Missing Titan submersible controller not unusual, experts explain

Despite criticisms around the use of a gaming controller for the lost Titan submersible, it is not that unusual a choice for controlling advanced technology.
Christopher McFadden
The submersible is controlled using a gaming controller.


Time is now fast running out for the lost submersible Titan. En route to visit the wreck of the RMS Titanic, no one has seen or heard from her since Sunday morning. After some hopes were raised with "loud banging" being heard, little or no other clues have surfaced about the fate or whereabouts of the lost submersible. Apart from the news coverage around attempts to rescue the five men onboard, other experts have raised eyebrows about the apparent "budget" products used to build Titan. Prime among them is using an "Xbox" game controller to operate the vessel.

Gamepads are not unusual for complex tech

However, it turns out that such criticism may be a little premature as these kinds of controllers are commonly used in the military worldwide. According to BodyViz, a company specializing in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) analysis, an Xbox controller offers a more natural way to navigate a patient's virtual anatomy by rotating, panning, zooming, or flying through it. Previously, a mouse-and-keyboard interface was the standard. NASA has also utilized an Xbox Kinect as an interface to operate intricate rovers like the six-limbed ATHLETE (All-Terrain Hex-Limbed Extra-Terrestrial Explorer).

Experts have also noted that adapted game-control systems offer a significant advantage in terms of user familiarity. In 2013, iRobot's Director of North American Products, Tom Phelps, shared with Business Insider that they succeeded greatly by replacing their IED disposal robot's original "puck-like controller" with a more standard Xbox controller design.

"By 2006, games like Halo were dominant in the military," Phelps explained. "So we worked with the military to socialize and standardize the concept... It was considered a very strong success; younger soldiers with a lot of gaming experience were able to adapt quickly," he added.

Military personnel provided with a game controller that is familiar to them. "are far more willing to experiment, they are much less afraid of technology... it comes to them naturally," Israeli Colonel Udi Tzur told The Washington Post regarding a tank controlled with an Xbox controller. "It’s not exactly like playing Fortnite, but something like that, and amazingly they bring their skills to operational effectiveness in no time," he added.

“They know exactly the position of those buttons, and they can reach much better performances with that system,” IAI Robotics General Manager Meir Shabtai told the Post. “The controller is just the interface; the idea is to present a sophisticated technology in a way they can deal with,” he added.

Why reinvent the wheel?

Utilizing control interfaces refined by gaming companies for decades can be a cost-effective alternative to creating a new interface from scratch. "Gaming companies have spent millions to develop user-friendly graphic interfaces, so why not put them to work on UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles]?" Raytheon Business Development Director Mark Bigham told Wired in 2008. "The video-game industry always will outspend the military on improving human-computer interaction," he added.

"A lot of money gets invested into video game technologies so we can just piggyback on what they've done," NASA's Matt Clausen said at the 2012 Penny Arcade Expo.

It is not surprising that OceanGate Expeditions has opted for a familiar game control interface for their submersible, as many industries and organizations are utilizing these controllers' well-established and user-friendly design for their non-gaming ventures. The use of such an interface by millions of gamers daily makes it a readily available and easily recognizable option for various projects.

Yet, despite this, criticisms will likely continue when the inevitable investigation ramps up over the following weeks and months.

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board