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Gaming (Are You Not Entertained?!)

July 3, 2019

What does a future where everybody can play look like? Gaming gurus Tara Voelker and Gabi Michel join us to take a look at accessibility in gaming through the evolution of Mixer and the Xbox Adaptive Controller.

Windows Insider Podcast Episode 21

(Music)

JASON HOWARD: Welcome to the Windows Insider Podcast where leaders from Microsoft and Windows Insiders discuss tech trends, careers, and innovation. I'm your host Jason Howard.

This is Episode 21, Gaming (ARE YOU NOT ENTERTAINED!?)

Today, we're talking about innovations in gaming with some great special guests from Microsoft's Mixer and Xbox teams.

But first, if you're not yet a Windows Insider, head over to Windows Insiders’ website, https://insider.windows.com/en-us/getting-started/#register, and register for free. Insiders get access to upcoming Windows features before they're released to the public, plus exclusive opportunities to experience all Microsoft has to offer. All right, on to the show.

So, for our listeners who may be uninitiated, Mixer is Microsoft's live streaming platform that lets viewers actually participate in gameplay. Through interactive features, viewers can give player boosts, participate in challenges, earn rewards, and do tons of other cool stuff.

You can also use Mixer to broadcast to your own community. Our very own Windows Insider webcasts are all done through this platform as well.

And with that, I'm very excited to welcome our first special guest for the episode, Tara Voelker. Tara, thanks for being here. Can you please introduce yourself to our audience and share what you do here at Microsoft?

TARA VOELKER: Yeah, thank you so much. I'm excited to be here. So, I am a program manager at Mixer and I'm also part of our G4E program – Gaming for Everyone – as the Xbox gaming and disabilities community lead.

And I do a lot of work with both, helping define what we're going to be working on at Mixer and helping get that shipped, to making sure that Xbox is a better place for people with disabilities, and making sure that we make things for gamers with disabilities as well.

JASON HOWARD: Awesome. So, obviously, we're going to touch a bit here on your work with accessibility. It's a huge priority for Microsoft, right? We're constantly talking about it in the news and all that we do with Windows, right?

Even we had a past episode that was focused quite extensively on accessibility. We had Jenny Lay-Flurrie in the studio, super awesome getting to speak with her. She's, like, been this giant champion of this entire effort for the company, so it's always awesome to see her out there, like, making waves and making news and, you know, kind of driving this whole effort forward.

But real quick, before we kind of jump into that side of things, it's Mixer's two-year anniversary. So, you know, congratulations.

TARA VOELKER: Thank you. It was really, really exciting. I got to be here for both the first, the first birthday and second birthday, and it's been really amazing seeing how much we've grown not just in terms of like people using Mixer or stuff like that, but even as a team, it's been amazing. It was really, really exciting.

JASON HOWARD: Yeah, the team has definitely grown and changed over the course of –

TARA VOELKER: It's massive. When I first started, like, I – like I knew everyone and we were all, like, squished in the same corner of the first floor of Studio D. And, like, now we're dominating the third floor. And there are people, like, we have new people every month. And I'm like, I have no idea who you are, I don't even know what team you're on. I've got like new friends to make, and then especially right now, we have all the interns because it's intern season.

JASON HOWARD: Yeah.

TARA VOELKER: But we do have some returning interns, which made me really excited because that meant that we made such a good impression, they decided to come back. So –

JASON HOWARD: Yeah, if they want to come hang out again, you're doing something right.

TARA VOELKER: Exactly.

JASON HOWARD: Yeah, so, you know, as we noted, like, the entire platform is growing extremely fast, and viewership of gaming of any sort, right, on the whole, it's like – it's getting gigantic, right? For everything from Minecraft, to Fortnite, to any other number of games and things that you can think of people are doing on there.

I mean, like, as I mentioned earlier, we do the Windows Insider webcast on Mixer, right? So, we're not in the same cycle as a bunch of people, because a lot of streamers, they do it on a daily basis or multiple times a week or whatnot, and like we're over here once a month. So I feel like we're kind of slacking a little bit, but hey, you know, we'll do what we can do.

But, really, like, recently there was a forecast that by 2022, so you know, a quick, you know, two and a half, three years from now, there's going to be 300 million people viewing games online that others are streaming. So, looking at the trend, right, from kind of where it started a few years back and kind of where it's obviously going, right, can you talk a little bit about the trend, like, what Mixer sees itself doing in this space, especially as you all continue to evolve game play and viewership overall?

TARA VOELKER: Yeah, so it's been really interesting thinking about how watching people play games has been growing, because I think for a long time, people thought of this as like a weird concept, like, oh, my God, you're watching someone else play games instead of playing yourself? But how many of us, like, I know when I was a child, like, me and my siblings, we only had one TV that we were going to get to play video games on, which meant only one person was playing. That meant the rest of us were watching anyway. So, I think that's something that a lot of us have been doing since we were younger, and it's like this weird, like, we're like the old people that were, like, "I don't know this newfangled technology." (Laughter.) Right?

So, but it was about, like, everyone kind of had these, like, groups and communities that they were forming watching video games has already – always been a thing and with Mixer, we basically really pride ourselves in helping streamers create those communities, because so often it's more than just watching a video game. It's about having interactions with other people, or friends, or sometimes there's just a game you can't play yourself for whatever reason. Maybe you don't have the money to buy it. Maybe you don't have the time. Maybe there's an accessibility barrier. And so, it's another way for you to experience gaming.

And I think for a lot of people, it's really common to even have it just like a second monitor work thing, right? Like, oh, I'm going to be working, but you know what? I'm so into gaming that I need that constant fix, and you can have it up. So, it's been really interesting seeing, like, these different communities grow and really what we want to do at Mixer is like, empower people to have those awesome communities.

JASON HOWARD: I may or may not be guilty of doing that very exact thing of work and looking through, you know, Visual Studio, or it's Azure DevOps now, of, you know, looking through bugs and, you know, catching up on some of my backlog. And there may be something else on a second or third monitor at my desk, you know, but you know, I don't want to get myself into trouble here.

TARA VOELKER: Well, look, some gamers just have like amazing music, like, I will be 100 percent honest, anytime I find anyone streaming Animal Crossing, I love the Animal Crossing music so much (laughter) that I will put the stream up.

I also have, like, an Animal Crossing music extension in, like, my browser and all that other jazz. But, like, there are certain games that even just the ambiance can help you work. So, that's how you have to sell it. You're not in trouble, you're being stimulated.

JASON HOWARD: So, it's really no different at that point than listening to, like, Spotify or Pandora or any other streaming services kind of in the background while you're kind of clacking away on the keyboard?

TARA VOELKER: Exactly. Exactly.

JASON HOWARD: And so, and something I want – I do want to say something about. You mentioned earlier about, you know, how is it that you can sit there and watch somebody else play games? Right?

And so the best analogy that I've come up with this, because I've actually had this exact conversation with some other people, you know, that don't work at Microsoft, is do you ever watch home improvement shows on TV? Like, on HGTV, which is Home and Garden Television here in the U.S. And, I'm, like, yeah, be, like – and so why do you watch those shows? Well, because I get to see some of the process, and they're picking out colors, and it's kind of cool and I'm learning stuff. And be, like, you realize you're just watching somebody else build a house now, right? Oh. And they're, like, the kind of light bulb goes off. It's, like, oh, there's a million different reasons that somebody could want to do this, whether it's purely for the entertainment side of things, or potentially to learn and interact and kind of get something from it.

I don't know, I find that to be a, kind of a good segue to kind of like open people's eyes to it, but (laughter) – anyway, so as – as this continues to grow, right, this platform gets bigger and bigger, you're seeing this trend of, I don't know what you would call them, like professional gamers? Like, where people that – they're practically doing this for a living, and there's a lot of money to be made in this space, it seems, like, even like not from just like you know people subscribing to the channel and doing things like that, but, like, there's people that are, like, professionally sponsored, like, with the equipment that they get, doing some of the advertising, talking about why they're using the equipment, why they like it.  It's hard to believe, like, what's actually transpiring in the space overall.

