Around a week ago, on January 4th 2023, PlayStation made a surprise announcement during CEX, the Consumer Electronics Expo, debuting images of Project Leonardo, a brand new accessibility focused modular controller due to release some time in the future for use on PS5.

The controller features 3.5mm input ports for connecting external peripherals, as well as a series of large buttons arranged around the edges of a circular base, with a customisable joystick on one side of the device. Face plates can be swapped out with larger panels or different button icons, the joystick can be moved to different distances away from the buttons, and a built-in profile toggle can switch between custom controller mappings on the fly.

While little is known right now about the controller outside of a handful of promotional images and a press release, there are some small breadcrumbs of information I’ve been able to dig up this week that make me hopeful for the future of this device.

I have some questions I want to see answered to assuage my concerns, but right now I feel hopeful about what is known.

I’m also aware that, with the announcement of Project Leonardo, we’re now living in a world where, for the first time ever, all three of the major console manufacturers have available to purchase, or in development, officially supported and mass produced accessibility controllers, with support for, in theory, the same suite of 3.5mm peripherals to be used across all of them.

This is a hugely positive moment for accessibility in the video game industry, even if there is still room to improve in this regard.

So today, on Access-Ability, we’re going to be talking about PS5’s Project Leonardo, and how it seems to compare to the Xbox Adaptive Controller, and the Hori Flex on Switch. We’re going to talk about the features supported by Project Leonardo, the ways the device differs from its competitors, and the questions we hope to see answered about the controller as it gets closer to release.

Looking at the promotional images available for Project Leonardo, the biggest difference between it and its competitors is the presence of a built in analogue stick replacement. Situated on an arm that can have its distance from the buttons customised, this analogue stick alternative can take a few different forms, perhaps most notably that of a raised joystick which can be held in a grip position using a closed fist.

While both the Hori Flex and Xbox Adaptive Controller feature built in D-Pads, both of those modular controllers require an external third party peripheral to be purchased, or a traditional controller to be used as part of your setup, if the player wants to play video games that require 3D analogue stick movement to control. By building this functionality into Project Leonardo, disabled users who want to play 3D games may have one fewer peripheral to purchase initially to create their setup.

The other obvious area of comparison between Project Leonardo and its contemporaries is the size, customisability, and numerous nature of its button layout.

Out of the box, as standard, without using any peripherals, the Xbox Adaptive Controller features two very large face buttons, mapped to the A and B buttons on a traditional controller, as well as a reasonably large D-Pad, and larger than average Start, Select, and Profile buttons. Notably, the Xbox Adaptive Controller lacks X and Y buttons, Bumper or Trigger buttons, or analogue stick click functionality. For any of those buttons, players will need to either purchase peripherals to connect to the  controller, or use a standard Xbox controller in conjunction with their accessibility controller.

While the Hori Flex for Nintendo Switch lacks any buttons as large as the A and B buttons on the Xbox Adaptive Controller, it does feature a more robust set of larger than standard buttons to emulate more of the functions of the core Switch controller layout. The controller features 14 face buttons, only missing support for analogue stick movement, and analogue stick click buttons, out of the box.

Project Leonardo seems to be presented as a bit of a medium between these design approaches. While it’s tough to get a true sense of scale for the device, it features eight large buttons, and a central ninth button, which seem to be, if not as large as the A and B buttons on an Xbox Adaptive controller, considerably larger than the buttons seen on the Hori Flex.

While these nine buttons are customisable, there are notably not enough spots available on a single Project Leonardo controller to map all core controller functions to it. One of the promotional images, for example, features the L1, L2, L3, D-Pad directions, PlayStation, and Share Button signifiers all placed to one side, not able to be fit onto a single device. However, Sony has seemingly factored this into their plan for the device which can be used, and presumably purchased, as part of a pair.

If a player purchases a pair of Project Leonardo controllers, there is exactly enough space for the remaining nine controller buttons to be mapped to the second base controller, giving the player access to dual analogue control, and all functions of a traditional controller. It seems like the device may even support analogue functionality for the controller’s triggers, with promotional images seeming to show the L2 and R2 buttons as thicker than other buttons, as though they can register how far they’re pressed. This is not confirmed, I’m speculating based on images.

While price is certainly going to be a factor in determining whether a two Leonardo setup is reasonable, accessibility focused controllers traditionally come at a premium price,  it is clear that a pair of Project Leonardo controllers would make PlayStation’s accessibility controller the only solution across the main three that potentially offers full controller functionality without using any 3.5mm peripherals.

