February 13, 2019:
The U.S. Navy regularly polls its sailors to determine what is working, what is not and solicits suggestions for improvements. One recent response to sailor complaints was the decision to replace the $38,000 handheld controller for the submarine photonics mast periscope with the lighter, cheaper ($40-$140) and easier to use Xbox game controllers. This is not the first time the military has turned to the Xbox controller. In 2001, the same time the Xbox computer game system was introduced the Navy developed the electronic photonics masts to replace the traditional optical periscope on submarines. With the photonics masts, you put what the “periscope” could see on a large flat screen in the control room (or anywhere else in the sub). The photonics mast did not pierce the hull like the old optical periscope, so it was controlled remotely with a relatively large and, according to sailors and officers who used it, “clunky” custom controller.
While the photonics mast controller was unpopular the Xbox game controller was quite the opposite. The Xbox game system was wildly popular from the beginning with over two million sold during the first 24 hours it was on sale. Microsoft, the manufacturer, constantly improved the Xbox and its controller but the last major improvement appeared in 2005. At the same time, Xbox appeared the U.S. Army was developing a highly realistic video game (Full Spectrum Warrior, or FSW) featuring infantry combat. FSW appeared in 2004, in commercial and more realistic military versions. It was highly popular on Xbox and it was about that time that the army also discovered that most of its new recruits were very familiar with the Xbox controller. It didn’t take long for developers of new army equipment that needed a hand controller to either use a modified Xbox controller or one very similar to it. That saves the army lots of training time and made operators of remotely operated vehicles (ground and air) more effective much sooner.
In 2008 the Xbox controller was used for the ARSS (Autonomous Rotorcraft Sniper System), a remotely controlled sniper rifle using a stabilized mount for a rifle aimed and fired remotely using the Xbox controller. Xbox controllers became the standard for controllers for all manner of remotely controlled weapons and UAVs as well as the small ground vehicles used to deal with roadside bombs and other high-risk tasks.
Over a hundred million Xbox game controllers have been sold since 2001 and the majority of new recruits in the military (male and female) are familiar (often very familiar with thousands of hours of use) with the Xbox controller when they join. The one loser in all this is the defense equipment manufacturers that were paid big bucks to design and build much less effective controllers. Many of these custom controllers were somewhat similar to Xbox but could not just copy XBox without getting sued by Microsoft. Yet, Microsoft didn’t mind XBox controllers being bought and used for something besides Xbox games or that some military equipment controllers borrowed heavily from the XBox design. Microsoft also didn’t make an issue of it because a large segment of their Xbox game customers were in the military or service veterans who tended to praise XBox for making life easier and more survivable in a combat zone. You could often use an actual Xbox controller for military equipment by just creating new software drivers, Moreover, at about $30 each (with a bulk purchase), you could afford to lose a lot of Xbox controllers in a combat zone as lots of replacements were handy (including ones troops brought with them to play Xbox games while off duty.)