TARA VOELKER: Yeah, it's been really interesting watching, because you'll find people who everyone wants to watch because, number one, they are amazing at a game. Like on Mixer, we have Ship, and he's, like, number one in terms of wins on Xbox. And people just come to watch Ship because he will destroy people. And, like, there's also people who are watching him so that they can learn things and, you know, it's this like, it's the same rush that you get when you're watching a really good athlete, because that's exactly what some of these people are.

And then there are also people who just have, like, amazing positive attitudes that you want to engage with and be a part of, like, in the same way that, like, maybe you have, like, a favorite person who posts, like, inspirational quotes on Instagram or something like that. But they do, and they become – in the same way that you see influencers on other platforms and other social media things, like, within streaming, they become the same things.

So, like, if you see someone who's amazing at this game and they go and they tell you, "Oh, yeah, I'm using this particular keyboard because I really like how this works and it enables me to do XYZ quicker," like, oh, if they just, you know, they're – they're kind of selling this product anyway because it works for them. And so it becomes, like, a really natural business relationship in a lot of cases for, like, someone to see, like, wow, this streamer who has influence is already talking about our product, like, we might as well, like, boost that, like, that it ends up being, like, a really beneficial relationship.

JASON HOWARD: It becomes this, like, partnership between the two of them and they just end up taking it to the next level.

And I don't want to harp on it too much, but it's interesting to see, like, as you see that right now, like people tune in to, like, these practical celebrities at this point, right? It kind of opens the door up for people that – like, I am not the world's most spectacular gamer, right? You give me, like, old-school, 8-bit Nintendo Mike Tyson's Punchout, we can talk, right? You throw Fortnite in front of me, I've literally never played it, like, I would be the new beginning, you know, trash talk dog, be, like, why are you even playing, right, you know? I know it's supposed to be fun for everybody, but hey, you know. (Laughter.)

But there's also the group of people that don't necessarily want to play the games, right? They're in it for the entertainment half and the community half of things. But even beyond that, right, that's when you can take a peek behind the door of accessibility and how that whole thing influences gaming overall, right?

I – not just from the – the whole perspective of how it's important to Microsoft, right, but when you look at some of the announcements we've made, kind of broadly, about the efforts as a company that we're doing and some of the partnerships we formed, not just here in the U.S., but globally, right, the basics of accessibility are driving how we're looking forward with the platforms that we're building, the software that we're building, the communities that we're trying to build, right?

So, when you look at accessibility from that type of lens, like, can you talk a little bit about its impact on gaming and why it's so important to that particular community?

TARA VOELKER: Yeah, so one of the things that I think that's really important to realize is, like, gaming is a huge cultural movement, right? There are so many aspects involved in gaming, not just like the physical act of playing a game, and if there's a huge cultural moment that people can't be a part of, like, that sucks. That sucks super, super hard.

And so, finding other opportunities for people to get in and be able to be part of the gaming community is really empowering. And especially, you know, you think about gaming so often, it's something that you're able to do from inside your home and, you know, for a lot of people, depending on the areas they're in, they may be in an area like maybe, they can't leave their home, or maybe if they're able to leave their home, they're going to interact with physical barriers in the real world.

Like, if you think about, you know, really old towns, like, there are not a lot of elevators because, you know, especially like out on the east coast, all those buildings were, you know, built 200 years ago, they're not exactly accessible. So, trying to round up all of your friends to go out to your favorite restaurant is way harder because, literally, sometimes it's like physically not possible. So, by being able to just, like, get in a game and play with your friends, like, it can give you, like, a societal outlet that maybe you can't get here physically in the real world.

And gaming has had huge impacts for people with disabilities. There are studies that have shown that, like, people whether play video games have better pain management than those who don't. Like, it literally makes them have less pain to play video games. It's helped, like, improve muscle coordination. It's used in rehab, like, there are so many ways that, like, gaming is awesome and fun, but also, like, can genuinely have health benefits, which is why one of the reasons that, like, getting everyone into accessibility and gaming is so important.

JASON HOWARD: Yeah, and obviously there’s stories to be told in this space, right? So, you know, knowing how near and dear and close you are in this particular space, like, can you tell us, like, I don't know, if you have an example or, you know, a story that you want to tell about, you know, somebody or, you know, a group or somebody that you met along the way that, you know, you saw kind of the scenario, and you saw how it's actually impacted their life?

TARA VOELKER: Yeah, so for me, one of the strongest accessibility, like, memories I have revolving around gaming. So, years and years ago, I lived in Orlando, and they have a convention there called Otronicon, which is, like, you know, their gaming convention. And for a nonprofit I was working for at the time, we had a table set up with all of this game accessibility stuff. I had games that were being demoed that had accessibility features. I had some specialty controllers out. And I was just kind of educating people on, like, options that were available.

And there was a father and a – a son who's maybe like, between eight and ten. And the – the little boy instantly runs off and he starts playing the game demos because, you know, that's what he's going to do. And so, while the son is playing the demo, the dad is talking to me. And I'm just kind of walking through everything we have available, and the whole time we'd been talking, he keeps talking about playing games with his kid in the past tense. And I'm not really catching onto what he's saying. Like, oh, yeah, we used to play this together. Yeah, this used to be one of our favorite games. And it just, like, wasn't clicking for me.

And then I start going on and telling him about this, like, third-party, one-handed controller that was offered. And then he starts getting really excited and starts talking about, you know, being able to play games with his son again. And he pulls his hands out of his pockets, because I hadn't seen them this whole time, and on one of his hands, he had lost several of his fingers in, like, a mechanical accident. And he just hadn't played games with his son in, like, a few years because he just thought he didn't have that anymore. And that was one of the things he loved to do with his son. And then as we're talking, he realizes, like, wait, I – I'm not excluded, I can get back in and just, like, it became this moment of, like, oh, my God, like, why didn't you just tell me what you needed? I would have told you what you needed to be able to get back into gaming. And him just being, like, I didn't – I didn't realize it was something that I could do.

So, just being able to tell someone, like, oh, no, no, no, no, you didn't lost gaming, like, you just have to – we just have to give you something a little – a little different. And, like, knowing that just educating people on things that – and this was years ago. This was, like, eight years ago. Even back then, there were ways that people could get in. I'm just knowing, like, oh, by literally telling you this is, here's a web link to where you can buy this, like, a father and a son got to play video games together again, like –

JASON HOWARD: Like, it's (laughter) – you know, it's – it's easy to use words, you know, like, to talk about those stories. Like, it's heartwarming, it's fascinating, right? But none of those words actually describe what quite literally took place in that moment. Like, it's life-altering, like, you know, how a parent interacts with their kid, right? The time that they spend together, the quality of life that they have together, right?

When, you know, you're in a scenario where something like a bond that two people have, and something disrupts that bond, you know, finding a way to kind of bring it back together, to reintroduce a piece of something that was lost, that's not just, you know, heartwarming and fascinating. I mean, those are good words to describe it, but it's – like I mentioned before, it's literally life-altering.

And it sounds like there's really kind of two facets to doing this, right? Somebody somewhere, whether it's Microsoft or somebody else, the technology has to get created. And then number two, you have to go out and tell people about it, right? You can create the coolest stuff in the world, but if nobody knows about it, nobody's going to be able to find it or use it.

So, how are we doing a good job in the gaming space of telling people this story of what we're doing and, you know, how it's – how important it is for them to know – even if they're not going to take advantage of it, if they don't have, you know, the personal or physical need to use some of the technology that's been created, how they can help spread the word.

TARA VOELKER: Yeah, it's been an amazing past year within Microsoft and gaming and accessibility, especially because of, like, the Xbox Adaptive Controller. And for me, there are so many times where you work on accessibility features and people don't know that they're there, but it's been really different with Microsoft and this controller and, like, literally shouting it from the mountaintops. Like, if you would have asked me years ago if there would ever be a gaming accessibility related Super Bowl ad, I would have been, like, no, like, not in a million years.

JASON HOWARD: Yeah.

TARA VOELKER: And so, the fact that, number one, it happened was amazing. And then just, like, the public's reaction. Like, even something so simple as, like, an ad placement educated thousands of, however many people watched the Super Bowl, bajillions –

JASON HOWARD: Like, millions, yeah. (Laughter.)

TARA VOELKER: Like, educated all of them that, like, hey accessibility in video games is kind of a thing, and we care about it, like, that's been huge. And, literally, that alone, even just standing up and saying, "Hey, we're Microsoft and we're thinking about this," has, like, ripple effects across the industry. And that has been amazing.

