It took awhile for the bright, shiny luster to fade. At first, VR could do no wrong. I was so utterly entranced by the science fiction of virtual reality made real that literally anything and everything was so awe inspiring that any weaknesses or flaws were easily ignored. Even when little issues would arise, I was able to divert my attention from them with workarounds or just by reminding myself that the flatness of the non-VR world provided none of the visceral immersion of VR, and that minor difficulties in mobility and control were a small price to pay for the opportunity to race a Formula 1 car or fly a 747 down to a landing at San Francisco’s SFO. It was truly a golden era in my decades-long history of video gaming and simulations. When you consider that my first flight sim was the SubLogic Flight Simulator for the TRS-80 Model 1, well, we’ve come a long way.
As flight sims have pretty much always been my primary interest, it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that VR flight sims were both my most cherished titles and the most frustrating. With only three viable VR flight sim titles to choose from, and only one that works with my nVidia 1070 and is based on reality (relatively simplistic Aerofly FS2 works well, DCS is far too heavy, and VTOL VR is not realistic), I was able to fly in VR but it always felt like something important was lacking. Aerofly FS2 provided a good experience but lacked sufficient depth, and it was dependent on external controls such as a HOTAS setup and a set of rudder pedals. DCS had the complexity, but was unuseable at 20 frames per second. VTOL VR was the only one that was fully immersive (it needed no external controls—it’s flown entirely with the Touch controllers), but while it's great fun, it is cartoony and unrealistic.
What I really wanted was VR X-plane 11, but a Google search indicated that the only way to accomplish that was with a $30 add-on app that kind of forced it into a VR display. It wasn’t so much the $30 that dissuaded me, although I would be lying if I said it wasn’t a factor at all, but the concern that I would still be dependent on the mouse and keyboard for control input left me cold. If you have never used a VR headset, you may not appreciate the inherent difficulty in finding, much less using, either or both of the keyboard and mouse. It totally ruins the immersion to have to lift the headset to find the necessary peripherals.
Then, quite suddenly, Laminar Research did the unthinkable: they dropped a free update that included beta-level VR. True VR, mind you. Not only are the buttons, knobs, switches, and just about everything in the cockpit controllable with the Touch controllers, so are the flight controls. At first glance, this appeared to be the holy grail of VR flight sims, and I already owned it!
As always, though, it didn’t take long to happen across the fly hiding in the ointment. While I could grab the yoke of a Cessna 172 in one hand and operate the throttle with the other, there was no way to virtually control the rudder and steerable nose wheel. That was an unfortunate gap.
Quite conveniently, this was right around the time that it looked like I might get a chance to try my hand (well, feet) on a new controller called 3dRudder. While not designed for exclusive VR use, VR is likely to be the most common usage. Why? Well, because it replaces the joystick and/or mouse as a four-degrees-of-freedom game controller. It also keeps your hands free so you can still use the Touch (or Vive) controllers. It’s shaped like Captain America’s shield with the hollowed out inner portion filled up. The rounded part is the bottom and is shaped to allow the controller to pivot and lean, while the top, flat part is used for your feet to operate the controller.
It is configurable to allow the choice of which four of the six possible motions to move. If, for example, you wanted to replace a joystick in a flight sim, you would want to use the mode that rotates around the roll axis when you tilt the controller left or right with your feet. Alternatively, if you were in an FPS, or something like Elite Dangerous, you may opt to have the motions translate sideways or forward/backwards. That address two of the four degrees of freedom. The others are yaw, which is accomplished by rotating the disc in a circle, and up/down translation, which is (awkwardly) done by using your heels and toes on the 3dRudder.
For my purposes, I was mostly interested in yaw. When it comes to flying an airplane, yaw is controlled by the rudder pedals. Hence the name 3dRudder, right? It appeared that this might be a better solution for yaw control in X-plane than dragging out a set of rudder pedals. Or, for those that don’t have rudder pedals, the 3dRudder might be a better choice if 1) it worked at least close to as well as rudder pedals, and 2) if the user had other uses for it that couldn’t be performed with rudder pedals such as, say, the aforementioned Elite Dangerous which, being a spaceship and all, moves in all six dimensions.
I eagerly unboxed the 3dRudder from its above average packaging and began the installation of the admin tool from the URL printed on a little tag and taped to the top of the unit. That process was somewhat frustrating, though, in that the installation required that I remove a more recent update of the Microsoft C++ redistributable in order to install an older one, something I was not the least bit keen to do on a PC that I also use for software development. Actually, I was so not keen on it that you could almost say I was angry about it. Eh, skip the “almost.” I was angry.
Still, needs must and all that. I backed out the more recent update and proceeded with the install. Fortunately my in-work app still built, so I guess it worked out okay.
The same can’t be said of my hopes to use the 3dRudder in my sims/games. It’s not that the idea isn’t sound—I can see any number of legitimate uses for this thing. There were just a couple of problems with the implementation, although I want to hastily point out that the problems, at least to some degree, were mine.
