Review of the Novint Falcon

If you have followed this blog for a pretty long time, you will have been reminded repeatedly about three topics: I have a strong preference for technologies like JAWS that make mainstream programs work properly rather than products designed specifically for people with vision impairments; I have a great interest in multimodal and multidimensional techniques to increase the amount of semantic information that a technology can deliver to people with vision impairments and, finally, that I think game hackers like David Greenwood in the audio world and others who make parts for video games demonstrate a variety of technologies that we can transfer from the mainstream that people with vision impairments can use to improve efficiency.  My personal hacking lately has used a number of off-the-shelf hardware and I’ve enjoyed working with Direct X and force feedback controllers to develop some new UI paradigms.

A while back, I wrote an article for BC about the Novint Falcon, a three dimensional haptic game controller expected to hit the toy stores in 2007.  At that point, I got my information from Novint press releases and their web site so, like any advertising propaganda that comes directly from the manufacturer of any product, one must assume that we only hear the good things about the device.  The other day, though, I received from Blind News a “hands on” report written by a third party without a financial stake in the Falcon.

Now, I really can’t wait until I can get my hacker hands on this device.  The description by the critic, written for a mainstream audience, has thrown me into a whirlwind of ideas for applications for we blinks.  The fact that Novint plans on selling it for less than $100 continues to blow me away.

Even though I didn’t write a BC entry yesterday, I feel pretty lazy this morning so, rather than doing any analysis, I will copy the story verbatim for BC readers to enjoy.

IGN Entertainment (UK)
Friday, May 12, 2006

By Gerry Block

Think the Wii’s remote is innovative? Get ready for haptic (3D Touch) that’ll blow your mind.

May 12, 2006 – At an E3 dominated, in large part, by the Nintendo Wii and its motion tracking controller, innovative physical interaction with games has become the next-big thing in gaming. While the Wii has certainly opened our eyes to exactly how cool it is to go through the motions, literally, of playing a game, when it comes to feeling a game, we’re still living in the days of the rumble pack’s vibration feedback. With a little luck, that might all be about to change.

Novint rolled into E3 to show the gaming industry what “haptic” (3D touch) interaction is all about. Their flagship product, the Novint Falcon, is a highly futuristic looking pod that allows motorized force feedback to simulate the experience of touching three-dimensional objects in virtual space.

As you can see from the pictures, three articulated arms attach to a center grip. Users move the grip much like a mouse, except in a vertical rather than horizontal orientation. By applying motorized resistance to the arms, highly developed software algorithms and some impressive engineering allow a user to experience a wide variety of stimuli that mimic many real world physical interactions.

For example, a Novint demo at E3 placed a three dimensional ball on screen, covered with a variety of lumps and bumps. The falcon grip controlled an on-screen hand that ran over the surface of the ball. As the hand went up and down over the lumps the resistance increased and decreased accordingly, which produced a rather believable sensation of touch. Another demo involved shoving a hand through a ball of goop. Movement was free and easy until touching the surface, at which point the resistance became much stronger as the hand penetrated the ball until it suddenly popped out the other side and once again became free. Another fun demo allowed users to draw back the string of a bow and arrow, with resistance becoming increasingly strong as the bow became taught. Arrow release resulted in the sudden disappearance of all resistance and an incredibly realistic sensation of the release of a great deal of physical tension.

The coolest part of the Novint demonstration was, of course, real gameplay. A Half-Life 2 mod has been developed to let the Novint Falcon control and interact with the game in amazing ways. Moving the grip in vertical space performed the same movement functions that a horizontal mouse would, but now the in-game physics of Half-Life 2 translate directly to real life. Picking up a box in game makes the Novint Falcon apply down force to the grip, effectively creating a truly realistic sensation of real-life weight. Hitting the wall with the crowbar resulted in a jarring-vibrating-jolt. The coolest part was gunfire. Each weapon in Half-Life 2 had a particular recoil effect. A shotgun blast produced a lurching balk on the Falcon, while automatic machine gun fire resulted in lighter repeated kicks as well as an upward pull, perfectly simulating real life barrel-rise in automatic firing.

Words can only do so much in describing something so intrinsically physical, but rest assured, the effects we experienced were extremely impressive. Even cooler is the fact that Novint seems to have a real understanding of what gamers will demand of their product. The grip, which is a door-knob looking bulb in the pictures, is easily removable, and can be swapped with any conceivable design, such as a pistol grip. Even better, Novint promises that the Falcon will launch in 2007 for less than $100.

Our hands-on experience with the Novint Falcon left us totally stoked and begging for more. We’ll follow this story through development as best we can, so stay tuned!

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I'm an accessibility advocate working on issues involving technology and people with print impairment. I'm a stoner, crackpot, hacker and all around decent fellow. I blog at this site and occasionally contribute to Skepchick. I'm a skeptic, atheist, humanist and all around left wing sort. You can follow this blog in your favorite RSS reader, and you can also view my Twitter profile (@gonz_blinko) and follow me there.

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