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Interview with Tom Anderson of Novint

Date: May 22, 2007
Author(s): Greg King

Over the past few years, one of the most interesting pieces of hardware that we have looked at has been the Falcon from Novint. Originally seen at the 2006 GDC in San Jose, the Falcon instantly grabbed our attention with not only its unique design, but more importantly, the features that made it unquestionably original.



Introduction


What the Falcon does is essentially allow the user to “feel” objects in a game through a hand piece, called a grip, that sits in front of the body of the device. Connected to three servo controlled arms, the grip is equipped with 4 buttons and can remarkably be moved not only side to side and front to back but also up and down as well.

With this full range of motion and the software controlled servo motors, programmers can now give any object in a program a haptic or touch value. This value can give water an accurate resistance when an object is moving through it just as it can give a sheet of ice its slippery feel when moving across it. It’s these examples that we saw firsthand in our test drive of the Falcon at the GDC in 2006 as well as CES this past January.

Founded in 2000, Novint has only recently turned their attention to the hardware side of things. Prior to the Falcon, Tom Anderson and his team’s primary focus was on designing the software used to drive the top dollar hardware in scientific, military, mechanical and medical simulators.

When they felt the time was right, Mr. Anderson and Walter Aviles (Novint’s CTO and VP of engineering) started development of the Falcon. Named after the bird of prey that hunts and feeds off of mice, the name is a clever one and clearly points out what Novint is looking to do with the device.

Since CES, Novint has announced a limited edition version of the Falcon, which offers an extra hand grip made out of transparent plastic as well as a $50 discount for those who pre-order the setup. With the announcement of a pre-order and a limited edition version of the Falcon, Novint quickly exhausted their stock.

The initial shipments of Falcons are set to go out on the 18th of June and with that date quickly approaching, Techgage was able to steal half an hour of Novint CEO Tom Anderson’s time and ask him a few questions and to see where he saw things going. Conducted by phone, this is what Mr. Anderson had to say.

Techgage: The Falcon’s primary advantage over other PC peripherals is that its approach uses haptics. For those who might be unfamiliar with this technology, could you please explain what it is and how it applies to the Falcon?

Tom Anderson: In essence, haptics is simply the sense of touch. With the Falcon, we are using haptics to give the user a true sense of a three dimensional environment in which they can actually interact and feel their surrounding in a game.

The Falcon provides detailed 3D touch by accurately keeping track of the cursor on the screen by using not only the X and Y axis, but the Z axis as well.

TG: Pre-orders began a few months ago and have since sold out. Are you able to give us a number of how many original units were up for grabs initially?

TA: While I cannot provide any exact numbers, we are working closely with our manufacturer in China to re-supply our inventory so we can keep up with demand for the Falcon.

TG: When compared to a regular gamer’s mouse, the Falcon has a lower DPI. Is there a reason for this?

TA: First off, the comparison between the Falcon and your everyday mouse isn’t exactly an accurate one. In games such as HL2, when using the Falcon, the scaling rate can by adjusted to the needs of the individual gamer and the use of force feedback and a combination of mouse control and joystick control in different regions of the workspace, we believe, will make it more powerful than a mouse.

In our experience with the Falcon, Rob and I both played around with the it in Half Life 2, there wasn’t any noticeable difference in cursor speed. The only significant difference between using a mouse and a Falcon, aside form the obvious use of Haptic, is that when using Novint’s device, when the player reached the side of the screen, there was a slight rumble in the hand set but the screen continued to rotate in the direction the player was moving.

TG: With its detachable hand piece, the Falcon appears to be ideal for attachments. Do you have plans to release any add-ons in the near future such as a pistol grip for use in 3D shooters?

TA: Of course! There are many attachments that we can see users enjoy using. Of course the most popular genre of game right now is first person shooters and the development of a pistol grip makes the most sense. We plan to take our different ideas and expand on them to make them a reality.

A few different ideas that we have been throwing around is the use of a wheel. Force feedback isn’t a new technology but with the Falcon, the ability to add lateral movement to a driving game could be incredible. Another idea is a billiard cue. Imagine feeling the weight of the cue stick and the impact of hitting the cue ball.

Another direction we would like to go is adding internal memory into the grip itself. Imagine detaching your grip, taking it to a friends house, plugging it in and being able to not only use your saved games, but also your custom settings. There are so many ideas at this point and all of them we are taking seriously. We are looking forward to launch and getting feedback from the users.



Interview Cont.


TG: On the Novint webpage, it’s stated that there will be drivers available for “mega-hit” games. Aside from Half Life 2, are there any other major games that you have in mind that you feel the gaming community would like to see the Falcon support?

TA: At this time, I can’t comment on any plans that we have with any developers but I can say that we are working with them.

TG: Most games currently seem to be meant for quick fixes… the in and out in 15-20 minutes type games. Do you have plans for any more elaborate quest type games?

TA: Yes. At this point, the initial response from our demonstrations at CES, E3 and GDC have been overwhelmingly in favor of the shooter genre. This doesn’t mean however that the games other than shooters can’t be made to take advantage of the Falcon and what it can do. We feel that many genres will benefit even more than FPS games, with the Novint Falcon. Like you mentioned, quest games would be a good fit with the Falcon or any game that gives the player a weapon such as a sword or bow and arrow. Another avenue we would like to take is the sports genre.

