The devices we use to control our computer games have, over decades, morphed into much more sophisticated designs. And they are finding uses outside of video games – from surgery to defusing bombs. Peter Ray Allison investigates.

Games controllers can end up in the strangest places. Just this week, the US Navy announced it had approved a laser weapon to be deployed on an amphibious vessel serving in the Persian Gulf. The weapon is essentially the kind of death ray that science fiction has been promising for decades. And, as the demonstration showed, this space age weapon is guided by something every self-respecting 14-year-old is familiar with: a controller just like those used to play video games.

They used to be such simple devices. A single control stick and a few buttons were all a gamer needed to blast aliens or score a winning goal on the primitive, pioneering games consoles.

But in the last few decades, they have grown up. They’ve become more intelligent, more pleasing to hold and use, and able to adapt to the increasing complexity of the gameplay they are meant to be controlling.

And their effect is starting to be felt a long way away from the first-person shooters and football simulations that spawned their ongoing design. Video game controllers can now be found in an astonishing range of places, from pilots controlling drones to medical students training through virtual surgery.

But how did we get here? Today’s Xbox or Playstation controllers took a long time to achieve their current, ergonomic form. In 1958 the American physicist William Higinbotham created the interactive game Tennis for Two. The game paired an early analogue computer with an oscilloscope (the kind of instrument you’d see in a mad scientist’s lab in a 1950s B movie) serving as a basic monitor. Players played the game by using an aluminium controller to hit the ball.

The first commercially available game controller was released over a decade later in 1972, with the Magnavox Odyssey’s pair of gaming paddles. The Odyssey’s 2D games were crude simulations of sports such as tennis or basketball.

Each of the paddles was fitted with two dials on either side. One dial controlled horizontal movement on screen whilst the other would control the vertical. Each dial was connected to a device which regulated the flow of electricity, within the controller. Twisting these dials would influence the electrical flow which would in turn translate into the appropriate movement on screen.

Analogue direction

It was only with the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System in the 1980s that controllers radically evolved to the gamepad design we are now familiar with. This style of game controller replaced the once-popular joystick with the directional-pad and a set of action buttons. It became the de facto standard until the Nintendo 64 controller was released, which included an analogue stick.

Otherwise known as the control stick or thumbstick, analogue sticks are a variation of the joystick. Unlike gamepads, which give a simple on/off control for the different directions, analogue sticks allowed a more graded response, based on how firmly or gently the player moves the analogue stick controller. Controllers could suddenly move in more dimensions than just side to side. “The first analogue-joystick controller (for the N64) was especially designed to enable the kind of 3D games that [Shigeru] Miyamoto wanted to make, such as Super Mario 64,” says Steven Poole, author of Trigger Happy 2.0: The Art and Politics of Videogames.

In recent years, a lot of effort has gone on enhancing comfort too. Zulfi Alam, Microsoft’s personal devices general manager, states that comfort and immersive gaming were the key qualities when designing the controller for the recent Xbox One. “The main thing was that you need to make the controller fit into the palm of your hand,” explains Alam. “The variation in palm sizes is so significant that getting the comfort right was paramount.”

In fact, game controllers have now become so ergonomic and efficient at navigating us through virtual worlds that they are finding uses beyond just video games.

The 3D MRI and CAT scan visualisation software BodyViz uses Xbox controllers to manipulate the view of the display. The previous mouse-and-keyboard method proved to be a cumbersome.  However Curt Carlson, the president and CEO of BodyViz, found the Xbox controller to be a much simpler solution. The design of the controller makes it easier for surgeons to intuitively “rotate, pan, zoom or fly-through a patient's virtual anatomy” in order to properly prepare for invasive surgery.

Game controllers are also finding roles in the armed services. Tim Trainer, a vice president at iRobot's Defence & Security business unit has been taking controllers out of the living room and into military service. The original Pack-bot bomb disposal robot with its 20kg Portable Command Console (PCC) was replaced by a toughened laptop with a PlayStation controller plugged into it. This new control method was far lighter than the previous PCC. Trainer says the “younger military operator has hundreds of thousands of hours [experience] on game-style controllers, so the training and take-up time for becoming proficient is minimal.”

Virtual interface

iRobot has also developed “full-spec” qualified controllers, which have been designed for heavy-duty use within extreme conditions. However, these militarised variants cost thousands of dollars to produce and are three times as heavy as the normal controller. Operators have discovered the original Playstation controller was already fairly robust, and, should they break, only cost £20 to replace.

The US Navy this week released footage of the laser test

iRobot has also developed an app for tablets that allows the user to control the droid via a tablet, using a pair of virtual control stalks on the screen.

With touch-screen interfaces becoming commonplace, developers are also making the most of our familiarity with video game controllers. By adapting the technique, rather than the technology, they have developed a virtual interface that apes games controllers. By moving their thumbs over the virtual control stalks displayed on the screen, users can control and navigate through the environment using the touch-screen interface of a mobile device, be it on a tablet or a smart phone.

Nasa are trying a similar approach. The Jet Propulsion Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology is currently developing a “natural” control system, using the Oculus Rift virtual reality headset and the Xbox Kinect motion-sensing input device, for a robot arm. “My lab often finds that we can apply technologies from seemingly unlikely sources, such as the video game industry, to challenges in space exploration” says Jeff Norris, founder of JPL’s Ops Lab, which designs ways for humans to interact with robots.

Oculus Rift could allow an operator to get a better sense of how the robot relates to its environment; a head-mounted display allows the operator a similar view of the robot arm their own.  “I’ve found that at times it makes the robot arm feel a bit like an extension of your own arm,” Norris says.

Most robots are controlled through joysticks, but Norris discovered that “people are very inefficient when controlling a robot arm with a joystick because the mapping of the different buttons and axes of the joystick are often unintuitive.”

Although this particular robot will not leave the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the techniques developed here will be used in the future. The robot arms mounted on the exterior of the International Space Station, for instance, may one day be manipulated with a similar device.

All of which suggests that games controllers aren’t just for fun. They can do serious work too.

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