NaturalPoint, the creator of the TrackIR head-tracking hardware, has come through with a new addition to the TrackIR family: the TrackClip:PRO. This device is a USB-powered tracking clip that can attach to a headset for use with the TrackIR4:PRO system.
The TrackIR4:PRO, if you aren't familiar with it, is an ingenious device that tracks your head movements and then translates them into the camera movements of your virtual viewpoint when you are looking around in various directions within MS Flight Simulator. If you turn your head right or left, your view shifts to the right or to the left. If you look up or down, the view will look up or down as well. With the TrackIR4:PRO, if you are having trouble reading your dashboard instruments, you may lean forward, and the view will magnify, zooming in. Some cockpits have restricted views forward, such as with a large dashboard or even the aircraft's nose blocking the view. You can simply shift the way you sit in your seat to see past these obstacles, and the view will follow your head movement. If you sit up high, you can attempt to look over the nose of a taildragger such as in the Piper Cub on taxi.
The TrackIR4:PRO won a well-deserved Bravo Zulu award from Avsim in 2006 for outstanding product excellence. Mr. Zane Gard was the first to review the TrackIR4:PRO system in February 2006, and his review outlined its many virtues.
One criticism of the earliest TrackIR systems, was that the user needed to wear tiny reflectors on their head to make it work. Originally, these reflectors consisted of sticky glue-on foil dots. These allowed the TrackIR the ability to look side to side and up and down, like the hat button on a joystick. The dots gave way to the TrackIR Hat, which had a permanent reflector sewn in.
When TrackIR evolved into the TrackIR4:PRO system, the developers added more dimensions to the view, so that the virtual camera could not only pivot, but also pan up and down, side to side, tilt, and zoom in and out, as controlled by head movements. NaturalPoint refers to this as "6DOF", for 6 degrees of visual freedom. To do so, the original foil dot was required to operate three-dimensionally. This is the NaturalPoint Vector Expansion technology, which is optional for TrackIR3:PRO users, but is built into every TrackIR4:PRO unit. At the heart of Vector Expansion was a new reflector called the Vector Clip made out of spring steel that could be easily attached to most hats with a brim.
Some people prefer not to wear a hat when using Flight Simulator, and while the spring steel Vector Clip is discrete, it is easy to forget that you are wearing it, and accidentally go out into public looking a bit like an escapee from a science fair project. At least the hat clip is easier to explain away than a forgotten silver dot pasted to the center of your forehead and rediscovered during the course of an intimate dinner.
More importantly, a hat can get uncomfortable if you are wearing a microphone headset and do a lot of talking when you are running your simulation. The good people at NaturalPoint listened to what their customers had to say and came up with their latest innovation: the TrackClip PRO.
INTRODUCTION: TrackIR Enhanced
The TrackClip PRO is a sensor device that will clip onto the left side of many headsets. It can be used with either the TrackIR3 or the TrackIR4 PRO models, although it does not include Vector Expansion activation for the TrackIR3:PRO. If you own a TrackIR3 and you want Vector Expansion, you will have to purchase the activation separately. If you use a TrackIR that has Vector Expansion, then the TrackClip PRO will work automatically to provide all six degrees of freedom.
The TrackClip PRO is small and very lightweight, but I feel it is not as subtle in appearance as the spring steel clip. It's not so easy to describe in words. The TrackClip PRO is constructed of jet black shiny plastic, with the largest mass residing in an adjustable clip that fits on the left side of your headset. Emerging from the clip is a triple-pronged transmitter whose wiry armatures glow with a faint but steady redness from light-emitting diodes (LEDs) at their tips. The whole effect reminds me somewhat of the "Borg" episodes from Star Trek. The TrackClip PRO looks, if anything, like a prop left behind from the movie set of a good science-fiction show.
Wires run from the clip to a USB plug that also hooks onto your TrackIR sensor, the little device that sits on top of your monitor that actually tracks your head movements. With this system, both the TrackIR and the TrackClip share the same USB port on your computer, so that you don't need two USB ports to run both devices.
