U.S. Navy to Adapt Xbox Controllers for Submarine Controls

The current generation of periscope controls on board older submarines, which use a imaging control panel and photonic mast handgrip, each cost nearly $40,000 to produce.

It’s no secret that technology originally meant for entertainment often finds its way into the commercial and military sectors. Virtual reality, for example, was initially touted as the ultimate multimedia experience, with fictionalized or hypothetical versions showing it as the natural evolution of video game consoles, which has somewhat been born out by products like the Oculus Rift. However, a recent announcement from none other than the United States Navy revealed an interesting new application for a piece of gaming hardware from Microsoft.

First released in November of 2005, the Xbox 360 has since been replaced by a more advanced model and seemed doomed to languish in thrift shops, retro gaming stores, and the collections of video game enthusiasts. However, the U.S Navy has since announced plans to incorporate part of the 360 into their Virginia-class submarines, the latest subs to enter service. Specifically, the Navy found a way to integrate periscope controls into the Xbox 360’s controller.

The project came about after high ranking Navy officials queried younger officers and recently enlisted men on how they could improve and simplify tech on board submarines. Lt. j.g. Kyle Leonard, assistant weapons officer of the USS John Warner, revealed in an interview with Military.com than many complained of the heavy, clunky, and unresponsive periscope controls. The current generation of periscope controls on board older submarines, which use a imaging control panel and photonic mast handgrip, each cost nearly $40,000 to produce. Meanwhile, an Xbox 360 controller can be had for about $30. Furthermore, it has the added advantage of familiarity, as the new generation of Navy junior officers grew up on Microsoft’s gaming console and similar video game systems.

The Navy has been working with aerospace and defense tech manufacturer Lockheed Martin for some time to identify cost saving measures, as well as ways to integrate technology that the next generation of soldiers are already skilled with. Part of the project was to find ways to utilize off-the-shelf solutions rather than develop new tech and the Xbox 360 controller certainly fits the bill.

While it will take some time the novel control scheme is set to be integrated into all of the Navy’s Virginia-class submarines. The USS Colorado, scheduled to be commissioned in November 2017 is the first to use the system and will therefore function as something of a live test case. Microsoft has yet to comment on the project, but given that they no longer produce hardware for the 360, they are unlikely to benefit from the Navy’s re-purposing of the now outdated controller.

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