Eye of the eagle, claw of the falcon
So, the first question on your mind has got to be; what exactly is the Novint Falcon? I admit, my first page wasn’t massively descriptive and the pictures aren’t very helpful if you aren’t familiar with the device. It could be anything from a remote control for a robot to a bizarre 'adult' toy. Thankfully, I don’t have to review the latter.
The Novint Falcon is, at its core, a gaming peripheral and input device. It sits on your desk, the arm/tentacles facing forwards, and you use it to control your game by grabbing the knob at the front and moving it around.
What makes the Novint Falcon stand out though is how
it moves around. Unlike a mouse, the device actually stays in one place and it’s the grip that users hold onto which moves around on three separate axes.
In layman's terms, that means that it can move left and right, up and down and forwards and backwards. The only thing it can’t do is twist – which admittedly feels a bit odd, but we'll talk about that a bit more later on.
The grip that players hold is interchangeable and is attached to the main body via three motorised arms, each of which has numerous hinges on it for increased movement. These motors serve a dual purpose and can both feel what players are doing and also react the input.
Click to enlarge
The effect is a lot simpler than the description thankfully and, apart from a few nuances, you’ll find yourself picking up and playing with the Falcon semi-intuitively. You basically put your hand on the controller and, depending on the game, use it to interact with the world around you. If you push the knob up then your character will look up. Turn it left to look left. Use the buttons on top to move, shoot and turn and push the knob forwards to reach out and perform melee attacks.
That’s the most basic use of the Novint Falcon and the easiest to understand. It actually gets a lot more complex than that and it was the innovations I’m about to detail next which really impressed me about the Falcon.
It’s all in the motors. As I said, not only does each arm have its own motor which can react separately, but complex games can be coded using the HaptX Physics engine to communicate with those motors individually to pull off some magnificently cool effects. Think of it as an intelligent force feedback, but much better than the phrase lets on.
The easiest way to talk about it is to tell the story of how I got used to using the Falcon. It came in two or three separate boxes which were a lot larger than anything I usually get in the post, so we unpacked the device and set it up on a spare desk. Everything plugged in, we flicked on the tutorial.
The first demo is a smooth ball which appears on the screen. The cursor changes into a hand and players are encouraged to reach out and play with their ball. I grabbed the Falcon and reached out – the on-screen hand moving perfectly to reflect my motions. Up is up, forward is forward, and so on. I touched the ball...literally.
Click to enlarge
By reaching out with the Falcon I was able to actually feel the ball in front of me. The game simply tells the Falcon where the ball is and what shape it is and the motors respond by offering resistance in those places. I ran my hand around the ball, feeling each and every part of it and watching my on-screen hand do the same. It really is an oddly awe-inspiring experience.
Richard and some of our ex-cohorts
tried their hands at it too. Everyone was impressed and the sentiment only got better as I skipped us on to the next test area – the same ball to feel but with a multitude of different textures. By telling the motors about the texture of the ball it’s possible for them to replicate the actual surface texture of the ball.
Sure enough, when the ball looked bumpy it felt
bumpy. One motor turns on, one turns off, one gives a kick and the final result is that you can feel the craterous surface of the ball. A new texture kicks in and this time the motors let you move your hand through the ball but offer a huge amount of resistance and stickiness – instantly you know what it feels likes to push your fist through a ball of honey. The motors supply acceleration and your hand feels like it just glossed over a snowball.
The motors also let the Novint simulate some other types of tactile sensation – feelings of weight can be simulated by making the motors push down when the player lifts up.
That’s all just in tech demos too – now we’ll move on and look at how the Novint Falcon can affect gameplay in proper game scenarios.