And, like, I can't emphasize enough how powerful that was. Like, there – there are pictures of me on the Internet, like, ugly crying the day of announce because it was one of those, like, it didn't seem real until the public knew about it.  And then as soon as we put out our first video, I was going and I was watching other live streams of, like, some of our take-home testers for the controller because now they were unembargoed as well, right? And I could start talking about it. And, like, oh, my God, look at this, this is great. And then, like, one of them that I was watching, she started crying. And I was, like, "Ah, no, no, no, now I'm crying." (Laughter.)

And, like, that's how powerful it was to literally just have Microsoft be, like, “Hey, we worked on this, like, we care.”  Like, just the recognition was huge.

JASON HOWARD: So, in this space, right, there's actually a couple questions that I want to ask you here. One of them is in relation to how, like, Mixer as a platform is evolving, right? But I – one of the things, obviously, for you this, personally, like, this is a big thing right?

You've given talks on accessibility and disability at gaming events, right? But if I understand correctly, like, you've actually taken the next step, and you're starting your own event, which is the GA Conference?

TARA VOELKER: Yes –

JASON HOWARD: Can you tell me a little bit about that?

TARA VOELKER: Yeah, so GA Conference, which is short for Game Accessibility Conference because me and my friend, Ian Hamilton were super original and creative, so we came up with a great name. (Laughter.)

We're in our third year of it now. Basically, a few years ago, we had been doing game accessibility talks at normal developer conferences, but everything we were doing was very introductory, like, hey, here's accessibility in gaming, like, 101. And those were basically the only talks that we could get accepted at these larger development events.

And then we started getting feedback of people who were, like, okay, I'm already bought in, like, you don't have to do your sales pitch anymore, like, I actually want to know how to do this. And then we went to submit those talks and then those talks weren't getting through at events.

We were basically being told, like, oh, there's not enough people who will come and learn about this in-depth accessibility stuff. And we basically were, like, you know what? I bet there would be.

And so we made our own conference. We had the first one in San Francisco and then we actually expanded, and so now we have, in addition to GA Conf U.S., which happens once every year, we expanded just last October to GA Conf EU, where we added another one in EU, the last one was in Paris. The next one's going to be in October, late October, in London.

And it's basically just like there is now such a huge demand of people wanting to learn, like, the nitty-gritty of, okay, how do I implement game accessibility? How do I get in contact to get feedback from gamers with disabilities? How do I incorporate game accessibility in my UR research? How do I, you know, X, Y, Z, that we – we're just, like, okay, if we're going to – we will teach you. And if we can't teach you, we're going to find someone who can come and tell you about it. And it's been an amazing success.

Our next one, we actually – we have to pick a new venue for our next one in the U.S. because –

JASON HOWARD: Please tell me that your current venue is too small.

TARA VOELKER: Because our current venue's too small. We hit capacity.

JASON HOWARD: That is awesome.

TARA VOELKER: But it's okay because there – there's definitely not enough people who are interested in game accessibility talks, we've only outgrown our venue.

JASON HOWARD: That's a good problem to have.

TARA VOELKER: That's a terrifyingly good problem to have. Does not make it less stressful. I was so excited with our venue. I'm just, like, "Ah, it's perfect. We've got a working relationship with them." Now, it's completely gone now, because we have to pick someplace bigger.

JASON HOWARD: Hopefully they'll give you your deposit back. (Laughter.) So, the second thing that I mentioned earlier was, you know, in relation to accessibility and Mixer as a platform, right?

So, can you, like, highlight some of the things that you're working on in that space? Because I know that, as the platform continues to evolve, right, the ability to include new features and potentially even design changes into how the site works and how the streamers, themselves, how they interact with the site, there's probably some things that are on the roadmap there.

TARA VOELKER: Yeah, so we've actually been trying to take an approach of, like, instead of – and this is something I really, really push – so, instead of trying to make a feature specifically that is made for accessibility specifically, like integrate it into everything that we do.

So, for example, we launched Season Two, which it has everything with, you know, our skills, and you can send Sparks, do all these cool things, and all that stuff. Like, when we went to do that process, rather than you know making like a specific accessible skill or a specific part of Season Two that was accessible, like, we actually took the time, like, okay, we did our prototyping, and then we had a web accessibility expert review it so we could make sure that that was working. We started working on it. We brought in viewers and streamers with disabilities to give us feedback, and then started making changes and introducing options to make it more accessible.

So, for example, we got the feedback that, like, hey, you know what? I have ADHD, and seeing these fireworks go off on the chat all the time, like, it's too distracting for me, I can't handle it. So, we're like, oh, we can totally address that. So now, like, if you go on the web version, you can hide skills for that session. So, you don't have stickers and, you know, confetti and whatever else flying over the chat so that you can focus on the stream.

You know? And, you know, site navigation, really important. So, like, making sure that, oh, yeah, well, we have this, like, really cool, you know, new layout and we have tab navigation, but you know what? Like, let's introduce shortcuts. So, like, rather than, like, trying to make, like, a specific feature, trying to make everything inclusive, like, but we've also had the opposite of, like, making features that, you know, weren't meant as accessibility features that have totally been used like that, like, we have shared controller, which is where if you are streaming from your Xbox, one of your viewers can take control of your controller. And we have seen there are players who need assistance from someone who's sighted you know because they have no vision or low vision. And they'll just pass their controller off and be, like, there's a puzzle here that I can't beat because I can't see it. And then just pass their controller off and have someone fix it and have it, you know, sent back to them. They're, like, okay, well, I can continue playing now because this part that definitely required sight, I don't need to be able to do anymore. So, like, it's been, like, fun watching – watching that.

The most recent thing that I worked on was for Global Accessibility Awareness Day, which falls in May, we did a huge takeover of Mixer. So, on the homepage, on the weekends, we were featuring game accessibility advocates and streamers with disabilities who would basically do AMAs on, you know, streaming and having disabilities. We did introduction of, like, special stickers and skills like Xbox Adaptive Controller was a sticker that you could use, layovers and, like, cool icons that you could put on your screen. And then we also, like, had a special level webcast where we covered it.

And then even a – and this was my favorite part. So, we have a show called LFG, Looking for Group, where we basically just have gamers come on. We did a special two-hour LFG where we had four accessibility advocates all playing Sea of Thieves together. So, we had a low-vision gamer, a quadriplegic gamer, a deaf gamer, and then myself, I have PTSD, so we covered, like, all four areas. All playing together, like, sat around Mixer for two hours just educating people on disabilities and accessibility and I, like, it was my favorite thing in the entire world. I was so excited.

JASON HOWARD: I don't think "fascinating" is the right word for it because – and this is – this is one of the things that, you know, somebody like me, who you know you would look at me and be, like, oh, there's – you know, there's no noticeable, you know, you know, accessibility needs or whatnot, right? Like, for you to say that there was somebody who's a quadriplegic playing a video game, live streaming on Mixer, like, I don't know how to respond to that because it doesn't seem like it would even be possible.

TARA VOELKER: He's one of our partnered streamers. So, you can go – you can follow him, you can subscribe to him right now. His name is Nomad N0M4D. Shout-out, Nomad, I love you. I've known him for like ten years. We used to play Street Fighter together. He was a competitive Street Fighter player. Well, we both were, and I think he was – like I don't want to really admit it, but I think he was a little bit, like, a hair better than I was.

JASON HOWARD: (Laughter.) Oh, my goodness, like, obviously, I've got some more self-education to do here. And so, like, I'm going to – I'm going to digress just for a moment, right, because it's – it's something that – I think it's important, I want to remind people of, right?

That, as things change and as designs adapt, right, like, one of the things that you'll see in real life on a daily basis, right, is when you're crossing the sidewalk, right? Sidewalks usually have, like, a three- or four-inch lip, you know, I'm not going to convert it from metric to folks listening outside the U.S., sorry. Eight centimeters? I don't know, something like that, right.

TARA VOELKER: I have no idea. (Laughter.)

JASON HOWARD: Like, at the corners of sidewalks, which you will now see as, like, the little dip, and there's a little traction pad that gets installed, and it helps folks who either are on – have a cane or a wheelchair, or on crutches or, you know, any other – have other types of mobility, you know, needs, it helps them get up and down sidewalks and things like that.