I am of two opinions regarding these wires. On the one hand, I already have a sprawling spaghetti-like mass of electrical wires spread all over my computer desk: mouse and keyboard cords, controller cables, headphone cables, and USB connections for a stylus tablet, not to mention my treasured TrackIR4PRO, so even more cordage is not welcome for me. I keep thinking that some day I will bundle and organize these wires, but then all I have to do is look underneath my desk to see the cobra's den that I have made of my rudder pedal cords, joystick cords, the speaker cords, the router lines, the external firewall cables, the flatbed scanner connectors, and so on, and I realize that this level of ultimate organization is beyond my ability. If you are better than I am at keeping a computer desk uncluttered, then you may feel more disposed towards dealing with the wires.
On the other hand, because the TrackClip PRO is wired into the computer, it's easy to remember to take it off after a simulation session.
INSTALLATION: The Headset's The Thing
NaturalPoint's TrackClip PRO requires the use of either TrackIR3 or TrackIR4 to work. If you've installed either of these two units, then adding on the TrackClip PRO requires little more than plugging it in and clamping it to your headset: no special tools are required. TrackClip PRO is not compatible with the spring steel Vector Clip, so you must choose to wear one or the other.
When I first plugged my TrackClipPRO into a USB port, I got a warning pop-up on my computer that told me that I did not plug my new hardware into a USB 2.0 port. I continued with my installation anyway, I e-mailed NaturalPoint to ask them about the warning. They told me that the TrackClipPRO is fully compatible with the older USB 1.1 standard, and that all USB 2.0 ports will support USB 1.1. NaturalPoint reminds their users that the TrackClipPRO needs to draw power from the USB port, so it is not recommended to plug the TrackClipPRO into any USB hub that doesn't have its own power source.
You also may need to update your TrackIR software. TrackClip Pro requires you to run the 4.1.029 version, while at this writing the most recent driver available is now 4.1.030. The software is free to download from the NaturalPoint website, and is small at around 3 MB. The newest driver allows you to switch the software recognition from the Vector Clip to your TrackClip PRO.
Your choice of headset may affect whether or not you can attach a TrackClip PRO. NaturalPoint recommends using headsets made by the computer audio manufacturer Creative Labs. Most generic headsets will work just fine. You may run into problems, however, with some high-end headsets, as well as "street style" headsets that wrap behind the ear, with the headband going behind your head at the base of the skull. Ear-bud (or earphone) type headsets, like you'd find on a personal .MP3 player are out of the question, as the wires are too floppy to support the TrackClipPRO clamp.
The headband, the part that connects the two earphones together and goes around your head, must be solid enough to hold the TrackClip PRO steady, and it must not exceed the dimensions of 1 1/4 inches wide (3 cm) and 1/2 inch (1.25 cm) thick. As well, the headband must go over the top of your head, where a hat would get in the way. The "street style" headsets that wrap behind the head and allow you to wear a hat do not have enough of a vertical band for the TrackClip PRO to hold on to. Other than those restrictions, the TrackClip PRO, with its padded clip, can be attached to most common headphone types.
In my testing of the TrackClip PRO, I discovered that my favorite headset, a "street style" unit by Logitech, was unsuitable for the TrackClip PRO. If you are more mechanically inclined than I am, you could certainly fashion a jury-rig to get the TrackClip Pro to clamp on properly. I rummaged around in my closet until I found a pair of old Air Canada headphones that I had collected and never used from a cross-continent red-eye flight long ago. Those worked fine.
The TrackClip PRO must hook on to the left side of the headset, so that the three emitters face forward. For the sake of trying, I did find it possible to mount the TrackClip PRO on the right side of my headset by clamping it upside-down and backwards, but it didn't sit particularly well, and the wire that was supposed to go out of the back of the unit got in my face instead. Long story short: if you follow the simple directions NaturalPoint offers to set up your device, it will work just fine.
