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GamesFirst! Magazine

A Tale of Two Peripherals

Many peripherals employ new technology to enhance players' gaming experience. We'll take a look at two recent offerings, one that uses motion as a control mechanism and another that uses force feedback sound.  Frustrating or enhancing you ask?  Read on and we'll give you the lowdown on what you can expect from these two very different products. 

The idea of adding simple-to-use controls that let you map key commands to buttons, knobs, dials, and other goodies is nothing new. Many joysticks, in particular Saitek's X36, have dozens of little programmable gadgets. Some items, like Saitek's Action Pad and PC Dash Graphic Command Pad, QuickShot's MasterPilot, and Microsoft's SideWinder Strategic Commander, exist for the sole purpose of their programmable buttons and controls.

The first of two peripherals we’ll look at is from Cybernet and is aptly called UseYourHead. Cybernet introduces an intriguing idea: why not find a way to track head movements, many of which may be natural reactions to in-game stimuli, and let players use those motions to control their characters? Gamers could use such technology to look around in flight sims, and you could program your POV hat for something else. In first-person shooter titles, you could use it to lean around corners, look around, move, dodge, etc.

UseYourHead is a 4MB program that installs to Windows 98 or Me. You can adjust overall sensitivity and move the threshold--how far you have to turn or nod for the motion to be recognized--for each direction. UseYourHead recognizes up, down, left, and right motions, and through the use of the profiler/launcher portion of the interface you can map those motions to key commands for specific games. Theoretically, customized head-activated commands can be set to repeat, enter constant input, or act as a single key press until the command is reactivated. You can also adjust how much of the CPU you wish to dedicate to UseYourHead; the more of the CPU's time it uses, the more accurate it should be—and the less CPU time is available to the game.

We tested UseYourHead with multiple games and under a variety of lighting conditions; results were uniformly infuriating. At times, it didn't seem to track head movement at all, and at other times it would register a specific motion and refuse to let up. All too often, my shirt and neck got confused with my face, even under high contrast lighting and with a dark shirt on. Straining my head up to register an "up" command, it would track my chin, then neck, and finally my shirt; the tracking point rarely reached the "up" threshold. I had better results with "down" tracking by leaning, rather than pivoting, my head.

After fiddling with the settings I jumped straight into a game of Unreal Tournament and promptly got slaughtered. I found that the only way to make the software even remotely useable was to permanently tip my head forward (to move the character forward) and control all other movement with the mouse. Tweaking the sensitivity and the deadzone sliders even more, the software either becomes very unresponsive or way too sensitive for you to be able to control it well, and it is always almost totally unpredictable. Either way you're going to end up with a sore neck if you use it for more than 10 minutes. The system is impractical and immensely difficult to use for even a few short minutes and if anyone manages to use it for over an hour will need the assistance of a chiropractor (not included).

In the end, UseYourHead demands the utter antithesis of natural motion. Even if the tracking were totally accurate, when you glance down to look at the keyboard, or look left or right to consult a quick reference guide, the motion would affect your game. Hardly the definition of intuitive. And the fact that UseYourHead isn't accurate only complicates matters. I can’t help but think of Steve Martin’s initial foray into cinema, the 1979 classic The Jerk. Remember that device his character Navin R. Johnson invented—the Opti-Grab? Designed to keep glasses from slipping down your nose, it turned out to be a disaster that cost Navin his fortune. There’s a lesson to be learned there…

The other peripheral we’ll examine looks like it was designed back in the seventies because of it's bulkiness—the RumbleFX from Evergreen Technologies introduces force-feedback sound to gamers and works both on PC and console systems. The reason the headphones look like they’re from the seventies is because the design is quite substantial—although you could, you probably won’t plug these babies into your portable MP3 player. They’re that big.

The way the RumbleFX Force Feedback headphones work is by utilizing a Digital Signal Processor to capture low frequency signals when the force feedback function is engaged. Included in the headphones are transducers that convert the low frequency signals into vibrations. We’re told that there’s a miniature subwoofer inside the headphones—perhaps partially explaining the physical scale!

Using the RumbleFX is a snap—they plug into any stereo mini-jack and come with a " adapter that allows them to be used in full-sized audio components as well. In order to take full advantage of the force feedback potential, you’ll need to pop a couple AAA batteries (included) into a small controller wired into the headphones. This controller has three modes: OFF, Level I and Level II. In the OFF position, force feedback is disengaged and doesn’t draw power from the batteries. Level I has a moderate effect and level II maximizes the force feedback qualities.

Our testing has shown that this elegantly simple peripheral regularly performs quite well. For instance, when we fired up Motocross Madness 2, a great benchmark for force feedback, we found that the sound was intense, particularly when we were soaring by a train. Man, that train was loud, and there was no way it could sneak up on us! Other ambient sounds were amplified, but not to the extent of that big old train. Then we loaded Unreal Tournament to see if we could more easily detect opponent movement with audio assistance. Unfortunately, that didn’t happen. The footsteps that were amplified were ours! That, and the background music was exaggerated. The RumbleFX seems to be particularly adept at enhancing drum machines—not particularly helpful in a FPS, but great for enjoying the hip-hop intro to Madden or NBA Live.

Don’t get me wrong, these are very nice headphones. At a MSRP of $59.99, the RumbleFX seems like a really good deal and will definitely come in handy when you’re playing games and those around you don’t want to experience the audio sensations associated with your game of choice. These are good headphones that really bump the low frequencies with a hearty bass. It’s just that they are almost too simple and lack the ability to be programmed in any way, shape, or form. Without the ability to prioritize sounds, like diminishing background music and enhancing explosions or footsteps, they’re limited to dealing with low-frequency sounds over all others—good for all-purpose vibrations but not so great for strategic decisions.

The UseYourHead controller and RumbleFX force feedback headphones are innovative products designed to enhance your gaming experience. Ultimately, they both come up short for entirely different reasons—UseYourHead is too finicky and literally painful after only a brief session and the RumbleFX sounds good but totally lacks the ability to be programmed. In the end, I’m encouraged that companies such as Cybernet and Evergreen are exploring and experimenting with new applications of technology to aid the gaming experience. If either of these semm interesting to you, then by all means give ‘em a try. Just don’t get your hopes up too much and realize that not every idea is a good idea. And stay away from the Opti-Grab.

Al Wildey

 

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