Maybe you have a new 4K TV for gaming and a nice surround sound system too, but it still feels like there's something missing? You'll notice it the next time you get blown up in a shooter, or crash into a wall in a racer - despite your immaculate setup everywhere else, there just isn't enough rumble. Sure, you could crank up the bass until your whole home shakes, but why not take the direct approach and wire an industrial-strength motor into your controller?
Actually, I can think of a bunch of reasons why you wouldn't want to do that. But Jake Middleton, whose Kickstarter campaign for the MEGA-one PlayStation 4 and Xbox One controller mod is now live, decided to strip those annoying concerns away with the potent forces of engineering and crowdfunding.
"You know, it just kind of hit me one day a couple months ago, and it was this urge that I couldn't quench," Middleton told me. "What it stemmed from, honestly, was that I really want to feel the games that I'm playing in a depth and a level that I feel like I'm not getting. You get a little bit of vibration here, if you've got a good sound system you get nice sound. Obviously the visuals are pretty cool. But it feels like there's just something... I want to reach in and feel it somehow. And I'm like, 'Why don't I just hook a giant motor to a controller?'"
Middleton briefly considered how wildly impractical his idea was. Then he produced a pen and paper to start sketching out the design idea, getting more and more excited as he filled out the details.
"As an engineer I have to follow rules, I have to make sure it's safe, make sure that it's planned out, make sure that it meets all the specifications," Middleton said. "But sometimes the other side of my brain just needs to turn off, and I need to flip on the switch that says we can do some really cool stuff! And who cares if it's crazy, let's just do it."
Rules and regulations are important when you're working on projects that will be, say, launched into space and remain there for the foreseeable future. Middleton's sketches weren't just the product of a gung-ho enthusiast, but rather the work of a seasoned mechanical engineer and product developer. His portfolio includes designing heaters to keep NASA satellites from "turning into giant balls of ice while they're hurtling through space." Speaking of satellites, he also helped develop a neural circuit that could keep working even if it was repeatedly punctured by micrometeorites. Middleton tested this by taking the prototype out to the range and shooting it three times with a large-caliber handgun. And yes, it still worked.
Going back to the controller mod, you probably have all kinds of questions about how it will work and how much it will cost and whether you'll be able to use it without breaking an arm, which we'll get to soon. But first, how does it feel to turn a motor "designed for pulling chains and doing really heavy lifting" into the world's most overkill rumble pack? I mean, in practical terms?
"Maybe if your weed whip had a bunch of vibration and a counterweight on it; this massive amount of torque and vibration, and it pulls your hands to the left and the right, and if you're not careful it will almost rip the controller out of your hands when you're playing the game," Middleton said, after some consideration. "Which are all the reasons that I love it."
Physically building this thing will be a more heavy duty process than, say, injection molding an improved Nintendo Switch kickstand. That's where the relationships with Chinese manufacturers that Middleton has made in his day job (his current company creates things like wheelchair lifts and home elevators) come in. Middleton says he already has two firms "on the industrial automation side" lined up to roll into MEGA-one production, though admittedly they're more used to making things like conveyor belts or robot arms than video game peripherals.
If you're worried that all of this powerful machinery will be tough to hold, or may even shake your controller apart, I had similar concerns. But Middleton says he's addressed them: first, the final version of the mod will come with a neck strap, both for safety's sake and to support its roughly 10-pound mass. Second, the exoskeleton design was made to put minimal weight or force into the controller itself - after all, the thing is supposed to shake you. Third, the main rig is meant to be attached or detached within 10 seconds, in case you need unfettered access to any of the central stuff its support bar obscures. Like, uh, the home button. But hey, you never need to press that while you're actually playing!
Middleton's strange beast of metal and motor will only come to life if the Kickstarter is successful. The campaign has an initial goal of $7,436 (Middleton's based in Toronto, so that's a conversion of Canadian dollars). You can pick up an everything-you-need kit to convert your own PS4 or Xbox One controller with a pledge of $98 or more - the Kickstarter promises the conversion can be done in five minutes - or opt for a pre-built version with your choice of controller for $150.
Middleton already has many more plans for over-the-top gaming accessories, assuming this campaign goes well. He might return to an idea for a jogging mat that automatically cuts the power to your controller if you ever stop exercising. Or he might make another controller rumble mod specifically built for first-person shooters - all I'll say about that one for now is you should plan on holding it firmly or prepare for a sore shoulder.
"Kind of in the back of my mind I would love for it to get to a point where it could be a full-time thing. And who knows, maybe we approach video arcade rooms and maybe the next time you go play a game it's completely different, because the feedback or the immersion into an arcade game gets bumped. Or maybe it's controller mods or other things. But really just experiencing the game is what my passion is about."