Alternative Input Devices at E3

(This article first appeared in the May 22, 2006 issue of Jon Peddie’s TechWatch)

While the big hit of E3 was undoubtedly the Nintendo Wii and its unique and innovative game controllers, never let it be said that there isn’t someone else out there willing to build and offer a better mouse or other input device. And, as is usual at E3, the most interesting of these new devices were to be found in the exhibit “dungeon” of E3, also known as Kentia Hall.

Novint Falcon

Perhaps the most novel new input device (other than that of the Nintendo Wii) I found was the Novint Falcon (see image below), a 3D haptic input device a bit reminiscent of some sort of alien beast from a futuristic first-person shooter. To use the Falcon, you grab the round handle on the front and move it around. Each of the three arms of the Falcon is connected to electrical motors, which can each, individually, create a force on the handle. In combination, the force can be generated in any direction and at any magnitude (up to a certain maximum).


The Novint Falcon is a haptic input device that provides both force feedback and tactual sensation.

In demonstrations that Novint provided, the haptic response of the Falcon was quite realistic as I moved a ball cursor around a bumpy sphere and in and out of a gelatin surface. For gaming, the device can be used to simulate gun recoil (the handle has several buttons on it for use as mouse button substitutes) or feel walls and surfaces in the “dark” (think “Doom 3” or “F.E.A.R.”).

Novint’s goal is to be able to have the Falcon in gamers’ hands by 2007 for a retail price of under $99 for the USB version. That’s ambitious for a device of this complexity, when one considers standard retail channel multipliers. The Falcon is certainly innovative, but unless haptic support APIs become a standard feature that games utilize, there’s not much hope the device will be a gamer’s mainstay. But it sure is a cool device (www.novint.com).

XKPad’s Bodypad

Not being one for strenuous exercise, nor for fighting games, I did not spend much time with the Bodypad from XKPad (see image below), but it certainly promises to offer a very intense workout. In addition to strap-on wireless sensors for one’s limbs, there are button controls one holds in one’s fists that can be used to simulate pressing buttons on a typical game controller. By moving one’s limbs (or flailing them, in my case), signals are sent to the receiver, which parses them into controller signals and sends them to an attached PS2 or Xbox console. Cost is around €50, and it is available now from XKPad in France as well as certain on-line outlets (www.bodypad.com).


For those looking for a serious workout playing fighting games, the Body Pad might do the trick.

Sandio Game O’

And yes, there may be a better mouse, or at least that’s what the principals of Sandio Technology are hoping. The Sandio Game O’ (yes – that single

quote is part of the name) is a 3D gaming mouse. Built around an optical mouse core, the Game O’ adds a couple of additional buttons, as well as three joysticks/thumbsticks to the mouse – one on the left, one on the right, and one in front (see image below). Using the driver software for the Game O’, the user configures a joystick-to-keyboard translation. For example, the left joystick (which is a thumbstick for those of us who are righthanded) can be mapped to the traditional W-A-S-D keys used to move one’s FPS character forward, backward, left, and right.

Sandio is promoting the Game O’ as a 6DOF mouse, and I suppose if games supported real 6DOF input, the Game O’ could certainly be used for that purpose. But, the reality is that most games only require basic movement in one plane (forward/backward and strafe left/right), plus rotation in two planes (turn left/right and look up/down). Roll (which would be rotation about the view axis) is not a commonly used or required movement in games I am familiar with.


The Sandio 6DOF mouse features three thumbsticks in addition to normal mouse functionality.

In playing a bit of “Unreal 2004 Tournament” with the Game O’ I can certainly see how the device could be useful. In fact, with the Game O’, it’s possible to completely stop using the keyboard for game input, but it requires your dominant hand to be very agile.

The Game O’ should be shipping later this year for a price comparable to a high-end 2D mouse (www.sandiotech.com).

Splitfish dualFX

I first saw and played with the Splitfish dualFX PS2 controller (see photo below) at CES in January. It features a two-piece design that seems somewhat similar to Nintendo’s Wii controllers, even to the point where the righthand controller has a laser you point at the screen for character movement and targeting. However, there is no tilt sensing.

While the tooling is smoother than in January’s prototype, I still had issues using the laser pointer as my guidance device – perhaps because the controller’s thumbstick was too convenient to continue using, since that is what I am used to.


The Splitfish dualFX PS2 controller.

The gun trigger design for firing (replacing the PS2’s R1 button) was comfortable, and I found if I used the dualFX as a replacement PS2 controller and ignored the laser pointing, it felt pretty natural, and in some ways even better than a regular PS2 controller because my hands no longer needed to be wedged together.

The dualFX should ship in June. Retail pricing was not available (www.splitfish.com).

GestureTek

My kids enjoy the EyeToy on the Sony PS2, and were overjoyed when I told them that there would be a similar piece of hardware coming from Microsoft at the end of the year. That’s the Xbox Live Vision Camera. While no doubt there will be EyeToy-like games for the new Xbox camera, one thing that Microsoft has done differently is to license APIs and software from Canadian company GestureTek.


GestureTek’s technology will enable the Xbox 360’s forthcoming Xbox Live Vision camera to perform a wide range of functions including face tracking, as demonstrated here by Francis MacDougall, co-founder of GestureTek.

Those APIs allow a camera embedded or attached to a device to be used as an alternate input device, detecting motion and location of objects as a form of input. In addition to the well-known hand-waving form of camera input, however, the GestureTek technology includes both face tracking (see photo above), as well as delta motion detection. For the latter, I was given a demonstration in which the camera in a camera phone could be used as the basis for a joystick for a mobile game. Simply tilting the phone in any direction would cause appropriate input and motion in the game, and it was all done detecting direction of tilt optically via the camera.

More interesting was the suggestion that Microsoft was considering using the face-tracking technology as an input in games like “Halo 3”, but in subtle ways, such as tracking a player’s face to see if the player was trying to peek around a corner to see what might be there (and if you ever play FPS games, you will know that they require a certain amount of body English) and then simulating that action in the game. I am certainly looking forward to this and other innovative uses of visual input technology (www.gesturetek.com).

Microsoft

And speaking of Microsoft, while they were not in Kentia Hall, the company did introduce a new input device for the Xbox 360, in addition to the aforementioned Xbox camera. To complement the forthcoming racing game, “Forza Motorsport 2”, Microsoft will offer the Xbox 360 Wireless Racing Wheel, which features a steering wheel, gas and brake pedals, and a table mount (see photo below). While the wheel apparently

does provide some sort of force feedback, I was told that to use that you would want to plug it into a power source, otherwise the battery would drain very quickly. No price was announced, but it will be available in the fourth quarter of 2006 (www.xbox.com).


Microsoft’s forthcoming Xbox 360 Wireless Racing Wheel with pedal on left, and table mount (not a stick shift) on right.

Also of Note:


Sony’s EyeToy for PS3 offers an alternate input device. Here, a new card game, “The Eye of Judgment”, is demonstrated. Note you can see the demonstrator’s hand in the image on the monitor, overlaid by the system’s interpretation of the cards on the board.