I have been 'flying' home computer based flight simulators since the very first version became available in 1979. Back then I had a TRS-80 Model 1 with 16k RAM. The flight sim was the subLOGIC FS1 flight simulator. It was black & white, had a world of a whopping 36 square miles, and a framerate of 3 - 4 frames per second. Sound came from placing a transistor radio near the computer and picking up the interference from it. At the time it was quite sophisticated.
That program is the direct ancestor of today's Microsoft Century of Flight 2004. I've had every version between FS1 and FS2004. Each version has improved on graphics, framerate, sound, and realism. The later versions even went as far as providing true 3D cockpit environments (virtual cockpits) rather that 2D instrument panels placed in front of the 3D world. With the 2004 version. Microsoft has taken the PC-based flight sim just about as far as it can go. It downloads real-world weather from wherever you are flying to provide a realistic environment. It has interactive air traffic control. Every land mass and airport in the entire world are modeled. Frankly, it has too many amazing features to even hope to list here. But. There has always been this one, nagging 'but':
But no matter how complex these simulators become, they all have the same Achille's heel: tunnel vision. Peripheral vision is incredibly important in flying, as is the ability to look off to the sides of the plane, or to look down at the instrument panel. Because of the limiting scope of the computer monitor, visibility has always been lacking in PC-based flight sims. Recent versions would allow you to pan around and look up, down, left, right or wherever, but this required moving a switch on your control stick or yoke. In my case, the pan was too slow. Many times I just wanted to take a quick glance one way, then quickly return to looking somewhere else. The panning action was too slow to allow this, but if the panning speed was increased it became too twitchy and difficult to control. I was convinced that the PC was never going to be able to provide a realistic enough visual environment to be truly useful.
I was wrong.
I recently experienced PC-based flight simulation using the Natural Point's TrackIR 3 Pro device with the new Vector Expansion upgrade. This incredible gadget translates my real-world head motion into a full six degrees of freedom in the virtual PC cockpit. I simply could not believe the difference this made in the utility of the flight sim. With this device I can now do things such as glance to the side to get a look at the runway while on base leg to landing, circle around a landmark and take a good look at it, glance down to check airspeed while on approach to landing, all while maintaining full control of the plane. With six degrees of freedom available, I found that I could even 'lean' around an obstruction such as the control yoke to see the instrument behind it. If the instrument was too far away to see clearly, I could 'lean' forward for a closer look. All of this movement comes to you naturally at some point (NaturalPoint - get it?) in your learning curve, and you just forget you're even wearing the thing. It's amazing! It's difficult to describe this, so I suggest visiting NaturalPoint.com and taking a look at some of the demo movies they have available. That said, it is incumbent on me as the reviewer to do the best I can to describe this experience, so here goes.
Installation is a natural topic to start with. The installation itself is quite easy. The first step is, as usual, to install the drivers provided on a CD-ROM. The physical installation is as simple as plugging the device into an open USB port, placing the reflector on the included baseball cap, and running the configuration program. A note of warning here: the default settings may not be to your liking, so please take the time to learn how to re-configure the settings to your taste. The problem I had was that the default settings were far too responsive. If you think about it, it's obvious that in order to provide a wide field of view, the device is going to have to magnify your head movements. For example, in the default settings moving my head about 20 degrees to the side results in a virtual head movement of 180 degrees. Until you train yourself to be very cognizant of every head movement, you will probably find this to be quite disconcerting. It is a simple matter, however, so re-configure the device to make much smaller movements. I've found that limiting my side-to-side movement (this is the "yaw" axis in the configuration tool) to 90 degrees each way has made the movement feel much more natural and easier to manage. Note that the included documentation didn't really help me with learning this, but the FAQs in the support area on NaturalPoint's web site were a great help. I found that I was by no means alone in wanting to restrict the movements to a more manageable level, so it was easy to find the explanations I needed.
Once installed and configured, it's simply a matter of launching the game/sim you want to use. No configuration will be required within the game. It just works. You will want to become acquainted with the re-center key, though. Through time and extreme head movements, the device and/or game can become confused as to where the center is. The corrective action is to simply look straight at the monitor and press the re-center key, which by default is F12.
During the course of my familiarization with the TrackIR, I tried all facets of flight simulation. I tried small general aviation planes and found great improvement in my ability to 'see' my surroundings. I tried heavy metal commercial flight, and found that the benefits gained from the TrackIR were mostly came from my increased ability to scan the instrument panel while still monitoring the outside world. These were both awesome improvements to the sim world, but nothing compared to what I found when I knocked an inch of dust off of Combat Flight Sim 3 and booted it up. I have always been frustrated by combat sims because it's just too darned hard to keep a bogey in sight. Not anymore! Padlock views, fake radar, enemy location indicators: all a thing of the past! Update your TrackIR configurations to give yourself 120 degrees or so on either side and you will now be able to lock on to your target and keep him in view as you twist and turn through the sky trying to get a shot at him. I'm not exaggerating when I say that using the TrackIR will make any air combat sim an order of magnitude better.
Having spent the better part of a week testing the TrackIR on flight sims, I decided it was time to take the TrackIR to the track. I've had racing sims for just about as long as I've had flight sims, and while they don't suffer from the lack of peripheral vision or freedom of view as much as flight sims, there are still times when you want to be able to look to the sides. Recent sims like Nascar SimRacing, F1 Championship, and GTR have a feature that kinda sorta helps with this: you can configure them to turn your virtual head in response to steering wheel inputs. The TrackIR makes this a more natural and predictable movement. While the enhanced realism of having your virtual head follow the movements of your real head is neat, I found that it didn't really improve my racing nearly to the degree that it did my flight simming. It was helpful in looking to the side to see if another car was next to me, which is important, but not essential. While the TrackIR rapidly became an essential and required adjunct to my flight sims, I don't think I would trade in my force feedback steering wheel in favor of the TrackIR for racing sims if I had to choose one or the other. To me, racing sims are more tactile that visual when it comes to precise control. In other words, when it comes right down to it I could race without the TrackIR if I had to, but I will never fly without it again.
In looking at the list of supported games, it's obvious that NaturalPoint's initial targets were flight and racing sims. The next logical step would be to first person shooters like Half-Life 2 or my current favorite: Brothers in Arms - Road to Hill 30. NaturalPoint has a forum on their web site where users can make suggestions, and it's clear that there is a lot of interest in expanding into this realm. Based on some responses from the NaturalPoint developers, it's not as easy as simply enabling the game to detect the device. There apparently are a number of conflicting opinions as to how best to implement the head movements such as whether head movement should aim the weapon, or whether it should be independent of weapon movement. For whatever it's worth, I would choose the latter. That would require some serious development effort on the part of the game developer, though, and it may be difficult to justify the development cost considering the relative minority of TrackIR users in the overall target market. I suspect it is inevitable, though, since the cost of the TrackIR unit should eventually come down, and the FPS market will become increasingly competitive and reward differentiation from the pack.
Bottom line: if you enjoy flight sims, the TrackIR is a must-have device. If you're big into racing, it may or may not be as essential, but it certainly won't hurt. For you FPS mavens, keep an eye open for TrackIR support in the next-gen versions. You won't be disappointed!
Companies: Natural Point
Just when you thought there was nothing new under the sun in the gaming industry, NaturalPoint has upgraded the TrackIR head tracking device to allow a full six degrees-of-freedom, making it a must-have for flight sims.