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One by One, Hardware Geek Gets Physically Disabled People Gaming

Ben Heckendorn crafts special hardware to get amputees, quadriplegics and others in the game.

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Ben Heckendorn makes gaming hardware for the physically disabled, and sometimes, his target audience for that hardware is in the single digits.


“What happens on a large scale is that the percentage of people who have the need is fairly small,” Heckendorn said in an interview with Re/code. The expense of manufacturing new controllers on a large scale, he added, makes the physically disabled a difficult market for profit-minded businesses.

Heckendorn hosts a Web video series using his nom de ’Net, Ben Heck, covering many types of electronics “modding” — not just gaming, and not just mods for accessibility. He encourages his viewers to suggest new projects, which led to his first one-handed Xbox 360 controller in 2006.

“I got an email from an armless Iraq veteran who couldn’t play games,” Heckendorn said. “Since then, I’ve built more and more revisions, for multiple consoles.” These projects are then often donated to the nonprofit AbleGamers Foundation, as is the case with his latest mod: A one-handed Xbox One controller.

He has also helped build an Xbox 360 controller for a man with muscular dystrophy, a tongue-and-neck-controlled setup for quadriplegics, and a cut-in-half gamepad for gamers who have trouble bringing their arms together.

One of Heckendorn’s best known mods is a single-handed Guitar Hero controller, which turned the plastic guitars’ “strum” button into a foot pedal on the floor. The project began at the prompting of Games for Health organizer Ben Sawyer, who looped in the game’s developer, the now-defunct Activision subsidiary RedOctane.

The result: About ten plastic guitars wound up on Heckendorn’s doorstep in Wisconsin. “I think I can do this in one,” he recalled saying to Sawyer.

So, what’s next? In addition to the new ideas suggested by his video show audience, Heckendorn expressed interest in developing gloves for interacting with virtual reality games and figuring out how to control games via an infrared blink sensor.

“That’s how Stephen Hawking writes books,” he said.

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