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A review of the Novint Falcon


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I've always felt really limited by the mouse in games; there's only so much a developer can do when bound to 2-dimensions (while keeping things within reasonable complexity). There are a lot of other 3D motion controllers out there, but they've never really impressed me: they're low in resolution; their response times are awful; they don't provide haptic feedback; the method(s) by which you manipulate them severely limits their applicability. For these reasons, when I saw the Novint Falcon, conceptually, it seemed like just the thing I was looking for, and I was psyched.

 

Here are two images of the Falcon (I did not bother to take my own):

novintfalcon.jpg

 

novintfalconpistol.jpg

 

How it's used: One moves the actuator/grip (either the standard "ball attachment" or the "pistol grip" attachment) in the 3-dimensional volume permitted by the extents of the 3 arms attached to it. This amounts to a 4"x4"x4" volume registered by the device, and there is also some leeway of movement beyond this conceptualized cube (which I'm assuming is registered as a constant directional stimulus--almost like the extent of a joystick). The 3 arms can also provide haptic feedback, capable of exerting over 2 pounds of force in any direction (and, naturally, these forces are induced in any which way the application desires).

 

Yes, the concept is absolutely awesome, as the possibilities such a device permits are very exciting. This is definitely the direction I'd like to see PC input devices go.

 

But before I continue: I must stress that I've assessed this input device from the standpoint of a developer. There are several games for which there is actual code (usually through mods) utilizing the Falcon's API (any of the orange box games, Crysis, Penumbra, etc), but only a few actually utilize the 3D functionality (essentially, Penumbra and some gimmicky "Monkey Business" games). The rest simply support the device within the constraints of the actual game.

 

What I mean by this is that today's PC games are designed with the mouse in mind. Thus, only the X and Y dimensions of the Falcon can be made use of in these games, and the force-feedback is only utilized in, for instance: simulating recoil from shooting a gun, simulating gravity when you pick up an object, etc. Personally, I see no value in a device like the Falcon for these sort of implementations. My evaluation of the device was purely from the standpoint of a developer looking to trascend the limitations the mouse has imposed on one's own creativity. Therefore, I will not be looking at particular games (even if no current game supported the Falcon, such a deficiency would be irrelevant to me), but only the device's performance. There are also so called "Fgen drivers" released that permit the Falcon to be used in any game, but, again, this is none of my concern.

 

Assessment of its construction: This is not a cheaply made gimmick; the device's design wreaks of quality. It is quite heavy (weighs about 15 pounds, I believe) and very sturdy. To say the least, it's not something I'd be afraid to play a game with. Now, I wouldn't go thrashing the arms about, but--for the purposes of a game controller--it is durable enough.

 

Performance: Unfortunately, the implementation itself is not as good as the concept. I will preceed the positive aspects with '+' and the negatives with '-'.

 

+ Strength and flexibility of motors - The amount of force this thing can induce is amazing considering the size of the device. If one resists its full output, the device will slide back before it gives way and, if bolted down, I believe it would break (and, again, this device is quite sturdy). The Falcon can quite easily throw your hand around, and it may even hurt a small child's wrist. When you're not expecting it, it can be quite surprising.

 

Think of it like this: If there is a flat and hard surface, and the "virtual you" "inside" a simulation presses against it, it will feel solid. If one were to receive a blow from an enemy's sword onto that of their own, the force could throw your own hand back in a precise direction and force. Other things, such as swinging a flail about one's head and feeling all of the intricate forces of its motion, are conceivable (in fact, the tech demos have something similar to this).

 

- Resolution of motors - Unfortunately, the issue with the motors is that the forces they exert are not fine enough. Indeed, one can literally "feel" a surface's texture, but it is a vague approximation (and, if you're wondering, it is not due to an inaccurate computer representation. ie, I could, for instance, define a perfect sphere (mathematically) with collision tests, and the result is the same). Smooth surfaces cannot be simulated; they feel slightly bumpy, and differ in smoothness depending on the configuration of the varying forces of the motors. Their own tech demo demonstrated very well that sand cannot be simulated; it felt more like sticking one's hand through a cereal box stuffed with granola.

 

Of course, there is also the issue of game performance itself and the forces exerted. If the time it takes to compute the forces affecting the Novint Falcon's motors (and these forces are obviously dependent on many other aspects of a game) is too high, it is a given that the results will be coarse. This was not the case in my tests, so the issue truly is a hardware limitation.

 

- Smoothness of actuator manipulation This is the biggest issue of all. The negative point prior to this is a big one, but I could live with it if it weren't for this.

 

Movement of the actuator is not smooth whatsoever. While it is expected not to be smooth when forces are applied by the motors, I am referring to completely "idle" movement (with no forces applied). This issue can be generalized by two things:

1) There is a general coarse feeling of movement on the Falcon, in that there exists an initial level of resistance that, once overcome, gives way to a much greater than intended movement. This makes it near impossible to perform precise movements.

2) The resistance varies depending on both the direction one is moving the actuator and where the actuator is in the maneuverable volume. There is, therefore, no consistency in movement, and this is the biggest issue.

 

The lack of precision and consistency in movement makes the device very frustrating to use. The sensation/experience could best be described as something similar to using a somewhat dirty ball/mechanical mouse.

 

The Novint Falcon is often criticized for not being applicable to competitive shooters (and I'm sure, with enough time, you could get use to it, but that would be training your hand to adjust for all of these inconsistencies), but it is beyond that (and it's not as if I'd ever demand a level of precision and tractability such that it would entertain the expectations of the competitive scene). It has been simply rendered uncomfortable and unengrossing by this debility, and I doubt many could truly immerse themselves in a game while affected by this irritation.

 

 

There are other things that could be better about the Falcon (ie the 4x4x4 volume could be bigger), but the above two issues really are what prevent this from being a successful implementation of the concept. It's not necessarily a bad device, but--without overcoming its issues--it will never take off and become what it is intended to be. I can't help but stay positive, though, granted that the ideal is within Novint's grasp.

 

"Tom Anderson" (mainly known as "Tom Novint") is the CEO of Novint Technologies. Anywhere online that you see discussion of the Falcon, you're likely to see him commenting (this is how I came into contact with him ... and, if this forum is indexed by google, I fully expect he'll eventually show up here). He is a very nice guy, and he gave me a great deal on the Novint Falcon after I expressed my interest in it (and, no, this was not an incentive program thing ... I mean, I'm giving the product a largely negative review ...).

 

If I wasn't in such a financial pinch, I would have kept the device (there is a 30 day money back guarantee policy) simply because I'm supportive of the concept. Novint isn't there yet, but I truly want to see them improve and truly realize this awesome concept.

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