TG: Outside of internal development, who else has shown a keen interest in developing games that focus on the Falcon.

TA: Novint didn’t start out to produce the Falcon. Prior to the Falcon’s development, we were strictly a software company that provided the programs that ran medical simulations. Without mentioning names, we worked on a project with a large medical company to produce a medical needle simulation.

Other industrial areas that have shown great interest have been the military, the oil and gas companies, automotive companies as well as architecture firms. Another use has been in the development of virtual toys for children.

As far as games are concerned, that is really our main focus, and we have been in contact with many different developers and publishers, but we can’t mention any names at this time.

TG: We spoke at the GDC as well as at CES last January. It seemed that every time we came by, your booth was far and away the most popular in that area. With that much public interest in mind, where has the majority of your buzz been coming from? We spoke earlier about how the pre-orders have been exhausted but where did this interest originate from. Was it trade shows or were other channels used to spread the word.

TA: Outside of word of mouth and the conventions, we haven’t done a lot of advertisement or marketing as of yet. We have talked with retailers about providing those who are interested in the Falcon, a convenient way to purchase it and as the product becomes available, we will ramp up the advertising and marketing then.

TG: Do you have any other unrelated products currently in development?

TA: Outside of the Falcon and related software, we do not. As stated earlier, we are now primarily half hardware and half software. Before the Falcon project was started, we were strictly software and with our experience in that area, we felt the time was right to bring the Falcon to life. Right now, our main focus is on making the Falcon better each day.

TG: Finally, Newton’s Monkey Business reminds me greatly of what Nintendo did with the Wii on launch day… a suite of small games that are there primarily to show off just what the Falcon is capable of while being completely entertaining along the way. Is this a fair comparison and if so, in what direction would you like the see the game development for the Falcon go?

TA: That’s a fair comparison in some ways. Like Nintendo, we are using Newton’s Monkey Business as a showcasing piece. We feel that with the many different mini-games in NMB, the Falcon and its advantages over an everyday game pad or mouse. With Half Life 2, there is a certain established audience.

With NMB, the games will appeal to not only a younger audience but to an older generation as well. While the approach is similar, the Falcon adds a sense of accuracy to gaming that the Wii just can’t deliver on. For example, in Wii tennis, when the ball comes towards your character, you simply swing the controller to return the ball.

With the Falcon, we have a similar game but instead of tennis, it’s a table tennis game. With each hit, you can feel the ball make contact with the paddle. Over time, as the player get more and more accustomed to the way the hits feel, muscle memory is used and the swings become a much more fluid motion.

We keep track of the position of the paddle to sub-millimeter resolution with a detailed sense of touch, which will allow gaming unlike anything people have tried before. With the other games of NMB, the gaming suite is comprised of 24 games, all made by an assortment of different developers so each game will feel and act differently dependant on the motions used to play the game.

What We Think

There you have it. As I read back over the interview, memories of playing around with the Falcon at the GDC and CES were at the forefront of my thoughts. As exciting as the Falcon sounds on paper, it’s one of those things that really can’t be summed up in words. It’s good to see that Novint’s initial supply has already been depleted and while that’s good for publicity, a steady stream of products need to continue to come it in order to keep up with the apparent demand.

Thinking for a while, the Falcon reminds me a lot of the PhysX card from Ageia. It’s a hardware that absolutely has to have software in order for it to even be relevant. Novint has one up on Ageia with the easily modded source engine and Half Life 2. As we continued with small talk, we talked about the community that will be a large part of the Falcons success.

There will be online leader boards and the games can be played online against competitors across the globe. For those who want to pick and choose their games, there will an online store that will allow you to do just that… get the games that you want while leaving the others behind.

When the subject of warranties was brought up, it was explained to me that the Falcon comes with a 30 day money back guarantee on top of a 90 day warranty. This is honestly one area that could be improved on but Mr. Anderson quickly assured me that they Falcons are a durable breed. Having used the same unites in many different scenarios like tech conventions or the impromptu showing in an airport, the hardware has been proven sound.

One thing however that I think would help ease the minds of the concerned is perhaps a longer warranty that might be purchased. As an ex- R/C car and truck racer, I know all to well the disposition of servos. More often than not, they work just as they should, but there are some, just as in any large group of mechanical parts, that don’t seem to be as stout as one would like.

In the grand scheme of things, 3 months isn’t that long of a time. Without having one personally, I can’t take it apart and inspect it so for now, we will have to take Tom at his word. Having dealt with the Falcon first hand though, the Falcon did seem durable and I have no reason to doubt his claims.

As the June 18th launch date nears, I know that I am growing more and more anxious to get my hands on my own Falcon. Do I think that this is for everyone? No… not at all. However, with that said, the Falcon is one of those things that anyone who is interested should experience at least once.

While most people would never use it, they should sit down with it if possible, if only to save us writers the exhaustive task of explaining how it feels and works in words. We look forward to the Falcon’s launch and are curious as how well it will sell. If early orders are any indication, Novint has a hit on their hands. We will keep you updated on any news that comes out from Novint in the future.

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