Once the device is on the left side of your headset, and you put your headset on, you should immediately notice how very lightweight and unobtrusive the TrackClip PRO is. If it weren't for the wire, you wouldn't feel the clip at all. The sensor armatures do appear at the edge of your peripheral vision, but no more so than a headset microphone boom. The whole effect feels very natural.
The last installation step is to configure the software. You must switch the sensor to look for a TrackClip PRO rather than a Vector Clip. It's just a single switch in the driver software, so that's pretty easy to do. I found that I also had to move the sensor on top of my monitor to the left, and I also made a few minor adjustments to my driver profiles to help the device track better. Those last adjustments were mildly time-consuming and required some tweaking of both the positions of the hardware and the responsiveness of the software, but there was nothing that went past my comfort limit in dealing with computer applications.
At this time, I feel it is slightly awkward switching back and forth between the TrackClip PRO and the spring steel Vector Clip. In practical use, it's probably a good idea to choose to use either the Vector Clip or the TrackClip PRO, and leave things alone after that. Fortunately, with each successive build of their software, NaturalPoint makes it easier and easier for the user to configure their TrackIR system, and the software will remember your settings changes as you move from Vector Clip to TrackClip PRO and back, if needed. As for whether I have an opinion as to whether the TrackClip PRO is better than the Vector Clip, most of that lies in how much an individual user would endure wearing a hat during simulation sessions.
PERFORMANCE: Better By Design
So, just how well does the TrackClip PRO perform? I think it works exceptionally well! This product is an absolute winner. The moment you activate the TrackIR in your sim, your whole environment really comes to life. The feeling of immersion into reality seems both powerful and effortless. For me, VFR ("fly by the seat of your pants") flying took on a whole new dimension of appeal. The freedom to look everywhere around the cockpit and the airplane without being tied down by the hat switch or clumsy view controls is a wonderful feature.
In my tests, I saw that the TrackClip PRO easily and accurately tracked the movements of my head, and that the TrackIR system as a whole did not seem to affect my frame rates in any way.
NaturalPoint chose to use glowing LED lights to replace their reflector system for the TrackClip PRO. LED lights have some advantages over reflectors. Compared to reflectors, the LEDs are much brighter and consistent-looking to the TrackIR camera's eyes, although to the human eye the emitted light is actually very, very faint.
This means that the camera sensor will accurately track the TrackClip PRO, and the user can sit farther away from the camera under lower light conditions and still get excellent responses to head movements. Also, when you turn your head far enough, the surface area of a reflector that can be seen by the camera will be reduced, which may affect the accuracy of the unit. This does not happen with the LED lights on the TrackClip PRO. I have found that it is possible to turn my head away from the TrackIR sensor so that my face physically blocks the output from the LEDs, but by then it was extremely difficult to focus my eyes on the screen.
The NaturalPoint user is highly encouraged to use small head movements to control the TrackIR! It is a sensitive device, so there is no need to use broad, sweeping head motions to achieve perfect control. In my testing, I was careful to operate my TrackIR so as to avoid large head movements, which could potentially lead to injury.
The TrackIR system, by default, is set to accurately sense small head movements. I easily edited my software profiles to accept somewhat broader head movements, but even so, I found that any movement stronger than a mild "shake your head for Yes or No" was too much. Even eating a sandwich while flying my virtual Piper Cub resulted in some wild-looking motions. It's not such a great idea to eat and fly.
OUTSTANDING ISSUES: Questions Answered and Bugs Squashed
NaturalPoint is dedicated to their TrackIR product line, without question. Their excellent technical service people patiently answered my many queries about the TrackClip PRO. I would like to share with you what I discovered about this device:
Bugs: The TrackClip PRO operates seamlessly with the TrackIR4 PRO. However, I did have a couple of small issues, and one recurrent bug that I am happy to report has now been eliminated. The bug I was experiencing was that the TrackIR software would consistently "hang" during shut-down. This never affected the actual performance of my TrackIR, but it was annoying. The latest version of the software, 4.1.030, has killed this bug for me. If you become a TrackIR owner, be sure to check the website for free updates to your software. NaturalPoint is vigilant in terms of fine-tuning and improving their drivers.
