Some people, journalists included, seem shocked that a video game controller was used to pilot the submersible vessel that was exploring the Titanic wreckage and has been missing since Sunday. But many functions of modern heavy equipment, including vehicles in the U.S. military, are controlled by standard video game controllers anyone can buy off a Best Buy shelf.
The vessel has five people aboard, who reportedly paid $250,000 each to take the underwater tour. A CBS News report last year on OceanGate Expeditions, a private company that runs the tour, took note that “piloting the craft is run with a video game controller,” a detail that caused reporter David Pogue to palm his face in exasperation and say the submarine appeared to be made with “some elements of MacGyver jerry-riggedness.”
In general, video game controllers have been used in real-life vehicles all over the world for more than a decade, often by the military. Xbox 360 controllers appeared in a 2008 recruitment ad for the British Army, being used to pilot unmanned aerial vehicles. In 2011, that same controller was used to operate explosive ordnance disposal robots in Afghanistan. In 2017, the U.S. Navy’s USS Colorado became the first submarine to use Xbox 360 controllers to operate periscopes. In 2020, Israel Aerospace Industries implemented Xbox controllers for its Carmel battle tank model.
Military sources around the world all tend to cite the same reason: Younger recruits are intimately familiar with the user interface and ergonomics of a video game controller. And because Microsoft owns the Xbox brand, Xbox controllers are compatible with a variety of computer operating systems such as Windows.
“These designs aren’t happenstance, and the same pool [game companies] pulling from for their customer base, the military is pulling from … and the training is basically already done,” said Peter Singer, senior fellow at New America and author of several books about 21st century warfare, in an interview with military news site Task and Purpose earlier this year.
What is notable, however, is the specific kind of controller the Titanic vessel used. It’s been identified as a Logitech G-F710 controller, released in 2011. Logitech is known for high-quality video game paraphernalia. The most worrying detail of the controller is that it operates wirelessly through Bluetooth. All of the military applications described above have controllers wired in, so there’s no risk of disconnection and any issues regarding radio transmission.
The reason for the vessel going missing is still unclear, and a host of factors could’ve contributed to this incident, so it would be presumptive to place any blame on any specific part. In footage of tours given by OceanGate chief executive Stockton Rush, the controller (with the Logitech logo clearly visible) appears to have modified joysticks. But it also appears to still operate wirelessly, as Rush throws the controller around the vessel.
Amazon reviews for the controller, which retails at $29.99, are hit or miss. The controller generally works, but a few reviews note its wireless nature leads to disconnection issues.