But this simple change, like this has actually impacted folks who don't have what you would consider like a standard disability, right? People who just have, like, a temporary thing, like, a mother pushing a stroller, right? She's not necessarily what you would consider disabled, but she has a need that for a certain period of time, a few years or whatnot, it actually impacts where you have to like push the stroller and try to lift it up and whatnot, or some – something as simple as somebody, you know, going to catch a cab or a bus to go to the airport to fly somewhere and they're dragging their luggage behind them, right?

So, as some of these designs are changed to help enable those who have accessibility needs, this stuff carries down to everybody else as well. And it's interesting to see kind of, like, the ripple effects of what are beautifully unintended consequences because everybody ends up benefiting from it.

TARA VOELKER: Yeah, so at Microsoft, we have this idea of inclusive design. And one of the key components is solve for one, extend to many. And the idea is when you're making something, if you solve for a particular need that’s normally associated around a disability, you'll be able to extend that to many people.

And an example that we talk about all the time is if you solve for a one-handed gamer, you're also going to solve for a gamer who has their arm in a cast. You're also going to solve for a gamer who's holding a baby or, you know, you're going to solve for a mobile port down the line because you're going to have to reduce controls for when you try to bring your game onto mobile or something. And it's exactly what you're talking about.

This idea of if you make something for one particular group, it's going to have those ripple effects and really make whatever product you're working on better for everyone because you solved for this one particular type of disability.

JASON HOWARD: So, as you do your work broadly with Mixer, right, accessibility is bigger than just Mixer as a platform, you know, as like a website or you know that people can go to on their phone or their PC. And, obviously, it's bigger than just Microsoft's own products or, you know, Xbox like with the Adaptive Controller that we've talked a bit about.

So, via Mixer, you're the host of the Mixer Blue Show, which might surprise some of the listeners here. Obviously, it's broadcast on Mixer, but I would love for you to give listeners a rundown of what the Blue Show is and how you got involved with it.

TARA VOELKER: Yeah, so the Mixer Blue Show is Mixer's weekly show about all the latest PlayStation news. You can catch it at Mixer.com/MixerBlueShow every Wednesday at 3:00 p.m. Pacific, whatever the rest of the time zones are, I don't know.

And it's where we literally talk about here are all the interesting things that you may want to learn about that are happening on PlayStation, from game releases to features to anything else cool.

JASON HOWARD: So, I'm – I'm trying to highly make sure that listeners actually caught this. This is a show on our Mixer platform about PlayStation?

TARA VOELKER: Yeah, well, Mixer is all about gaming and celebrating gaming wherever it is. And that means, you know, we're not just going to focus on Xbox, which I know a lot of people think because Mixer is technically within Xbox, that that's what we're all about. We're, like, no, we're all about all types of gaming and communities and that includes PC gaming, it includes PlayStation, and, like, there are so many amazing games that come out on PlayStation, like, how could we be a game streaming platform and not acknowledge that they're there?

JASON HOWARD: I love the eternal battles of which is better, Forza versus Grand Turismo, but, you know, we don't have time to actually jump into that here. (Laughter.) But, you know, it kind of highlights that that, you know, there's – there's awesome content everywhere. And if you can have a platform that gives everybody a chance to kind of show up and be present and partake in it, like, that's – that's really what we need. And it sounds like ya’ll are doing a fantastic job of it.

TARA VOELKER: I love working on the Mixer Blue Show and being able to celebrate that stuff, like, I – to be honest, a lot of my primary gaming is actually on the PlayStation just because Xbox offers – Microsoft offers different types of gaming experiences than what PlayStation offers. Like, I love single-player, narrative games, which isn't what we've really been producing as a company.

And, like, I'm so excited for Death Stranding, which is a PlayStation exclusive, and so like that's what we've been focusing on lately, like, ramping up to E3 is, like, talking about Death Stranding. So, I'm like super excited. I have no idea what that game is or what's happening or why, and there's like a baby in like a tube that you can get. And if you pre-order, you get like actual replica of the baby in the tube called a BB pod. (Laughter.)

I don't know. I don't know, but I'm really excited. I don't understand, but I need it. I don't know what it is, but I need it.

JASON HOWARD: (Laughter.) Oh, my goodness. So, I'm going to jump topics on you for just a moment here, right? And, actually, I want to talk about the hosting side of things, right?

For the Insiders who are out there listening, right, hopefully if you don't know, we do a webcast, right? I mentioned it earlier in the show. Mixer.com/WindowsInsider, right? So, that's the channel that we host on.

So, like, I have some experience with, you know, what it's like to host on the platform, how tough it can be to try to build a community, you know, getting the word out, letting people know what you're doing, when you're going to do it, right?

So, for you as a host, right, obviously, you host on behalf of Microsoft and, you know, I'm assuming you do your own streaming outside of work because it's – it sounds like it's super near and dear to your heart, right? What are some of the favorite parts of being a streamer? And also, like, what are some of the more challenging pieces of it?

TARA VOELKER: For me, I was not ever someone who was just, like, I'm going to host a web show on the internet one day.

When I got selected to do Mixer Blue Show, it was actually because of my passion and experience with PlayStation that I got selected. I wasn't selected because they're, like, oh, Tara has amazing hosting qualities. Like, no, that was 100 percent not it. They were just looking for someone who could authentically talk about PlayStation. And so for me, it was a really hard ramp-up because I've learned, number one, if I have the earpiece in and someone's going to talk to me, I can't talk and hear at the same time, and it is very obvious on my face when someone's trying to talk to me in my earpiece. So, that's a real-life struggle that I have not gotten better at yet.

I'm terrible at reading a teleprompter. So, on Mixer Blue Show, we'll have certain segments that have been prewritten out because they have a lot of specific information we want to cover. If I do not read that teleprompter ahead of time and practice, you can totally tell because I cannot read on the fly. You know, I don't know if you ever had that, like, scary moment as a child when you're – you have a book in class and you're, like, selected to read aloud for everyone. It's like doing that, but in front of a camera. (Laughter.) Like, it's mortifying.

And then one of the things that I still really, really struggle with, and I'm very, very thankful for my cohost, Andy, is for me, interviewing people can be really challenging. Like, some people are really good at like naturally leading the conversation to where it should go and all that stuff. I cannot do it. I cannot find natural segues. And if it's my turn to like ask a question, and I just haven't picked up on what to do, I'm just like, well, awkward transition, next question, completely unrelated. (Laughter.) And, like, that's so hard. There is, like, an art there that I definitely have not mastered.

JASON HOWARD: You'll have to tell me after the show if I'm doing an okay job at it or not. I'm trying, I'm practicing, so.

TARA VOELKER: I know, I think you're doing great. I don't know what you're (laughter) talking about.

JASON HOWARD: One more thing I do want to talk about is as – when this episode goes to air, right, E3 will have come and gone, there will have been a ton of announcements, right? So, I get to ask you the same favorite question that I love asking everybody I get to talk to here on the podcast.

Without, you know, getting yourself in trouble and leaking anything too early, are there any cool things that you know are coming that you can kind of, like, nudge-nudge, wink-wink, kind of hint at a little bit?

TARA VOELKER: So, funny enough, I don't. (Laughter.) But that's largely because we are so, like, heads-down focused on whatever specific part of E3 we're working on.

JASON HOWARD: Sure.

TARA VOELKER: Like, so many people on the team are, like, unintentionally blindering – is that a word, "blinder?" That's –

JASON HOWARD: They have their blinders on?

TARA VOELKER: Yes. And I realized that I was definitely one of those people because I was just, like, wait, what are we announcing? I don't know. Like, I know where I'm going to be, and I know all the details of the Mixer Dome, but, huh, what are we – I was, like, I guess I don't know.

I genuinely have no idea, actually. I'm so sorry, listeners.

JASON HOWARD: At least you're not going to get yourself in trouble here.

TARA VOELKER: Exactly. Well, hang on – I always tell people, that sometimes if there's an email that, like, is, you know, marked as, like, don't post on social, like, and it – but it'll have information in it, I just won't read it because I can't accidentally post on social if I have no idea what they're talking about. Problem solved. If I don't know, I can't leak it.

