Since the infancy of computers, people have been trying to develop better interfaces for playing games. The first attempt at a controller was merely a spinning dial on what looked like a television remote. Various companies attempted to improve the methods of controlling video games, leading to the invention of the joystick, d-pad (arrow buttons on a controller) and countless other ridiculous-looking devices.
While these gadgets did make games easier to play, they never really became instinctive, and to the uninitiated they were quite bewildering. However, the creators of the Novint Falcon, a computer peripheral in development, hope to change this trend by simulating something that everyone understands: the sense of touch. This probably sounds like typical Silicon Valley fare for many New Mexicans, yet this technology is being developed right here in Albuquerque.
The Novint Falcon uses haptic technology, a scientific field that studies the sense of touch. Haptics can be used to simulate a real sense of touch through an electronic device like weight, tension, inertia and texture. Haptics research began in Albuquerque, where Tom Anderson, then an inventor at Sandia National Laboratories, developed some of the first haptics applications in the world.
In 2000, Anderson founded Novint, licensing over five years of research that he and others had done at Sandia. Novint initially focused on professional applications of the technology, such as medical, automotive and architectural simulations. The scope of Novint’s haptics applications eventually became much wider.
Anderson is now president and CEO of Novint, where he's set some ambitious goals for his company. “The real vision was to fundamentally change computing,” he says. Even the name of Novint’s product embodies this objective—the Falcon is the predator of the mouse. Anderson says he foresees the Falcon one day replacing the mouse as the standard computer control.
The Falcon is a solidly built mechanism with a sphere-shaped base and three mechanical arms connecting to an “end effector,” a ball-shaped attachment the user holds. The Falcon uses electric motor-powered arms that change the current every thousandth of a second to simulate different forces. The mechanical arms move up, down, left and right, and they also move toward and away from the user in 3D space, instead of on a mouse’s 2D desktop.
Being a pretty serious gamer, I naturally wanted to do a trial run on this awesome little device. I’ve been getting pretty bored with the pathetic little rumble in my Xbox controller, anyway.
My hands-on time with the Falcon was nothing short of mind-blowing. Even the simplest game became mesmerizing with the technology of the Falcon. In a demo where my virtual hand, in the form of a cursor, passed through a sphere, it was possible to feel the difference in density between molasses and water. Using the ball attachment almost like my standard mouse (but this time, in 3D), I moved forward through the water with a quick jolt. Through molasses, my movement was much more sluggish. Then I ran my hand over the surface of a sphere textured like sandpaper—and could actually feel the individual rough grains. When the surface turned into a magnet, I felt its force pull my hand toward it even when I moved away. The simulation was nearly indistinguishable from its real-life counterpart.
In a target practice game, the string on an archery bow became tight as I increased the tension by pulling back on the Falcon’s arms. When I released the arrow, my hand was pulled forward by the force. I picked up a billiard ball and felt its weight. Weight, texture and impact, things I never think twice about in real life, left me stunned as they were simulated electronically within the game, in a totally realistic way.
But the standout demonstration was a modified version of Half-Life 2, a popular first-person shooter, programmed for play with the Falcon. Through this demo, I discovered the potential of the Falcon in a real game. Shooting felt much different than with my rumble-capable Xbox controller, as the weight of different guns affected how quickly I could aim and how much readjusting was needed. A pistol created quick backward jerks, while a shotgun blast created one hard kick. Overall, the combination of near photo-realistic graphics and such a realistic force feedback mechanism made for an extremely immersing experience.
By the time the demo was finished, I was ready to chuck my now archaic mouse and controller, but it's still not clear how the gaming population will react to such a radical device. Many peripherals trying to deepen the computer-user interface have come and gone (remember the Power Glove, Mindlink or Sega Activator?).
Anderson is confident that the Falcon has established a level of sensory depth that has never been achieved on a consumer level. The Falcon’s revolutionary technology is indeed promising, but it is still too early to tell if it can break into the unforgiving video game industry. Judging from what I experienced, the company will gain a follower every time someone tries their nifty little gadget. Those mice better watch out—the Falcon is preparing to swoop down from above.