Novint Falcon

A hardware review by Bobulous.

What is the Novint Falcon?

photo: A grey and black Novint Falcon with the standard grip attached.
The Novint Falcon, with the standard grip attached.

The Novint Falcon is a games controller created by Novint for PC games which run under Windows. It uses three precise arms to allow a user to control a game in three axes at once, and can also deliver force feedback to the user from three dimensions at once. This not only lets the user feel hard collisions in game, but also very precise haptic feedback such as the texture or weight of an object in the game world.

The Novint Falcon comes with a standard ball grip, but Novint also make a Pistol Grip which is better suited to first-person shooter games.

Valve Software added support for the Novint Falcon to all of the games in The Orange Box, notably Half-Life 2 (and its episodes), Team Fortress 2, and Portal.

Installing the Novint Falcon

The Novint Falcon comes in a large box, and is pre-assembled, save for the interchangeable grip, which simply clicks into a plate which joins the three arms that jut out of the body. A power cable and USB cable go into the back of the Novint Falcon.

I did download the latest drivers from Novint's site, but as soon as installation was complete, Novint's N VeNT updater reported that newer drivers were available, which seems odd. No snags in installation, however.

Using the Novint Falcon

The tutorial

photo: The Novint Falcon with its arms fully extended, the standard grip attached where the three arms meet.
The Falcon with its arms fully extended.

The best place to start is the tutorial. When Falcon-ready software is loading, the light on the front of the Novint Falcon will go red, which just means that you need to gently pull the grip all the way back and then push it all the way forward, to calibrate the device.

The first demo in the tutorial had me grinning. A sphere and a disembodied hand appear on the screen, and you can use the Novint Falcon to move the hand around the sphere. The first sphere was labelled "Bumpy", and using the Novint Falcon grip I really could feel the shape and size of the sphere, and a rugged, bumpy surface. Pull the grip back a bit and the hand is no longer in contact with the sphere, so the Falcon grip moves smoothly and lightly. Push the grip forward so that the hand is in contact with the sphere, and suddenly the grip offers resistance which varies depending on where on the bumpy sphere the hand is. It was surprisingly convincing.

Using your keyboard you can switch the texture of the sphere. The "Molasses" sphere actually feels sticky, and you can move the hand all the way through it and out the other side, at which point the grip all of a sudden feels liberated. The "Ice" sphere feels hard and slippery, offering no resistance across the surface of the sphere, without permitting the grip to move inside the sphere. The "Sandpaper" sphere feels flat but rough. The "Magnetic" sphere is hard, and suddenly begins to pull the hand (and thus the Falcon's grip) towards the surface as you get close. The "Sand" sphere lets you pass right through it, and moving through the sphere feels gravelly, grainy. This first demo is a fantastic demonstration of what the Novint Falcon does best, offering very fine haptic feedback that gives real weight and texture to a digital model.

Another part of the tutorial lets you move a baseball mit to catch a baseball. When you successfully get the mit in position for a catch, the Novint Falcon shows that it's not just very delicate feedback that it ofers, and you really feel the baseball thud into your hand, the grip jolting forcefully to convey the effect. The manual warns you to keep a tight hold of the grip, as such feedback can cause the arms to jolt violently if your hand isn't weighting the grip. But, with your hand wrapped around the grip it feels perfectly safe, and the arms give the impression of being precise and durable.

Newton's Monkey Business

The Novint Falcon comes with a set of simple games designed to work with the Falcon, wrapped up in a bundle called Newton's Monkey Business, accessible through the N VeNT software.

I had trouble getting the N VeNT software to let me select games, and found it easier at first to simply run the executable file for each game manually. (This problem vanished once I'd registered with Novint via the N VeNT software.)

I found these games tricky at first, partly because I was worried about using too much force in my movements of the grip. The game Home Run Smashout seemed impossible at first, and I suspected that it was badly written. But, after a bit of practice, and gradually, carefully using more force on the grip I was able to knock a pitched baseball out of the ballpark without trouble. I have to say that, after ninety minutes of playing Falcon games, my fingers, wrist and elbow were killing me. I don't have armrests on my computer chair, however, and Novint do warn that for comfort armrests are recommended. I'm also not a young man in the peak of health and fitness (even playing with a mouse causes me to ache these days), so this is likely to be a factor in my discomfort. Whether a younger, healthier player would quickly get used to this new pattern of muscle and joint movement, I can't answer.

The Novint Falcon and The Orange Box

photo: The Novint Falcon with the Pistol Grip attached, arms fully extended.
The Falcon with Pistol Grip attached

As Valve had announced native support for the Novint Falcon in their Orange Box games, I was very much looking forward to playing Team Fortress 2 using the Falcon. However, while a new tab appears in the options page specifically for the Falcon, I could not get full support in Team Fortress 2. I could move my aim around using the Novint Falcon Pistol Grip, but it was impossible to cause the avatar to rotate to face the other way. No amount of playing with the in-game Falcon options would correct this problem. A disappointing start.

Portal, despite being made by the developers of Team Fortress 2 and using the same engine, worked flawlessly for me straight away. It didn't feel difficult manoeuvring using the Pistol Grip, and aiming the portal gun felt easy and accurate. The force feedback really lets you feel the knocks, and when you pick up a cube in the game, you really feel the weight of it through the grip, and look forward to putting the cube down. Again, my arm was aching after half-an-hour of play.

