Each week Ross Rubin contributes Switched On, a column about the future of technology, multimedia, and digital entertainment:

 

If you purchase a Novint Falcon later this summer, your geekier friends may feel an unusual mixture of amazement and envy when they first see it. Where, they will wonder, did you score that Star Wars prop? When you break it to them that your new input device was not actually used in the iconic science fiction movie (despite sharing part of its name with Han Solo's ship), they may be a bit disappointed, but only until they use it

The Novint Falcon is one of the most promising PC interface peripherals to come along in years. The forward-facing base of the device resembles a cone from which sprouts three robotic arms that protrude and meet at a small vertical mount near its center. The mount can accommodate a variety of different controllers, one of which is a small doorknob-like grip. Novint explains, however, that others might include, for example, a trigger.



The three arms enable three degrees of freedom wherein PC users can naturally and fluidly navigate a 3D virtual space such as a basketball court, checkerboard or galaxy. With just a few minutes of usage, one can easily see how the controller would be a natural for god games and real-time strategy games, and it could be the controller of choice for Spore, Will Wright's forthcoming spin on evolution. Novint also caters to professionals needing to manipulate simulations, but one wonders what a native 3D spatial interface to the PC might look like were the Falcon to be embraced as the mouse was by the Macintosh development team.

Were the Falcom simply one of the most intuitive 3D controllers ever produced, that would be appealing enough, but the product also incorporates sophisticated haptics or advanced force-feedback. Navigate into a wall and the controller will stop. Navigate through dense, bumpy or slick services and you'll feel it slow down, vibrate or "slip." The Falcon could even generate a realistic "pull" as I tossed a virtual ball attached to a virtual rubber band around the screen. When I asked Novint if it was concerned about the haptic patents held by Immersion Corp. that have caused problems for Sony and its Dual Shock controller; a company executive was unfazed, claiming that Novint's patents were filed nine years before Immersion's and that its product operated in 3D as opposed to 2D.

The Novint Falcon is designed to sell for about $100 but will be closer to $150 at its debut as the company starts to build manufacturing scale. Much like Nintendo's Wii controller, games will have to be designed with it in mind in order to get its maximum benefit. Other than that, its only disadvantage is its desk real estate which, while larger than your average gamepad, is comparable to that of a steering wheel. If Novint can build developer support for its innovative controller, its Falcon should land on shelves only for a short time before flying off them.


Ross Rubin is director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group and a contributing editor for LAPTOP. Views expressed in Switched On are his own. Feedback is welcome at fliptheswitch@gmail.com.

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