JASON HOWARD: That's actually a pretty good policy to follow, be like, I don't know, so I couldn't say. (Laughter.)

Well, so, one last question, right? I said last question, but I'm going to ask you one more question. Regardless of platform, right, because given the – you know, the agnostic nature of Mixer when it comes to platform, you mentioned one game on PlayStation you were super excited for. Is that like the thing that you're, like, really chomping at the bit for? Or are there, like, a few other games that you're really looking forward to? Like, kind of like where is your personal focus at?

TARA VOELKER: Yeah, so Death Stranding doesn't come out until I think it's November 18, so I've got a little bit of a wait. They've just announced the release date, like, a couple weeks ago. So, I have some time.

Completely other end of the spectrum, the other game I really want to come out is the new Animal Crossing for Switch, which also doesn't have a release date. Which I know is like a completely different type of game, but look, Nintendo has trolled the, you know, fans of Animal Crossing so hard, and they just won't give us the release date. Like, why won't you give us the release date? Just give us the game. You said it would be here by summer, and it's summer now. Like, when, when, when do we get it? That's all I want.

JASON HOWARD: Well, summer technically starts June 21st, so they got a couple weeks.

TARA VOELKER: Why are you on their side right now? (Laughter.) I thought – I come here, I try to be your friend, and then you decide to be on their team? (Laughter.) Rude.

JASON HOWARD: Well, hey, let's just say this, I know one of the lead corporate lawyers at Nintendo. We have beers together once in a while. I might go have a conversation be, like, hey, I need you to – I need you to work on this here.

TARA VOELKER: Can you just – you're just going to show up in my office one day and just, like, slide me a piece of folded-up paper with a date on it?

JASON HOWARD: I'm just going to walk out – it's going to show up in your inter-office mail, and nobody's going to go where it came from, but you're going to know what it is.

TARA VOELKER: Okay, well, look, then I will never see it. This is a true story that actually just happened literally before –

JASON HOWARD: Because you're going to leak it, right?

TARA VOELKER: No. Literally before I came here, you talked about giving it in my inter-office mail, I just happened to check my mail today, and I found, I am not kidding you, a Christmas card that I – (Laughter.) And so, sorry Ninja Theory, I didn't check. I just saw it today. It was a really nice card.

JASON HOWARD: She really can't help from ratting herself out here. All right, so before you get yourself in any more trouble, we should probably wrap up.

I've got to say, it's been a fascinating conversation. I've learned a few things, hopefully our listeners have as well. It's been great talking to you. As Mixer continues to evolve, we'd love to have you back on in the future, we can talk about the things that have changed, you know, how your role has changed, because no doubt it sounds like you're very driven and you've got very strong goals that you're working towards, and no doubt you've got a lot left to accomplish, and I'd love to keep in touch and see how that goes into the future.

TARA VOELKER: Oh, thank you, you made me sound so great. I appreciate it. (Laughter.)

JASON HOWARD: All right, well, Tara, thank you so much. And appreciate your time.

TARA VOELKER: Thank you.

(Music)

JASON HOWARD: Next up, we've got a special guest from the Xbox team, Gabi Michel, to talk about one of the most exciting innovations in gaming to arrive last year, the Xbox Adaptive Controller.

Welcome to the show, Gabi. Would you please introduce yourself to our audience and share a bit about what you do?

GABI MICHEL: Sure, so my name is Gabi Michel, and I am a Senior Hardware Development Program Manager with Microsoft Devices. It’s a long title, but what it really means is that I get to lead hardware development programs all the way from concept to on-shelf for Microsoft devices, and I had the honor of leading the Xbox Adaptive Controller program that launched last September.

JASON HOWARD: Awesome.

JASON HOWARD: So, earlier in the episode, we talked a bit about what accessibility in gaming is with, with Tara, but could you tell us a little bit about how you got involved with accessibility, as well as the whole realm of gaming?

GABI MICHEL: Well, we’ll start with gaming. So, I’ve actually been a gamer for my entire life. Yeah, and I joined Xbox accessories about 6 years ago working on all of the Xbox One controllers. When the Xbox Adaptive Controller Program came up after two successful hackathons, I was, well, I volunteered myself to lead that program. I may or may not have stolen it from another PM. It’s fine. (Laughter.)

Microsoft is heavily focused on accessibility and inclusion, and it became super important to me as I was leading the Xbox Adaptive Controller program, and it continues to be important to me. I continue to push accessibility in all of Microsoft devices.

JASON HOWARD: So obviously, accessibility for Windows as a whole, obviously Microsoft as a whole, is important, but when looking at it through the lens of gaming, it’s something that both Xbox staff, as well as Mixer staff, they’re passionate about, yourself included. But laddering back up to Microsoft as a whole, why are we spending so much time investing resources – money, time, development efforts – into accessible gaming?

GABI MICHEL: I think it goes all the way back to Microsoft’s mission, which is to empower every person on the planet to achieve more. When you look at that from a gaming lens, it’s to empower every person to play and to have fun. And, in order to do that, you have to include people. You have to be accessible. When you don’t deliberately and intentionally include, you unintentionally exclude. We don’t want to exclude anybody. We want to empower every person to do more, to play more, to have more fun.

There was a study back in 2016 that said that 12 percent of the U.S. population has a disability, often a limited mobility disability. And if you think about that, we want those people to be able to use our devices and play on our platform. And so, making sure that we have inclusive products and accessible products is critical.

JASON HOWARD: So, 12 percent, that’s 1 in every 8 people, rough math, right?

GABI MICHEL: Yeah.

JASON HOWARD: That’s a sizable chunk of the population when you put it in that kind of perspective.

GABI MICHEL: It really is, and we don’t want to exclude them. They get to play and have fun too.

JASON HOWARD: So, we’ve obviously mentioned the Xbox Adaptive Controller project a few times, right? So, for those who are listening who may be kind of uninitiated or unaware of what that project is or what the hardware is, could you talk a little bit about it? And, you mentioned earlier, it came kind of, it was the spawn of a hackathon or a couple hackathons, right? Could you talk about what it is, and kind of where it came from?

GABI MICHEL: Sure, so, the Xbox Adaptive Controller is a controller for gamers with limited mobility. It allows them to create a custom controller play space that works specifically for them and what they need.

There are ports on the front of the device that allow you to externalize every single control of the traditional Xbox controller. And by externalize, I mean you can take an external button and plug it in to the left trigger, and then that button becomes your left trigger, or you can get a one-handed joystick and plug it in to the left or right USB ports and create an external joystick.

So, it’s really powerful, and it becomes almost a hub that allows gamers with limited mobility to create a control and input device for gaming that’s specific to what they need, whether they have, you know, fewer limbs or reduced strength or endurance.

So, it started back in 2015 as a hackathon. There was a really small, core group of Xbox accessories engineers who connected with a nonprofit called Warfighter Engaged, and their target was to get Sergeant Josh Price to be able to play Killer Instincts.

JASON HOWARD: Oh, that’s a fun game.

GABI MICHEL: Yeah, it really is.

JASON HOWARD: Now, I realize that game’s not for everybody, but, I mean, I happen to think it’s kind of fun.

GABI MICHEL: It is. It’s a, it is a lot of fun, and it’s a great game to play with friends. It’s a great social game.

And so, they did a super hacky breakout of the controller, wires and solder joints, and like, it was not pretty, but it worked, and they got him playing. The next year in 2016, the Xbox accessories hardware team committed a couple of interns to iterate on that initial hack and take it the next step. And from that hackathon in 2016 with those, those interns, we realized that we could turn it into a full-fledged product.

JASON HOWARD: That’s quite the history, right? You know, starting from, hey this one person, we’re going to try to design something for them, to seeing where it ended up, the impact it’s had on the marketplace, the number of people whose lives it now affects.

You know, it’s crazy, like, you know, it’s, for somebody who, like I wouldn’t call classify myself as somebody who has, like limited mobility, right? So, like I pick up an Xbox controller, and I just play, right? I know which buttons to push, I know how to push them, and what not. But the concept that there is a piece of hardware that you can, I think the word you used was externalize, right? You can plug and kind of connect it to your body however you are able to interact, and it gives you the ability to participate and fully play in a non-, what we could consider, a kind of non-standard way, because you’re not pushing the typical buttons in the way that a regular controller works.