Well, that is, possibly with one exception. As far as I can tell, there is no built in larger alternative to the Dualsense controller’s touch panel on these controllers. It is possible that the large central area of the Project Leonardo controller does have touch pad functionality, but that seems unlikely right now, and players will probably still need a Dualsense on hand for those functions.

This seems as good a time as any to discuss another aspect of the controller that compares directly to one of its competitors, Co-Pilot Mode.

On Xbox, as a system level feature, players can connect any two controllers as though they are one virtual controller, allowing them to be used in conjunction to pilot a single character on screen. This can be useful for players who find it easier to use two Xbox controllers rather than one to spread their controls apart, or for players who need a second player to help them control certain in-game functions, and for players who want to use an accessibility controller and a traditional controller in conjunction with each other.

As part of the Project Leonardo press release, PlayStation hinted as similar functionality coming to their console when this accessibility controller launches, but they were a little vague on some of the specifics.

Here’s what we do know. PS5 owners can use any combination of one Dualsense controller, and up to two Project Leonardo controllers, as a single virtual controller. This will allow using a DualSense as part of your setup alongside your accessibility controller if that works best for you, or if you need access to, for example, the DualSense’s touchpad to progress in a game.

What we don’t know officially is whether Sony will support using two Dualsense controllers as a single virtual controller, mimicking that functionality from Xbox’s Co-Pilot mode. We did see Horizon: Forbidden West support this type of dual controller support back in 2022, so hopefully we will see that supported system wide on PS5 soon, but officially that has not been confirmed.

Beyond that, there are some other lingering questions about Project Leonardo that may seem like they have obvious answers, but would be nice to see official confirmation on.

At the time of recording this video, promotional photos of Project Leonardo only show a pair of 3.5mm input ports, labelled E1 and E2, on the back of the controller. Both the Xbox Adaptive Controller and the Hori Flex have a 3.5mm input port for every potential controller button a player may wish to use. It may be that there are more ports just not shown in these promotional images, but it would be nice to get confirmation that, for example, there are enough ports for an existing Xbox Adaptive Controller user to purchase a single Project Leonardo to use as a hub, plug all of their existing 3.5mm peripherals in, and use their existing setup with minimal adjustment.

Additionally, considering Sony doesn’t allow PS5 games to be played using PS4 controllers, it would be great to get some confirmation that Project Leonardo will be forward compatible with, at the very least, the next generation of PlayStation console.

Accessible controllers are expensive, and Xbox allowing the Adaptive Controller to function on Series X and Series S on launch day was a huge moment of progress this console generation that we should really be expecting PlayStation to commit to mirroring.

Given the fact that PlayStation games have started releasing on PC in recent years, and not simply on consoles, will Project Leonardo be supported on PC? I’d like to assume yes but, given that a player might be splitting their controls between two physical devices, it would be good to have confirmation that players on PC will be able to use two Project Leonardo controllers as a single user on PC as well.

While a lot of questions remain about this new controller, there are a lot of reason to be excited. The controller was designed with insights from groups like AbleGamers, SpecialEffect, and Stack Up, all of whom are really reassuring names to hear in discussions of accessible hardware design.

Seeing it confirmed in an interview between Grant Stoner and PlayStation’s Jim Ryan over on Wired that the Logitech Adaptive Kit has been tested to work with this new controller is hugely reassuring. The Logitech Adaptive Kit is one of the most widely accessible and well priced starter sets for 3.5mm peripherals today, a common starter selection used in conjunction with the Xbox Adaptive Controller, and considering it when working on a new controller shows an understanding of common entry points to affordable custom switches.

While it’s somewhat of a shame that we’ve reached this future through three separate devices, each locked to a specific console, and not via a multiplatform controller base that would reduce expense for disabled players, it still cannot be overstated how exciting a milestone this is for hardware accessible video games.

As of this moment, whether you play on PC, Switch, Xbox, or PlayStation, there’s an accessibility focused controller that you can buy, or will soon be able to purchase, that is mass produced, officially supported on your device, and can enable modular inputs to help make play easier.

Some of them work better than others in various regards, and which of them is best for you will vary by use case, but the fact that all major gaming platforms have an official device that supports custom layouts, and external 3.5mm buttons, which can also be affordably purchased, is a real milestone for our industry recognising the importance of making input devices accessible.

There are questions still to be answered, but today let’s just take a moment to be excited.

This is the future, and it’s getting more accessible by the day.

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