Joystiq E3 Hands-on: Novint's Falcon controller

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Joystiq E3 Hands-on: Novint's Falcon controller

You make your way down the hallway in City 17, and push open the door into the bright sunlight reflected off of concrete. A Combine soldier stands before you, so you life your semiautomatic weapon, and as you pull the trigger and fire, the gun recoils in your hand. Another Combine stands across the viaduct, and when he fires at you, you feel the bullet strike you from the left, so you turn, and feel the gun jump in your hand again as you take him out.

That's the ideal experience with Novint's Falcon controller. The controller itself is about an eight inch orb that sits on your table, with a three-inch sphere sitting on the end of three arms coming off of it -- like a Soviet satellite sticking out of the globe. The idea is that you push the little sphere around to move your cursor, and the three arms provide resistance against whatever you bump up against. We got to use the controller at E3, and the verdict is that while it does provide a nice experience, the costs might be a little overwhelming for most players. More after the jump.

The Falcon technology behind the Falcon was actually developed in a laboratory -- it was originally designed to be used for medical applications, as well as sold out to oil and vehicle manufacturing companies for different applications (see Update). But, as the PR rep from Novint told us, the company's founder somehow felt that the gaming market would be more the place for it (either that, or the aforementioned medical and manufacturing industries decided it wasn't their thing either). Whatever the backstory, nowadays the Falcon is used to control videogames, something it actually does a pretty good job at.

We were first shown a demo piece of software, with all of the various applications of the Falcon's feedback mechanism on display. On screen, there was a 3D metal ball, with all kinds of dents and textures on it, and there was a hand cursor that could be controlled with the Falcon. And sure enough, as we moved the cursor over the ball, and "rubbed" the textured globe, we could feel the various indentations in it. It was a strange sensation -- something virtual made real. We were also shown an iced globe (the cursor felt as though it slid right off of the ball when we pushed against it), and one "made of molasses" (so that wherever the cursor pushed through the ball in 3D space, it slowed down and gave resistance).

Finally, the best demo we were shown was the last -- a small circular ball weight was attached to our cursor on screen, and in the controls, we could feel the weight of that ball pushing against it. As we swung the controller around, it responded in kind, as if we really were flinging a heavy yo-yo around. As it sits on the table, the controller is impressively stable -- the PR rep told us that as hard as we pushed against a surface in game, we'd never be able to move the controller, and though we pushed with all of our E3 Red Bull and various junk-food enthused might, the controller stood firm in providing resistance against us. It really is an amazing piece of equipment.

It's just too bad it's not quite fit for prime time. After seeing the impressive demo, we were ready to get our hands on with the Falcon in a real game, and so Half Life 2 was loaded up for us to play and try. The game did feel like the description above -- the gun does recoil in your hand, and you can feel which direction you're being shot from. But none of the texture or weight effects come into play here, and the game is not fundamentally different -- at least not different enough that it's worth paying the $189 price for the controller.

And the cost isn't only financial -- just to get the controller running with certain games will take a bit of time and work. The Half Life 2 mod is available from the Novint website (and supposedly straight from a piece of launcher software called Nvent that comes with the controller), but we took a look at the options screen, and while it's super complicated (a dream for anyone who wants to experiment with a "3D haptics" controller), that makes it not very easy to get it working exactly the way you want it to. And forget about getting it running with an unsupported game -- while Novint says they're working with EA, Codemasters, and a number of other companies, and they say they've got some really great ideas for others (they want to get a "spell gesture" system working for games like World of Warcraft), almost none of it is available at the time of this writing.

In short, it's hardly a simple or easy experience. There's a lot of potential here -- that demo was very impressive, and the Falcon seems like an ingenious piece of design. And there is some software to be had, at pretty outrageous prices, on their website. But until Novint gets software developers putting out quality Falcon-specific games (or, at the very least, gets existing games to easily and simply use the Falcon hardware), the controller isn't much more than a $189 demo, and definitely nothing even the most hardcore of PC gamers will want to spend their money on.

Update: Novint provided this on the background of the Falcon: "The technology for the Falcon was developed by Sandia National Laboratory, not the hardware. The software applications have been used by various companies including Lockheed Martin, Chrysler, Chevron, Mobil, Aramco, and Harvard University. Based in Albuquerque, New Mexico, Novint has an exclusive worldwide license to over five years of pioneering research from Sandia National Laboratories, which developed some of the first 3D touch software in the world, and has developed the only low-cost (sub $1000) high-fidelity hardware solution available for consumer or commercial applications." So the technology was developed in a lab, but the actual controller was developed via a license from Novint. Our apologies for the misunderstanding.
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