas’ story as a good opportunity to draw in some traffic. He was already goofing off and building things as a hobby anyway, so if he could turn this kid into a custom controller, this would be an easy way to get some eyeballs on the page.
“Now I know it’s an incredibly insensitive and terrible thing to do,” admits Kraft, “but at the time I just thought, ‘hey, you know, it’s heart-string-tugging, it’s a good project, and it helps us to few out there – I’ll make a video of this’.”
But when Kraft went to visit Thomas at his home, his attitude changed. “I saw the reality of the situation [and] it really affected me,” recalls Kraft. “I felt a great need to help in any way I could.”
After Thomas’ visit, Kraft began making his first custom controller, and he’s been doing it ever since.
“I consider Thomas to be a successful failure,” Kraft tells me with a smile, noting that his first attempt at a modified controller was certainly not his best. “I don’t think I really helped Thomas… but [the experience] launched the whole core concept of what The Controller Project is, and what was needed.”
“Typical accessories or custom things like [people] the need is prohibitively expensive, and not covered by things like insurance in any way,” continues Kraft. “And these are people who usually struggle to have a working income. [and] spend most of their money on things for other aspects of their disability.
“They don’t have the money to spend thousands on a custom input device to be able to play games, even though it might have a psychological impact.”
In the ten years since its conception, The Controller Project has recruited over 100 volunteers worldwide who use their time and skills to come up with new customizations and, when necessary, print the necessary parts needed to modify a controls.
For those who already have access to a 3D printer, there’s a whole catalog of these mod designs available for download through The Controller Project, many of which actually offer very small tweaks that only slightly tweak a controller. I’m talking about simple, perhaps easily overlooked, modifications like a clip on attachment to extend a controller’s bumper triggers. But even the smallest tweak can make a big difference to a player’s experience.
Kraft says that it is this type of design, where the small adjustments help to make gaming more comfortable for the users, who have the greatest user needs.
“Even I have pain from holding a controller for too long, because my hands are big and the controller is small,” says Kraft. “Just simple things like a bigger grip to fit my hands properly would make me, as a fit person, better able to play games.”
The most basic (but by no means 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. This could be on the back of a chair, or even across a player’s legs.
Then, at the other end of the scale, there are the mods that completely reshape a controller. Here, Kraft draws my attention to a design by engineer Akaki Kuumeri.
Kuumeri has designed a modification kit that allows a controller to be used with one hand. It attaches to a player’s leg, and the movement from the leg is then used to control the thumb stick. Meanwhile, thanks to an extension that clips on over the top, this kit allows access to all the buttons on one side of the controller. This, Kraft tells me, is one of The Controller Project’s most requested sets.
In addition to Kraft, I also spoke with one of The Controller Project’s clients, Nate Passwaters.
Passwaters only has the use of his left hand, and has previously played games with a modified PlayStation 4 controller. But when he decided it was time to upgrade to a PS5, his previous modder failed to provide him with the right kit for DualSense. In an attempt to find a new controller, Passwaters took to the disabled gamers subreddit, where he came across Kraft and The Controller Project.
“[Kraft] took down my address and a couple of weeks later I received the adapters,” Passwaters tells me, before expressing how much these adapters have helped him.
Thanks to his new controller mods, Passwaters says he can basically “play everything except FPS and games that have really hard/complex button combinations.”
Tyler Sandefur, meanwhile, is an occupational therapist who contacted Kraft after one of their customers shared his love of gaming with them. Several years ago, Sandefur’s client experienced a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed, meaning he cannot use his previous game setup.
“[My client] has the ability to turn the head up/down/left/right and has some use of the shoulder and elbow, but no use of the hand or fingers,” says Sandefur.
“We [started] search online for various custom technologies that can be used for gaming. My client [told] me, he used to use a joystick with a goal post attachment to move an electric wheelchair [and] I knew immediately that we could use an adaptive joystick to give him controller use for games.”
After working with British company OneSwitch, Tyler and his client were referred to The Controller Project. When they told Caleb what they wanted to do, Caleb “jumped on board” to help. Caleb made Tyler’s client three 3D printed joysticks (two for a regular controller and one for an Xbox Adaptive Controller), which he sent to them for free.
“Now my client can control a mouse pointer on the gaming laptop thanks to Caleb,” says Sandefur. In addition to these controllers, Sandefur’s client also uses head tracking software that allows them to use head movements for keyboard controls.
“We have a long way to go but I plan to set up a custom configuration using the Xbox Adaptive Controller so my client can have the ability to reach any button he needs to play any game he will, at an elite/competitive level,” says Sandefur. “This is just the beginning.”
It’s clear that The Controller Project’s work is of immense importance to the gaming community. Despite his clear passion for what he does, Kraft’s charity work is constrained by time constraints and limited financial resources.
“A big wait is due, whether it’s time for me to 3D print these things [some modifications can take up to eight hours to print] and send them, or time to manage volunteers. I have volunteers all over the world. But emailing back and forth with these volunteers and trying to maintain quality and stuff takes time. And again, with my full-time job and my family, I don’t have enough time to increase this, says Kraft.
“I think I could make 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, it’s hang up.”
This immediately raises the question, why has it come down to volunteers to cater to such a wide market in the games industry. Surely the likes of Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo should be doing more. After all, as much as Kraft tells me he’d love to be able to help more people, he also feels it would be “beautiful” if The Controller Project “wasn’t even necessary.”
Kraft believes that many of the big companies just “don’t see the demand” for these modifications, and “they don’t yet understand that the demand – it’s growing!”
“There’s a huge demand for these features, even for people who don’t identify as disabled,” says Kraft.
“[People want] features that make things easier to use, or more comfortable to use,” he explains, recalling a previous study that revealed that if subtitles on TV programs were left on by default, only a small percentage of users would actually choose to turn on them off manually, something Kraft suspects is transferring to hardware more than many may realize.
“I know it’s not scientific, but if you just ask around your friends and say, do your hands hurt after playing for a while? Does your thumb ever hurt from mashing the buttons? What would be more comfortable—if maybe were the buttons moved over a bit? Your friends would probably say, ‘Yeah, that would be great,’ even if they don’t identify as disabled.
Kraft says he would love to see a big company like Microsoft take what he’s doing with The Controller Project to “the next level of the organization.”
“I think it would be amazing to see an online configurator, where you can pick from a group of parts and build out a 3D printed kit for your controller that does what you need, and 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 lot of demand for little modifications, little things like triggers being extended so you can come at them from a different angle or what have you,” he elaborates. “These are things that these companies can produce very easily, then you can have an online configurator for it all.”
My time learning about The Controller Project has been eye-opening, and I am so grateful to those who took the time to share their stories with me. If you want to hear more about Kraft’s work and The Controller Project, you can find out more through the charity’s website here.