It’s utterly fascinating, but it’s amazing because you then take those folks who would not have been able to play in the traditional way, and you’re able to include them so that they’re not left out.

GABI MICHEL: Exactly. We deliberately and intentionally included.

JASON HOWARD: So, kind of piggybacking on what we talked with Tara about a little bit, you know with like the streaming on Mixer, looking at it kind of broad, you know more broadly because there, there is more than one streaming platform besides Mixer, how has the growing trend of livestreaming games and content on our platform and others alike, where you can play different kinds of games or stream content, movies, whatever, whatever you want to, right, of, of what you’re trying to communicate out to the world. Like, how did that specifically factor into the controller’s design?

GABI MICHEL: Our focus with the controller’s design was around extending it to all gamers with limited mobility, regardless of how they choose to play or what they choose to play. And so, that design had to be extensible to a lot of different scenarios, and that was the critical factor in the design, because as you mentioned, people aren’t just playing games now. They’re watching others play games. They’re streaming games. And so, making sure that the design was extensible, not only to a lot of different types of gamers with limited mobility, but also making sure that it was extensible to all different kinds of games and different types of play. It was the pillar of what we came up with.

JASON HOWARD: Yeah, cause like, when, back before Microsoft acquired Mixer, when it was still, I think it was called Beam.

GABI MICHEL: Beam.

JASON HOWARD: Yeah, right? For people that were engaging on the platform, it was done on their PC, right? And then, Microsoft acquired Beam, the name rebranding happened. But now you can engage, whether you’re doing direct streaming or just watching streaming, you can do it directly from the Xbox, right?

GABI MICHEL: You can do it on your phone.

JASON HOWARD: Yeah, it has expanded and grown, you know, as we’ve, you know, made the platform more robust, and you know, that’s another thing, even if you aren’t actively livestreaming yourself, your own content going externally, you still need that method of interaction to go and watch what others are doing. You have to be able to connect and navigate, and it seems like not only did you solve that piece of things, but the I’m going to stream my content as well as like, what was designed kind of encompassed all of it and just kind of nailed it in one shot really.

GABI MICHEL: That was the goal.

JASON HOWARD: So, testing something like this with actual users, like our actual customer base, is obviously really, really important, right? User testing is kind of what drives the heart of everything we do, like, coming at it from the concept of, you know, the Windows Insider Program, right? That’s why we take in feedback, it’s why we listen to users, we take both suggestions, and, you know, there’s the bug side of things. I hate talking about it, but hey, bugs are bugs, right?

GABI MICHEL: It’s not a bug, it’s a feature.

JASON HOWARD: (Laughter.) It’s an undocumented feature, right? We just didn’t get it quite right yet.

How did your team actually go about testing the controller with people in the real world who had accessibility needs? And, was it difficult to kind of keep the project under wraps? Because this is kind of a game-changing, no pun intended, it’s kind of a game-changing, like, I’m looking for the right words here.

GABI MICHEL: Device.

JASON HOWARD: Yeah, like I want to call it more than a device though because it just, I guess the level of importance that like, you know, being an employee of Microsoft and seeing what it’s enabling people to do, like I don’t want to just call it a device. Even if that’s what it is, I guess there’s like, some kind of like core attachment that I have to what it’s actually doing for people who need to use it.

So, okay, we’ll call it a device, right? It’s kind of a game-changing device. But–

GABI MICHEL: Game-changing innovation – eh. I think device, I-I understand why you are shying away from the connotation of device, but I think what’s really important is that highlights just how important devices are in our lives now. They surround us. They’re everywhere. And they’re only getting – we’re only getting more and more devices around us, and they’re powerful, and they connect us, and I think there’s a great connotation around device.

JASON HOWARD: Okay, alright. I-I will let it fly. So, you know, how do you go about testing this device with folks in the real world for a project that was obviously, to a large extent, kept under wraps, cause you know, we’re, we’re in the development cycle. So how do you go about, like what is the process to engage with folks who would be actual real-world users of a product like this, you know, while kind of keeping the cat in the bag so to speak?

GABI MICHEL: It was actually a huge struggle. So, we knew that we had to do beta testing with gamers with limited mobility, and we had to reach outside of Microsoft for that. But that’s not something that’s common in hardware development at Microsoft. We don’t go external. We keep all testing internal on hardware prototypes or, if anything goes external, it’s with very, very strategic partners. And, and we, we couldn’t do any of that.

We reached out to our non-profit partners like Warfight Engaged, AbleGamers, SpecialEffect, Craig Hospital, Cerebral Palsy Foundation, and several others, and we asked them to connect us to gamers with limited mobility. And we reached out to those gamers. We did have to ask them to sign an NDA. Most of them agreed. And then we actually shipped them prototype hardware.

It was the very first time that we’ve ever done a truly external take-home program or beta program in Microsoft devices, and we managed to keep it under wraps for the most part, and I’m really proud of that. I’m also proud the fact that we, I pushed to make sure we were going to the audience and beta-testing with the audience that needed it, and we were successful because we did that.

JASON HOWARD: So after, you know, you’ve done this engagement with external users, they’ve done the beta-testing and given you the prototype feedback, right, you’ve settled on hardware design, you’ve got what you think is the one, right? You’ve got your device, right? There’s that word again. You’ve got your device, you think you’re ready to go to market, obviously, then the concept of doing the announce, wrapping the marketing around it, showing people the product that’s been created. Really, like after, after you went public with this, right? It seems like the device resonated and connected, not just as something new to assist people, right? It seems like it tapped into like, this emotional vein that people had, like kind of like the reason I didn’t just want to call it a device, right? Consciously or subconsciously, like for me, it just feels like it’s something more than that, right? And maybe that was, maybe that was the thing. Maybe that’s kind of the whole, like, the impetus behind all this, right?

But it’s, this is something that doesn’t happen every day, right? It’s not just focused on, you know, the controller being successful, and Microsoft selling a product, right? It’s really about introducing the importance of accessibility to the world, you know, and using gaming as kind of the, the-the, the jumping off point for that, right? For lack of a better way of saying. It’s really a shining example of Microsoft being a responsible leader and talking about accessibility globally. Like, you know, I mean obviously Satya almost every time he gets up on stage, he talks about what we’re doing as a company, how it’s important, and this is kind of like that entry showcase proving that, you know, we’re putting our money and time and resources where our mouth is. Like it’s not just talking the talk, but we’re actually investing in the community to show, this is important, right?

So, I’ve said a lot there, but boiling it back down, was it hard to figure out how to announce it to people, right? I’m going to use the generic term marketing, like how you go and showcase this. But like, what was, what was some of the deciding factors behind that? Like how did you, what went into how we’re going to introduce it and prove to people that we’re serious in what we’re trying to accomplish here?

GABI MICHEL: A lot always goes into your go-to-market plan, and I feel lucky enough that with Xbox hardware, we actually involve our marketing partners from the very beginning. All the way at concept, they’re in the room, they’re part of the team, and their voices are always heard. And so, they were with us throughout the whole process for the whole path, and so a lot of how we went to market was just telling the story of what we did, and it was very natural for them, because they lived it with us as well. And when we got to announce, we really were just telling our story. What we did, how we did it, why we did it. The whole media days we did around the announce back in May of 2018 was just us telling our story. We brought in some of our non-profit partners from Warfighter and from Craig. They came, they told their side of the story. I told my story of leading the program. We told the story of some of the struggles that we had. We told the design story. And the non-profits also got to tell the impact story, and we had gamers with limited mobility as part of our media days telling that part of the story as well. And that has always been our marketing plan, is just telling stories about our journey and the journeys of the gamers with limited mobility that we partnered with and why this is important and how bringing that inclusion and that accessibility to the platform is just so important.

JASON HOWARD: It’s interesting, it’s almost like the marketing side of things was done backwards. And I’m going to clarify that statement, right? Because oftentimes when a company brings a new product to market, they’re like hey, we’ve created this new thing. This is why you should buy it, pick it up, share it with your family, whatever the case may be for whatever they’re, you know, they’re attempting to sell. But in this type of scenario, right, number one, there was nothing like it out on the marketplace. This was a-a new thing that can kind of come forth from your team and everybody that you worked with.

GABI MICHEL: A first of its kind.

