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Tactile tech lets users 'feel' the game

An Albuquerque, N.M.-based company has created a sub-$100 PC game controller that allows players to ‘feel’ the game as they play it. But widespread adoption of the sleek Falcon depends on developers creating games that require its technology.
The Novint Falcon is based on existing professional haptic devices like this large, high-end controller, designed and manufactured by Swiss maker Force Dimension. This controller can cost up to $48,000 and is sold to research institutions.
The Novint Falcon is based on existing professional haptic devices like this large, high-end controller, designed and manufactured by Swiss maker Force Dimension. This controller can cost up to $48,000 and is sold to research institutions. Businessweek
/ Source: BusinessWeek Online

In 2002, Tom Anderson, chief executive of Novint Technologies, was awaiting the birth of his son, Will. At the time, Novint was developing software for use with haptic devices—controllers that allow the user to feel weight, shape, texture, and other tactile qualities of objects in a digital image. Specifically, Novint was creating the algorithms to extract tactile data from MRIs, CAT scans, and other types of medical imaging so they could be used with state-of-the-art haptic peripherals.

A visit to the obstetrician with his wife served as the unlikely inspiration for the new direction of his company. When Anderson saw the 3-D sonogram of their baby, he realized Novint could create a tactile representation of the infant, too. Mathematically, the data used in an ultrasound are similar to those of an MRI or CAT scan. Soon, the Novint team had adapted its volumetric and tactile software—based on algorithms licensed from Sandia National Laboratories, where Anderson had worked as a scientist—to produce a textured representation of the baby.

"I could touch Will's skin and feel the difference of textures between my son's nose and my wife's amniotic fluid," Anderson says. "It was a neat experience for a parent." (Going one step further, he imagined creating "contemporary versions of bronzed baby boots"—keepsake 3-D sculptures based on the sonograms. He formed a subdivision of the company called Novint Sono to create Baby Light Gems, 3-D glass cubes of infants' likenesses sculpted with ultrasound imagery.)

At the time, Anderson had no solid plans to develop a consumer hardware device. The haptic peripherals on the market cost too much, their five-figure price tags reflecting the intricate system of motors and robotic arms.

But one year later, Anderson came across a controller produced by Swiss company Force Dimension. While most controllers at the time featured robotic arms sometimes nearly as large as adult human limbs, Force Dimension's model was small enough for desktop use. Priced at $17,800, the device was intended for institutions, but Anderson felt if he could get the cost down, the device had potential in the video-gaming market.

Anderson now faced a huge design challenge: how to transform the high-end device into a mainstream one, retaining the functionality and easy-to-use form factor as well as driving down the cost. He aimed to offer the PC peripheral for about $100.

He enlisted Lunar Design, the Palo Alto (Calif.) company whose clients include Apple, Hewlett-Packard, Microsoft, Motorola, Palm, Pepsi, and Sony. "Functionality drove the final look of the Falcon," says Jeff Smith, chief executive of Lunar. "This is a mechanical device, after all. We designed with the idea that the sense of touch is more important than even the aesthetics of the controller."

The Falcon has three robotic arms, a base that houses the "guts," or motors, that drive the controller's movements, and a handle with a round, ball-like grip, called an end effector. The handle can be fitted with different grips, such as one that feels like a gun trigger. The design resembles that of the original Force Dimension controller, but with lighter, less expensive materials.

In terms of engineering, the single, powerful motor of the original was replaced with a series of smaller, inexpensive motors. To retain the original's desktop-friendly size, the designers configured the unit's three arms so that they would fold neatly inward when not in use.

With its alien-like silhouette and haptic technology, the Falcon represents a fresh direction in PC game peripherals. But the PC-game controller market has seen its share of radically new devices make their debuts in the last two decades—and some analysts feel skeptical about the market potential for yet another one.

"Game developers might be leery, because the game will be limited to only those consumers who own the new controller," says video game analyst David Cole of DFC Intelligence.

For a brief period in the 1980s, noncomputer-game maker Milton Bradley sold the Expansion System for the Texas Instruments TI-99/4A computer, for example, which featured a then-new 360-degree joystick for PC gaming. In 1996, Microsoft released its Sidewinder line of PC controllers, which each year offered new features, such as a voice-microphone system. In 2003, it was discontinued due to slowing sales.

"It's best to take a wait-and-see attitude when predicting how a new PC controller might sell," says Cole. "Most developers would prefer the widest customer base, so this makes it hard to establish a nonstandard controller."

But Anderson says games aren't the only application for Novint's Falcon. "The video game market is just the first market to go after," he says. The strategy, Anderson explains, is to use the gaming market to generate buzz and—when the Falcon hits the shelves in early 2007—revenues that will fund research and development for future uses in other areas of entertainment as well as training and education.

For instance, Anderson imagines interactive on-screen toys such as "a 3-D animated doll or building blocks that children can touch and feel," and also suggests that the Falcon might be used within online communities such as Second Life. Outside of the entertainment world, he sees potential for touch-sensitive simulations for use in training in a range of fields from mechanics to medicine.

These projected applications won't see realization for years. Near-term, Novint must succeed in the game market, which isn't a given. The company is dependent on developers to create the PC games that will require its technology.

Plus, the Falcon isn't the only new controller with innovative features to debut in coming months. Although designed for consoles rather than PCs, Nintendo's Wii and Sony's PS3 controllers will hit shelves by the end of 2006, offering motion-sensitive, next-generation devices for console gamers. Such controllers suggest significant competition for the Falcon, even if they represent different platforms. Moreover, the PC game market is dwindling compared to the console market.

According to industry researcher NPD, sales of console software grew 3 percent last year, while PC software sales dropped 10.5 percent from the previous year. So the biggest challenge for Novint may require more than luring game developers, designers, and gamers toward its controller—a daunting enough triple-hurdle. The biggest task might be to convince gamers that the console hasn't killed PC gaming.