A console player briefly played with the Novint Falcon and its Pistol Grip, and was impressed with the accuracy of the Falcon as a game controller. He also complained about armache after a while, however.

Half-Life 2: Episode Two worked perfectly with the Novint Falcon. As with Portal, control and aiming work well, and the scene in the tunnels where you fend off a rush of antlions was no trouble, the Falcon making it easy to line up shots. And force feedback added a lot to the final scene of the game, when you're being hurled around a hangar it really feels like you're being moved in sync with what you're seeing on screen.

I did email Novint and Valve about getting the Falcon to work in Team Fortress 2, but Novint weren't able to help me, and Valve did not respond. I've uninstalled TF2 and reinstalled it, ditto for the Novint drivers, but the same problem remains. If I ever find a fix for this, I'll update this page.

Games which support the Novint Falcon via a patch

There are a number of major games which can be made to work with the Falcon via patches that you can find through Novint's site, or through updates made by the game's developer.

Battlefield 2 has support for the Novint Falcon from version 1.5. Unfortunately, after updating I started a game and found that BF2 had exactly the same problem as TF2: aiming was possible, but no avatar rotation. Luckily Novint support had encountered this before, and pointed me to a thread [seemingly no longer available as of May 2011] on their forum which offered a solution which fixed this for me. Unlike The Orange Box games, I found BF2 harder going using the Falcon, and it frequently felt that I was forced to rotate further than desirable, just so that when the grip was moved to the centred position you were still facing the way you wanted to be moving. And again I found myself with an aching arm before long.

Crysis can be made to support the Novint Falcon by downloading and applying the Crysis HaptX patch which you can find at the Crysis page [seemingly not available as of May 2011] on Novint's site. As with BF2, it felt like hard work playing Crysis using the Falcon. Turning feels slower, and I frequently wished there was a way of zeroing the grip while still facing the direction you intended. It's also worth noting that you need to have the Falcon at the edge of the desk when using the Pistol Grip, as the handle of the pistol shape is obstructed by the desk otherwise. Crysis does offer a "pistol grip offset" option that lifts the active workspace of the Falcon grip, but I found that I could not select the in-game suit modes when using this offset mode.

I would suggest to Novint that they change the Pistol Grip design. At the moment, it hangs very low under the plate that holds the grip, and this can cause the grip to be obstructed by the desk surface in a way that the standard ball grip is not. I would suggest a shape that lets you hold the grip like a pistol but with your hand central to the grip plate, so that there was almost no underhang. It doesn't matter whether the grip actually looks like a pistol, so long as it feels like a pistol. (And the less it looks like a pistol, the less trouble they'll have from overexcitable media outlets.)

Doom 3 can also join the fun using the Falcon Doom 3 mod Novint's site [see the Novint Falcon 3D Touch Games & 3D Touch Add Ons page]. The game crashed twice when I selected "New Game" in the main screen, but using the game's developer console to jump to the final level, hellhole, worked fine. The rumbling effects worked nicely, turning was a lot easier than in Crysis, and fighting the cyberdemon was pretty good fun using the Falcon. Unfortunately the game crashed again when I tried to load the Delta Labs 1 level, so I suspect the mod is a little buggy.

Novint F-Gen drivers

Because Novint don't have access to the source code of all games which are released, and not all games developers build support for the Novint Falcon into their releases, Novint are working on a set of drivers called F-Gen. F-Gen is intended to disguise the Novint Falcon as a mouse (from the software's point of view), so that it can be configured and scripted to control a far greater range of PC games.

I downloaded and installed the new F-Gen installation file, and while the installation went fine, I cannot get F-Gen to run, hit with errors naming DLL files even after a reboot, uninstall, reinstall, etc. So there's more work to do on the F-Gen system, but it's a promising idea, and I'll update this page if I discover a version of F-Gen which works.

Evaluation of the Novint Falcon

The Novint Falcon is an unusual device, and I have to say that I can't use it in games for long before getting armache. However, gaming with a mouse gives me aches these days, and younger, healthier gamers might find they adjust to this style of controller without problems.

As a controller for first-person shooter games, the Novint Falcon can be either very pleasing, as in Portal and Half-Life 2, or somewhat displeasing, as in Crysis and Battlefield 2. I suspect that this depends entirely on how close to the game's source code the Falcon patch developer is, and how much testing and refinement is given to the many Falcon variables such as rotation speed. But when it works in shooters, it can add a lot. Feeling directional forces as they affect your avatar, the weight of objects carried by the gravity gun, and the recoil of weapons does add to the experience, though I suspect that multiplayer gamers would tone down or disable these effects for tournament play.

Possibly the most impressive and unusual feature of the Novint Falcon is its precise, three-dimensional haptic feedback. The first demo of the tutorial shows this off best, letting you feel the fine texture and shape of a virtual sphere, moving around it and through it using the Falcon grip. It feels like a step closer to a time when you can actually immerse your senses in the game world.

The Novint Falcon is a unique way of controlling PC games, and while I can't recommend it for crusty old folk like myself, it might be of interest to youthful gamers who want to try something new and interesting.