JASON HOWARD: Yeah, exactly. And rather than be like, hey, we’re going to try to spend like a lot of money to convince you that you should go and purchase this, you know, to enable folks, right? Just showing people why you created it, how it works, like it tells the story itself, but it’s, it’s got to be awesome to know that you were part of being able to share that story and be part of the design along the way.

GABI: Oh, yeah. This is the highlight of my career. I may never top the Xbox Adaptive Controller, and I’m okay with that. This is the best thing I’ve ever done in my entire life.

JASON HOWARD: So, you know kind of looking at the marketing aspect a little deeper, right? The way Microsoft broadly has talked about the product has opened the door for some amazing stories that truly show what this device is capable of. As, as kind of said broadly through Xbox, when everybody plays, we all win, right? That’s something that Phil Spencer has said repeatedly, folks, you know, Chris Capossela in marketing, kind of broadly for Microsoft. It’s a mantra that actually resonates. The people that work on the platform believe it, right? It’s part of what they do day-in and day-out.

So, given what we’re talking about here, you know, this controller, accessibility, gaming, and linking all those things together, do you have any of those cool stories that you can talk about that kind of highlight, you know, what the controller has done for, you know, a gamer or two or whatever you want to talk about, who has some accessible, accessibility needs, and how it improved their experience on the platform?

GABI MICHEL: My favorite stories actually come from pretty early in development, and it was when we were able to get the first prototypes out to our beta audience. And, as part of that, we actually went to people’s homes. We crisscrossed the United States, we crisscrossed England, and we visited people in their homes, brought these prototypes, and asked them questions, asked them feedback, observed how they played, without it and with it. And those very first homes that we visited, and we gave them the device, seeing people’s reactions to it.

One person that we visited plugged the device in, started plugging buttons in, and was going to play Overwatch and was able to co-pilot with a traditional controller to move around in Overwatch, and then plugged a button in to the trigger and hit it, and it worked. And it just worked, plug and play. And there was an exclamation of “Wow!” And there was just this joy and like, just passion around the fact that it worked. There was a pile of other accessible devices in the corner that were broken and didn’t work, and you couldn’t just plug them in, and you couldn’t change things on the fly. And so when we brought the adaptive controller, and you plug things in, and it worked, you just hit a button and all of a sudden, your left trigger works, and it fires your gun, that joy that I got to see that day was, it-it’ll stay with me forever.

And later that same trip, we were actually at Craig Hospital. Craig Hospital is a hospital in Denver, Colorado for spinal cord and traumatic brain injury patients. It’s where they go after they’re stabilized to do their rehabilitation and to get back to doing. And they have a game night once a week. It’s part of their recreational therapy program, but it also – they have a lot of kids there who have just had a traumatic accident, and all of a sudden, their whole life has changed.

And so, we went to that game night. We brought the devices. It was the first time that the OTs and the rec therapists at Craig had seen the device. It was the first time the kids that go to game night had seen the device.

And there were a couple of kids who were playing Destiny. This was right before Destiny 2 came out, so it was still Destiny one, and they had both played before their accidents, and they hadn’t been able to play since. They were telling me stories about how they still gamed, but they played Skyrim or slower games, games that weren’t multiplayer, because they couldn’t do the fast sort of twitch movements anymore. And all of a sudden, these kids were playing Destiny for the first time since their accidents, and the joy on their face, and the fact that this device brought them back to a game that they absolutely loved. That will stay with me forever.

These are teenage boys that just wanted to play Destiny with their friends, and then they couldn’t, and the device that we brought to them and that we released out into the world eventually, let them play Destiny again. That will stick with me for the rest of my life.

JASON HOWARD: Even if they had to do it in a slightly different way than what they had become accustomed to, this was restoring their ability to get back and actually participate and connect with some of the things that they associated with, you know, their previous version of what was normal for them.

GABI: Absolutely, and the great part was is that, it was plug and play. The setup took five minutes for the occupational therapist to figure out what each kid needed, and then they were off and playing. Before the Adaptive Controller came around, they wouldn’t have been able to create such an extensive setup, or it would’ve taken tens of minutes or a half an hour just to start and restart and plug and unplug. The Adaptive Controller is plug and play. You plug the button in you want, you go.

JASON HOWARD: I want to dig a little bit deeper into that, you know, plug and play aspect of the controller, but before I do that, kind of tailing out of the conversation that we’re in, you know looking back, right?

We had what was a highly or very well-received ad that was run at the Superbowl. There was also a holiday ad that was run featuring, you know, this device, the hardware, you know, a person using this, the friends involved with it, right? The actual, kind of like a real-world scenario where it isn’t just kind of a marketing thing, right? It got a lot of exposure. It showed people that connectedness that actually kind of is driven by, you know, including everybody and giving everybody the ability and the chance to play.

And it shows what-what something like this can do, not just as an individual product, but in the direction of an industry as a whole, right? So, you know, looking at what has been the success of this controller and the scale to which Microsoft has talked about it and how it is influencing the market broadly, have you seen other changes in the industry as a whole, right? Whether it be gaming specifically or looking bigger and more broadly beyond that? And how does a project like this open doors of accessibility that haven’t been opened before?

GABI MICHEL: The Adaptive Controller wasn’t the first part of our accessibility journey or anybody’s. There’s been a phenomenal conversation around accessibility that’s been going on for several years. But I think the Adaptive Controller added a huge spark of life to that conversation, and now I see accessibility coming up everywhere. And when you bring it up in conversation, people are a lot more enthusiastic about it, and people are taking it more seriously, which is incredible.

To see accessibility highlighted on a national stage, to see major publishers in gaming focusing on it. Ubisoft has always been a studio that has wanted to make their games more accessible, but now they’re pushing it farther and farther, and they’re bringing in more accessibility consultants. They’re talking about it more. Games that don’t have enough accessibility options are now getting written up in major publications about not having accessibility options. It’s, it’s changed the story, and it’s just one piece of the journey, it’s one piece of our journey, but it’s so amazing to see that conversation and that topic almost come into mainstream, whereas before it was sort of on the fringes, and I’m just happy to have even had a part of it.

JASON HOWARD: It’s interesting to see what can come from somebody taking that first step, right? It’s like sometimes, people want to do something good, right? They have the inspiration, right, they have the desire to go and make and affect change, but sometimes, you need to start that snowball, right? Cause, you know, you give it that one little push and the next thing you know, you’ve got this big avalanche that kind of tumbles down, but in this case it’s a, it’s a both a beautiful and amazing avalanche that’s kind of resulting from, you know, the combined small efforts, and that’s not to understate what anybody has been doing along the way, right? But if you look at them in silos as like, this person’s trying this, this company’s trying this, but then you get momentum of all of these things rolling together, and it becomes this big movement, and it seems like that’s where we’re finally at, and I- there’s nothing to be seen but positive outcome to be, to go forth from here. Like, there’s really good things that have happened and will continue to happen moving forward.

GABI MICHEL: When everybody plays, we all win.

JASON HOWARD: It’s, it’s funny to say that because in this case it’s (laughter) it’s–

GABI MICHEL: It’s super true!

JASON HOWARD: Yeah, there’s literally no better way of saying it than that. But I did mention that I wanted to hop back for a second, right? I feel like I’m just completely jumping topics here, but it’s interesting and fascinating on the hardware side of things, where you talked about it being plug and play, right?

So, the controller itself is kind of the starting point, right? There’s, I know there’s a couple big buttons on it, there’s-there’s ways to engage and interact on it, but there’s the ports that you mentioned where you can plug in external input. So, from that perspective, the inputs that are available, right, are these things that were already available on the marketplace or are they things that we as a company are creating and investing in? Like how does that come together? And what were some of the difficulties of working in a plug and play type environment where something that Microsoft doesn’t create happens to just plug into this controller, and it just works.

Like, working on the Windows side of things, it’s pretty fascinating to see all the differences in firmware and chip sets and drivers, right? You start looking at all the scale of everything it takes to keep Windows from breaking. I can’t imagine that the, the (laughter) like the scenarios ya’ll had to work through to be like, okay we’re going to go buy or potentially you know, partner with all of these third-party vendors and OEMs out there who create all this stuff and make, try to make it work natively with this new thing that we’re launching.