First of all, and given that the yaw axis was the one most desirable to me, I found it to be very difficult to “spin” the 3dRudder on a carpeted floor. The bottom of the unit is covered with a soft rubber pad. This is presumably needed to offer some resistance on a hard floor, but on carpet it is an absolute failure. It isn’t an insurmountable problem, of course. The simple expedient of just plopping down a square piece of plywood helped tremendously. The exuberance of having solved a critical problem was short-lived, though. Although the 3dRudder pivoted far more easily on the solid surface of the plywood, I wasn’t finished with causing my own problems. When I finally got into the VR environment, specifically in X-plane, I found that I had two problems: first, my feet kept falling off of the controller. Second, while I had at least found an imperfect solution for rudder control with the 3dRudder, I had not solved for differential braking.
What's differential braking? Well, the rudder pedals in most airplanes also double as brake pedals. They act independently of each other to provide for differential braking, which simply means that the left brake and the right brake can be used individually. This is done to help steer the airplane while taxiing on the ground. In many light planes like the Cessna 172, moving the rudder also steers the nose wheel (although this appears to be broken in X-plane 11) and differential braking is only used to assist the nose-wheel steering. That said, the more modern trend in airplane design, at least with regards to smaller planes such as my RV-12, is to forgo the additional weight and complexity of a steerable nose-wheel in favor of a free-swiveling wheel. In those cases, differential braking is an absolute requirement. So, while I could use the 3dRudder to come to a stop on the ground, I could not steer. Between the twin issues of not being able to steer on the ground and my feet constantly slipping off of the controller in flight, I soon went back to using my rudder pedals.
All hope is not lost, though. Just recently 3dRudder (the company, not the controller) sent out a press release announcing that they will be showing a newer model, the 3dRudder Blackhawk, at the 2018 CES. This new model will include, amongst other improvements, foot restraints. They will also have retrofit kits available for a nominal charge to upgrade the current model.
Foot control was not the only problem I had. There was another problem, although it wasn’t too horrible in X-plane because a little noise around the dead zone is hardly noticeable, but in a few of the other applications I found that I couldn’t hold my feet still enough at rest to avoid accidental inputs. The admin tool provides for dead zone configuration, but deadening the dead zone causes a loss of precision when it’s needed. This too is addressed in the Blackhawk model with something they’re calling Active Dead Zone, but I’m not sure if that will also be retrofittable to the current model.
At the end of the day, if all I did was flight simming, the 3dRudder would most likely end up gathering dust in a corner of a room somewhere. This should not be construed as an indictment of the product, however. With a very good HOTAS and a set of merely adequate rudder pedals already in the house, I have superior alternatives in place that don’t require a ton of practice to get used to using. On the other hand (so to speak), I am talking about over $500 of gaming equipment whereas the 3dRudder retails for $139 and has far broader use cases than a HOTAS setup. In fact, there is at least one case wherein I found the HOTAS and the 3dRudder are very likely to be used together, and that is Elite Dangerous. The HOTAS is exemplary for three-dimensional control, plus thrusters. The 3dRudder will flesh that out with the ability to easily translate left/right and up/down, in addition to providing a yaw control. It would probably be helpful in VR FPS games as well, but I very much prefer to play those standing up.
While it is not a panacea, the 3dRudder definitely has the capability to improve your VR gaming experience in certain cases. With a newer version on the horizon, though, I wouldn't recommend picking one up quite yet. The press release indicated that the price of the newer unit is going to be very close to, if not equal to, the current price.
* The product in this article was sent to us by the developer/company.
I've been fascinated with video games and computers for as long as I can remember. It was always a treat to get dragged to the mall with my parents because I'd get to play for a few minutes on the Atari 2600. I partially blame Asteroids, the crack cocaine of arcade games, for my low GPA in college which eventually led me to temporarily ditch academics and join the USAF to "see the world." The rest of the blame goes to my passion for all things aviation, and the opportunity to work on work on the truly awesome SR-71 Blackbird sealed the deal.
My first computer was a TRS-80 Model 1 that I bought in 1977 when they first came out. At that time you had to order them through a Radio Shack store - Tandy didn't think they'd sell enough to justify stocking them in the retail stores. My favorite game then was the SubLogic Flight Simulator, which was the great Grandaddy of the Microsoft flight sims.
While I was in the military, I bought a Commodore 64. From there I moved on up through the PC line, always buying just enough machine to support the latest version of the flight sims. I never really paid much attention to consoles until the Dreamcast came out. I now have an Xbox for my console games, and a 1ghz Celeron with a GeForce4 for graphics. Being married and having a very expensive toy (my airplane) means I don't get to spend a lot of money on the lastest/greatest PC and console hardware.
My interests these days are primarily auto racing and flying sims on the PC. I'm too old and slow to do well at the FPS twitchers or fighting games, but I do enjoy online Rainbow 6 or the like now and then, although I had to give up Americas Army due to my complete inability to discern friend from foe. I have the Xbox mostly to play games with my daughter and for the sports games.