Graduate student redesigns video game controllers for disabled community

UCF graduate student Aaron Cendan creates custom video game controllers for people with disabilities. All of the buttons on his controllers are modified for the gamer's specific needs.

When Aaron Cendan's fellow gamer and friend Patrick Halkettraz began to lose control over parts of his hands, he said he wanted to help.

“[His] girlfriend called me saying he needed help fixing Halkettraz’s controller,” Cendan said.

He put down his controller and started working on Halkettraz's right away. Altogether, Cendan said it took 18 hours in the span of one month and a half to finish.

Cendan said Halkettraz has been passionate about gaming his whole life — he even got a tattoo on his left bicep of his favorite video game character after Cendan fixed his controller. 

After taking apart his friend's controller, Cendan said he realized learning to assemble different parts of a controller wasn’t only a way to help others, but it was a way to help himself too.

He created his business Stickless Custom Controllers in December 2017 because of that experience. By remapping controllers, and changing them to fit one’s needs, Cendan builds alternative custom controllers for competitive disabled gamers.

“I learned how to disable a controller by joining different online communities and figuring it out myself," Cendan said. “You can try and figure out what’s going on and make a bunch of mistakes while throwing controllers out … eventually [you will figure] it out.

Cendan graduated from the University of Chicago with a bachelor's degree in music with a specialization in ethnomusicology, or the correlation between music and culture. He is now in graduate school for game design at UCF's Florida Interactive Entertainment Academy while creating adaptive controllers for the disabled community.

FIEA is an advanced video game design school at UCF that allows students to learn about new gaming products for people with disabilities, according to the program's website.

Some game design experts involved in FIEA are UCF assistant professor of digital media Peter Smith and UCF assistant professor Matt Dombrowski. Dombrowski is also part of the creative team for Limbitless Solutions, which is a nonprofit organization dedicated to developing 3D limbs.

Dombrowski and Smith said they have made a handful of games at Limbitless Solutions, which teaches users with prosthetic limbs how to flex their arms to press the one-button game on the controller.

“We provide 3D prosthetics for children for free to the families, we are currently in selection for the first clinical trial in the United States,” Dombrowski said.

Smith and Dombrowski have started to construct new experiences at FIEA with the creation of a new game called 'Project Xavier.' The game attaches to a prosthetic limb and reacts after the player flexes their limbs, signaling a headband on the participant's head to detect the movement.

"Anyone can remap or dismantle buttons on a video game controller, but the idea behind that created is for people with disabilities to easily plug in and play," Dombrowski said.

Cendan can relate to Smith and Dombrowski's work — he is able to help make controllers suitable for the people that the two assistant professors create limbs for. 

Cendan said he sells his controllers to competitors and people with special needs all over the world by advertising through social media platforms such as Facebook and attending accessibility events across the country.

"So if somebody has a particular problem like a missing digit or severe tendinitis, I can fix [gaming controllers] to their needs," Cendan said. “...The controllers work for PlayStation, Xbox, [computers], GameCube — pretty much any monitor console, I can build it,” Cendan said.

Cendan said creating games has sparked an interest in his choice of profession in graduate school.

He said he hopes his company is able to expand more in the adaptive entertainment industry.

However, Cendan said he does not have much time to build custom controllers because of his education. Each order can take about two to three weeks to make and send to the buyer.

"I have a lot of orders expected, so I do have my website on hold because of grad school," Cendan said. "But it is my passion."

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