GABI MICHEL: The plug and play piece was actually one of the most critical parts of our design. It, if you go back to our concept decks, that was one of the most important things. It had to be plug and play. It had to be intuitive to set up.

The great news for that was that the accessibility community was already using buttons and switches in their daily lives to do things like turn on lights or open doors, and so we already were able to go and look at what they already had, and said, okay, we just need to make this thing work with our device. And it was your standard 3.5 mm stereo headset jack, tip-ring-ring-sleeve if you’re a hardware geek. (Laughter) It’s, it’s a standard, well that’s the stereo one. You can also do the mono one which is just tip-and-sleeve, which the digital buttons are. It’s a standard, universally used component at this point. And so that one was really easily understood.

And making sure that we had an input for every single one of the traditional controller buttons, that was actually the hard part. There’s 19 3.5 mm input ports on the front of that controller. That’s a lot.

JASON HOWARD: Uh, yes.

GABI MICHEL: And–

JASON HOWARD: I think my laptop has two USB ports, maybe three? (Laughter.)

GABI: Right. And when you have that many of a single component, as a hardware development PM, oof. That’s, it’s a lot of failure points, so that was actually a struggle just from a, we have to get a really good component that’s not going to fail, because you plug stuff in and out of that thousands and thousands of times. It was, it was a challenge, but we got it.

The other part of the challenge was actually the USB input for the thumbsticks, and that was where we struggled, cause we don’t have USB input on a controller existing. The USB that we have on our traditional controller is just for charging and to send data to the console.

And so, how to do a thumbstick style input with USB in, that was actually a struggle. And so we had to figure out what devices were out on the market, how they were talking to, to the host, and going from host to device and back and forth, and what we needed to really be as inclusive as possible in the devices that we could talk to.

And so, we did exactly what you just said where we went and we sourced things from the market, we talked to QuadStick, which is a joystick for quadriplegics, we talked to Logitech, we, we talked to 3dRudder. We just looked at what was out there, what was an alternate thumbstick control, and, and we also talked to our traditional design for Xbox partners like PDP. They created the one-handed joystick for us, which is so awesome. And we just had that conversation throughout the development, and-and there, there’s still things that we need to do. There’s stuff that doesn’t quite work how we want it to work on the Adaptive Controller, and we’re always trying to make it better. But we took as many devices as we could to make sure that our design was robust enough that it could take almost any input, certainly on the 3.5 mm, any 3.5 mm port you plug in there is going to work. But on the USB, that was where we had the challenge to really make it as inclusive as possible.

JASON HOWARD: So knowing what all you’ve accomplished to this point, right? What’s next for accessibility within the Xbox realm, right? I know I’m, you know, focusing a little more down towards the gaming side of things, right? But, like, I’m going to ask you one of my favorite questions, right? You can answer, you can not answer it, right, I’m not trying to get you in trouble here. But like, if you can talk about it, right, kind of what’s coming next, like you got any tricks up your sleeve that, there’s got to be something, right? I-I, you don’t seem like the type of person who’s content with doing something awesome and being like okay, cool I’m done. Like, I-I don’t get that sense from you.

GABI MICHEL: Well, there’s not much I can talk about.

JASON HOWARD: Okay, I, I had a feeling that was going to be the case, but hey, I got to ask, right? (Laughter.)

GABI MICHEL: But I can say that accessibility continues to be a high-priority for Xbox, and it continues to be a high-priority for Microsoft devices. I have the honor now to be able to look across all Microsoft devices and figure out how we can make our products more accessible, and that is critical as well. We can’t forget about PC gaming, and the Adaptive Controller works on your Windows 10 PCs for games that take controllers, but we, we need to be more accessible across all our platforms.

And the Elite Series 2 that was just announced at E3 is taking accessibility to the next step. It has adjustable tension thumbsticks. It has, the trigger stops are now three, and they automatically, instead of two on the original Elite controller, there’s now three, so there’s an even shorter throw. And it also now automatically updates the electrical signal so that shorter throw goes zero to a 100, whereas before in order to make that electrical change, you actually had to go into the Xbox accessories app. So that’s, those are all really great. Shift functionality is coming to the Elite series too. We have it on the Adaptive Controller, but now we have it on the Series 2 Elite controller.

All of those things make our platform more accessible. We continue to have additional updates to our user interface as well that also make things more accessible, and I’m sure Tara has talked about that.

JASON HOWARD: (Laughter.) She may have hinted about it a little bit, you know. So, as we wrap up here, I of course have one more question for you, right? As if the questions never stop coming, you know? And it’s, it’s a fun one, right?

You mentioned earlier at the beginning when you were making your introduction that, you know, you’re a gamer, right? It seems to kind of go hand-in-hand with the folks that work in Xbox. You know, they tend to have, you know, gaming as a passion of theirs.

GABI MICHEL: Sometimes.

JASON HOWARD: So, is there anything that you are playing right now game-wise that you’re super excited about? And obviously, knowing that E3 just wrapped up, like, what is it that you saw or heard at E3 that you’re super excited about?

GABI MICHEL: So, right now is kind of crunch time for hardware, so I don’t actually get to play that much. I wish I could play more. The last thing I played was the brand new DLC for Borderlands 2.

JASON HOWARD: Okay.

GABI MICHEL: I’ve been play, trying to play through that, so obviously I’m super looking forward to Borderlands 3. Cannot wait for it. As soon as they announced it, I think I pre-ordered the collector’s edition that is stupidly expensive, but I did it anyway.

JASON HOWARD: Hey, sometimes you’ve just got to splurge.

GABI MICHEL: Yeah.

JASON HOWARD: I think you’ve earned it.

GABI MICHEL: Cyberpunk looks really interesting. I’m excited to see where that comes. Gods & Monsters, that was announced at the Ubisoft presser. That looks really cool. God, what else have I played recently? I was playing some Division 2. I play Fortnite every once in a while, but I play save the world because I don’t like other people.

JASON HOWARD: (Laughter.)

GABI MICHEL: I do like other people, just I like Fortnite save the world.

JASON HOWARD: Hey, sometimes when you’re playing games, you just want to go in and rock it out yourself.

GABI MICHEL: I just, yeah.

JASON HOWARD: I get it.

GABI MICHEL: I play everything I can. I’m really excited about xCloud. And obviously, the thing that we announced at E3, the Elite Series 2. It’s a phenomenal controller, and I cannot wait for it everybody–

JASON HOWARD: Yeah, I was going to say, I can’t wait to get one myself. (Laughter.)

GABI MICHEL: I cannot wait for everybody to get to play with that controller.

JASON HOWARD: Gabi, I got to say, this has been a both fantastic and fascinating conversation. I know I’ve been a bit random with some of the questions I’ve asked and, you know, where our conversation is going, but in the end, it’s obvious that you’re really passionate about what you’re working on. You’re committed to accessibility in gaming. Obviously, Microsoft as a company is committed to accessibility on the whole.

And, it makes me proud to know that I get to work with people such as yourself who are committed to making this successful and dedicate the work that you do day-in and day-out to help others in new and innovative ways, to help them feel connected, and be able to do the same things as everybody else. So, a heartfelt thanks to you, everybody that you work with on your team, and I’m absolutely looking forward to the things that are yet to come.

GABI MICHEL: Me too. This was fun. Thanks for having me.

JASON HOWARD: Absolutely, you’re welcome back anytime. I’d love to talk to you again.

GABI MICHEL: Anytime. We’ll talk about games.

(Music)

JASON HOWARD: All right, Windows Insiders, that's a wrap. If you want to check out the best of what happened at E3 this year, you can watch sessions on-demand on Mixer by visiting E3.Mixer.com. You can also watch the entire Xbox briefing from E3 at Xbox.com.

Thanks again for listening to the Windows Insider podcast. Join us for a new episode each month and don't forget to subscribe to the podcast on your favorite app. Until next time.

NARRATION: The Windows Insider Podcast is hosted by Jason Howard and produced by Microsoft Production Studios and the Windows Insider team, which includes Allison Shields, that's me, Michelle Paison, and Kristie Wang. Listen to our previous podcasts and visit us on the web at insider.windows.com. Follow us @windowsinsider on Instagram and Twitter.

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Join us next month for another fascinating inside look into Microsoft, tech innovations, careers, and the evolution of Windows 10.

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