The spring steel Vector Clip provides a good target for the TrackIR camera, however it can get spoofed by light blooms such as bright illumination near the computer, reflections from eyeglasses, and even infrared emissions from a television remote (although I found that I had to hold the remote right next to my face to get the interference to show up).
The TrackClip PRO does a better job than the Vector Clip of removing these artifacts. Rest assured that it is very easy to adjust the sensitivity of the device to filter out the vast majority of these distractions so that you should be able to experience perfect head tracking every time you use your TrackIR.
I have added some of the things that can fool a Vector Clip, although I am using extreme settings to do so.
Under normal operation, most users wouldn’t get this level of interference.
Why Use A Clip At All? Way back in my University days, I remember doing some work in a lab that had a gaze tracking device. That is, there was a computer monitor with a video camera about the size of a wine bottle clamped to the top, and it was designed to seek out the movements of the user's pupils, the dark dot in the middle of each eye.
By looking at the monitor screen and moving my eyes, the device would scan the motion of my pupils and move a white cross around a black screen accordingly. Back then, this was cutting-edge technology. Nowadays, cameras have become a lot smaller and more sophisticated. So why not eliminate the clip from the TrackIR system and go with gaze tracking or face tracking? NaturalPoint has researched those options, but found that to deliver a product that people could afford, and one that made the most natural-seeming head movements possible, a clip was the best way to go.
Pupil movements are actually rather jerky and abrupt, so the user of a gaze tracking system has to be disciplined with their eye movements to get accurate tracking, otherwise the viewpoint just flies all over the map. Face tracking technology does exist as well, but it is nowhere near as accurate as the TrackClip PRO. For example, it would be no fun to attempt the "Loopy Larry" stunt mission in FSX and have the face tracker suddenly think you are looking hard to the left when you are just trying to see the landing zone.
There are other, bulkier, heavier head tracking systems that used to be available a few years ago, but really, the TrackIR system is definitely head and shoulders above that competition.
Why Not Have A Wireless Clip? Technically speaking, the spring steel Vector Clip is NaturalPoint's wireless clip. However, for better tracking, a clip with active infrared lights is preferable. So why not use a battery to power the unit? NaturalPoint explains thus:
"Because it costs us less money to make it run from a computer's USB port. It may seem strange in this day an age to hear that using batteries costs more, but keep in mind that everything we’ve built runs on USB power, so we’re very familiar with that power mechanism and are used to manufacturing it. If we went with batteries we’d have to research and buy new mechanisms for handling battery power, and a design a mechanism for housing the battery so it could be changed out when it runs down. We might also have wanted to consider mechanisms for monitoring the remaining battery power. And we’d have to figure out where on the persons body to have the battery pack, as we wouldn’t want it weighing down your headset. And while figuring where on the body to place the battery, we’d have to consider safety and health concerns in case a battery leaked its acid. And the battery pack would become it’s own design concern with regard to “cool factor”, for instance, if it goes in your pocket then we’d want a textured plastic so you wouldn’t notice scratches, whereas if it’s on your belt it’s probably better to go shiny so it looks cool. And then there’s the question of how long to make the cord to the battery pack, and puzzling out what people are going to do if it’s too long or short for their body type."
