Last week I sat down to meet Caleb Kraft of The Controller Project. It must be said that Kraft is quite a 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 players with disabilities or limb differences. In addition, it also uses 3D printing to make these adjustments and send them to those who need them. Talk about nominative determinism.
The Controller Project all started ten years ago with a young boy named Thomas.
“I first heard about Thomas through my wife, who is a teacher,” says Kraft. “He has muscular dystrophy, and this affected his ability to play Minecraft – something he loved.”
At the time, Kraft was looking for interest in a site called Hackaday, which focused primarily on electronic projects. Kraft saw Thomas’s story as a good opportunity to bring in some traffic. He was already tinkering and building things as a hobby anyway, so if he could turn this kid into a custom controller, it would be an easy way to get some attention for the site.
“Now I know it’s incredibly callous and horrible to do,” admits Kraft, “but at the time I just thought ‘hey, you know, it tugs at the hearts, it’s a good project, and it helps us out there – I’ll make a video of this’.”
However, when Kraft went to visit Thomas at his home, his attitude changed. “I saw the reality of the situation [and] it really made an impression on me,” recalls Kraft. “I felt a huge need to help in any way I could.”
After visiting Thomas, Kraft began making his first custom controller, and has continued to do so ever since.
“I kind of consider Thomas a successful failure,” Kraft tells me with a smile, noting that his first attempt at a custom controller certainly wasn’t 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 it took.”
“Usually the accessories or custom stuff that [people] needs are priceless and are in no way covered by things like insurance,” Kraft continues. And these are people who typically struggle to make an 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 play games, even though it can have a psychological impact.”
In the ten years since its inception, The Controller Project has recruited more than 100 volunteers around the world who use their time and skills to come up with new customizations and, when needed, print the necessary parts needed to build a . adjust controller.
For those who already have access to a 3D printer, there’s a whole catalog of these modification designs available for download from The Controller Project, many of which actually offer very minor modifications that modify a controller only slightly. I’m talking about simple, perhaps easily overlooked tweaks, such as a clip-on mount to extend a controller’s bumper triggers. However, even the smallest tweaks can make a big difference to a player’s experience.
Kraft says these types of designs, where the small tweaks help make the game more comfortable for users, have the highest user demand.
“Even I hurt when I hold a controller for too long, because my hands are big and the controller is small,” says Kraft. “Simple things like a larger grip to fit my hands properly would make me, as a physical person, more able to play games.”
The most basic (but by no means 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. This could be on the back of a chair, or even over a player’s leg.
Then, at the other end of the scale, there are the customizations that completely remap a controller. Here Kraft draws my attention to a design by engineer Akaki Kuumeri.
Kuumeri has designed a modification kit that allows one-handed use of a controller. It attaches to a player’s leg, with the movement of their leg then used to operate the thumbstick. Meanwhile, thanks to an extension that clips onto 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 kits.
In addition to Kraft, I also spoke with one of The Controller Project’s clients, Nate Passwaters.
Passwaters only uses his left hand and previously played games with a modified PlayStation 4 controller. However, when he decided it was time to upgrade to a PS5, his previous mud was unable to provide him with the correct kit for the 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] wrote down my address and a few weeks later I received the adapters,” says Passwaters, before expressing how much these adapters have helped him.
Thanks to his new controller tweaks, Passwaters says he can basically “play anything except FPS and games with very difficult/complex button combinations.”
Tyler Sandefur, meanwhile, is an occupational therapist who contacted Kraft after one of their clients shared their love of gaming with them. Several years ago, Sandefur’s client suffered a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed, preventing 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 no use of his hand or fingers,” Sandefur tells me.
“We [started] online hunting for various custom technologies that can be used for gaming. My customer [told] me he used a joystick with a goalpost mount to move an electric wheelchair [and] I knew right away we could use an adaptive joystick to give him a controller for gaming.”
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 immediately “jumped on board” to help. Caleb made three 3D-printed joysticks (two for a regular controller and one for an Xbox Adaptive Controller) for Tyler’s client, which he sent them for free.
“Now, thanks to Caleb, my client can control a mouse cursor on his gaming laptop,” says Sandefur. In addition to these controllers, Sandefur’s customer also uses head-tracking software that allows them to use head movements for keyboard controls.
“We still have a long way to go, but I plan to set up a custom configuration using the Xbox Adaptive Controller so that my client can reach every button they need so they can play any game they want , at an elite/competitive level,” says Sandefur. “This is just the beginning.”
It is clear that The Controller Project’s work is of immense importance to the gaming community. However, despite his obvious passion for what he does, Kraft’s charitable giving is limited by time constraints and limited financial resources.
“A big heist is time, or time for me to 3D print these things [some modifications can take up to eight hours to print] and send, 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 takes time. And again, with my full-time job and my family, I don’t have enough time to expand on this,” says Kraft.
“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 even hire someone on the cheap to do it for me full time. So yeah, I mean, that’s the hanging.”
This immediately raises the question of why it comes down to volunteers to take care of such a broad market in the gaming industry. Surely Sony, Microsoft and Nintendo should do more. As much as Kraft likes to tell me he’d love to help more people, he also thinks it would be “nice” if The Controller Project “wasn’t even necessary.”
Kraft believes that many of the big companies just “don’t see the demand” for these adjustments, and “they don’t understand yet that demand – it’s growing!”
“There’s a huge demand for these features, even for people who don’t identify with a disability,” says Kraft.
“[People want] features that make it easier or more enjoyable to use,” he explains, referring to a previous survey that found that if subtitles were left on by default in TV shows, only a small percentage of users would choose to turn them off manually. This is something that Kraft suspects carries over into hardware more than many may realize.
“I know it’s not scientific, but if you just ask your friends and say, ‘Do your hands hurt after you’ve played for a while? Have the knobs shifted a bit?’ Your friends would probably say, ‘Yeah, it 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 he’s doing with The Controller Project to “the next organizational level.”
“I think it would be incredible to see an online configurator where you can choose from a group of parts and build a 3D printed kit for your controller that does what you need it to do, and then have it printed and send it to you,” he shares, saying he believes something like that would be “extremely powerful” for consumers in general.
“Again, I suspect there’s a huge demand for little tweaks, little things like the triggers being extended up so you can reach them from a different angle or whatever,” he explains. “These are things that these companies could very easily produce, then you could have an online configurator for it.”
My time learning about The Controller Project has been eye-opening, and I am so grateful to those who have taken the time to share their stories with me. If you would like to learn more about the work of Kraft and The Controller Project, you can find more information on the charity’s website here.