Tearing down the Ouya Console Game Controller | Photo by Oliver Damian
Tearing down the Ouya Console Game Controller | Photo by Oliver Damian

Device Parsing—There’s more than meets the eye in hardware design

By Oliver Damian

Taking apart the Ouya Game Console taught me a lot about how hardware interfaces work. In particular, it showed me how the attention to details paid by the designer made my experience of the controller more pleasant and humane. This device parsing exercise showed me how there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to the design of hardware interfaces. I was able to discover the technologies used under the hood to make the game controller a pleasure to hold and manipulate.

The first thing I noticed in picking-up the game controller is that there is a ‘weight’ to it. It has a solid heavy feel to hold even though I could feel by running my palm and finger pads over its surface that the controller is hollow inside.In taking apart the controller I discovered that there is a metal inside the controller that gives this weighted feeling.

I found analysing the game controller in terms of range, precision, and haptic feedback useful. It gave me an idea that there is a palette of possibilities I can play around with when designing devices for use by the human hand.

I counted a total of 27 degrees of freedom in the controller. A total of 4 in the OUYA buttons, one for each button that moves up and down the Z axis. There were 6 in each joystick: 1 for moving along the X axis, 1 for moving along the Y axis, 1 for clockwise rotation, 1 for anti-clockwise rotation, 1 for moving diagonally from left to right upwards, 1 for moving diagonally from left to right downwards, and 1 in pressing the joystick up and down on the Z axis. There were 4 in the controller cross. One for each edge the cross that goes up and down the Z axis. There were a total of 4 in the buttons on the front. One for each button moving up and down the Z axis. Finally there is 1 (moving up and down in the Z axis) in the button between the right joystick and cross on the left.

In terms of precision, I noticed that there is more precision in moving objects in a game using the joystick. This made me wonder if there is a direct correlation or some other relationship between precision and degrees of freedom. Having said this, I also think that it depends on how one defines ‘precision’. In one view, the buttons are precise because they are binary. Either the button is ON or OFF, HIGH or LOW depending on whether it is pressed or not. This holds if the definition of precision relates to a state of being on or off. In another view, the joystick has more precision if precision means the smoothness of moving through time and space, in a more analog manner. By fully using the degrees of freedom offered by the joystick, the object in the game can be moved in between as well as within precise states. In a way coodinates involving fractions not just whole numbers.

I learned from the tutorials that what enables the degrees of freedom in the joystick are two potentiometers that translates the movement of the stick along the different axes into an electrical signal whose voltage can be translated into numerical values that can the be used by the game program to draw objects in the game.

Metal weight inside the Ouya Console Game Controller | Photo by Oliver Damian
Metal weight inside the Ouya Console Game Controller | Photo by Oliver Damian

I noticed that the game controller had a few integrated circuits (IC) and what seems like a microcontroller. My guess was that these are there for to enable the programmability of the the game controller. One of the IC was labelled BCM20730. I googled the term and found that it was a Bluetooth transceiver which would have sent the data from the controller to the Ouya game console. Doing that made me realise that I could potentially google every label in the circuit boards of the controller to learn what each of the components comprising the the device did.

The device parsing exercise spurred my interest in learning more about electronics. It sparked an interest to understand how they work. And to also learn how to fix broken devices or reuse its components instead of just disposing them. It was also interesting to see how each of the components were designed to fit and lock into each other nicely.

I had to be guided by the tutor in dismantling some of the components. For examples there were catches that had to be un-catched to separate the two circuit boards clipped together that formed the heart of the controller.

Degrees of Freedom in the Ouya Console Game Controller | Photo by Oliver Damian
Degrees of Freedom in the Ouya Console Game Controller | Photo by Oliver Damian

I was able to dismantle the Ouya game controller without the need for special tools. I simply used my small set of screw drivers. I enjoy how the controller fits very nicely when held by both of my hands. I like the variation in colour tones, both matte and shiny surfaces, and the judicious use of colour and engraving.

Ouya was a gaming console born through a Kickstarter crowd funding campaign. I was one of the early backers, so I had a glimpse of their design process through the e-mails and communications the founders sent.

The quality of the console could be attributed to the close involvement of gamers in the design process. In fact the founders of Ouya were gamers themselves. They wanted to create a gaming console they liked. They took their time in designing the console. They looked for a manufacturer in China that could manufacture the gaming console according to their high quality specifications. In my experience, it was human centered design at its best.

Ouya Console Game Controller | Photo by Oliver Damian
Ouya Console Game Controller | Photo by Oliver Damian