What Happens If My TrackClip PRO Won't Fit My Headset? NaturalPoint is confident that the TrackClip PRO fits most common headsets. In my testing, I found that it was important that my headset had a hard vertical surface of no more than 1 1/4 inches wide and 1/2 inch thick (around 3 by 1.25 centimeters). If you purchase a TrackClip PRO and can't get it to fit your headset, or if you have any other issues that compels you to return your TrackClip PRO, NaturalPoint has set up a return policy:
"We’ll take a product back in the first 30 days for whatever reason, even if you just don’t like it, because we want to encourage people to try it. We do ask people to contact us for an RMA number before shipping it back. This policy doesn’t include hats or clothing though, because you wear them and there are health issues. We also don’t take software returns, because there’s no way to ensure software has been completely removed from your system. And while this is "our" returns policy, we can’t speak for our dealers around the world. We also offer a 1 year warranty on our products, so if anything should break or stop working we’d be happy to replace it."
As a caution, I should mention that the TrackClip PRO is made out of plastic. Some parts, such as the hinge that connects the armature to the clip, seem somewhat frail. In fact, the documentation cautions users to avoid excess strain on the hinge part. In normal day-to-day use, this should not present a problem to most users.
I would caution to keep the TrackClip PRO away from small children, however, as they would probably be able to rip it apart quite easily. In this respect, the spring steel Vector Clip is more durable than the TrackClip PRO.
Will Windows Vista Be Supported? NaturalPoint expects to have a fully-functioning driver set for their TrackIR products ready on or about the time of Vista's release.
What Games And Simulations Does The TrackClip PRO Support? The TrackClip PRO supports all of the titles that are currently supported by the TrackIR software, right now over sixty games and sims. I tested the TrackClip PRO on FSX, and it works beautifully! It also works on Flight Simulators 2004/2002.
Popular fighter sims such as Combat Flight Simulator 3, X-Plane, Lock-On and the Il-2 Sturmovik series are enhanced by TrackIR, although the NaturalPoint website advises that the IL-2 games currently do not support the full 6 degrees of visual freedom due to cockpit model restrictions. Driving sims such as the GTR series and the Papyrus NASCAR games also feature TrackIR support. NaturalPoint expects that more games and sims are on the way as the major gaming studios race to include TrackIR enhancement.
A word on FSX: the camera views in FSX have been improved over those found in FS2004. 3D Virtual Cockpits are given more viewpoints to cycle through, so that pilots can see and operate switches and equipment that was difficult to get at with only one set camera view. For example, the light switches in the Cessna 172. The TrackIR system takes camera views one step farther. It seems the most natural thing in the world is to lean in to get a better view of the instruments. Sometimes, if I zoom in too much, it's difficult to hit some of the smaller clickable hotspots, such as the range button on the Garmin G1000 GPS depicted in the FSX Deluxe Edition. At that point, I will use a hotkey (F9) to briefly disable the TrackIR head tracking, and click on the cockpit devices as need be. I then re-activate the TrackIR and I am back in business with minimum loss of situational awareness due to cycling through unnecessary cockpit views.
CONCLUSION: Executive Summary
The TrackClip PRO is an add-on hardware device for TrackIR3 and TrackIR4 users. It provides a very accurate system for tracking head movements to control the first-person camera views in Flight Simulator, as well as over sixty other game and simulation titles.
The device attaches to the left-hand side of most audio headsets, and is powered through the same USB cable as the TrackIR. It is feather-weight and unobtrusive, so that the TrackClip PRO immediately creates a strong, realistic sense of being in an actual cockpit of a genuine airplane.
I am a huge fan of the TrackIR system. To me, a TrackIR is as important a peripheral to a Flight Simulator computer as a joystick and a monitor. I feel that a TrackIR is well worth the investment. The TrackClip PRO is a brilliant add-on for the TrackIR. It integrates seamlessly with my existing TrackIR device. The setup does require a little bit of work, but nothing difficult or strenuous: if you can set up a TrackIR, you can easily set up a TrackClip PRO. Recent versions of the driver software have improved on the user-friendliness of this product, which is impressive considering how good the system was to begin with.
If you have the chance to see a TrackClip PRO in action, by all means do so. Although, I would absolutely recommend this product to anybody interested in Flight Simulator, it's always good to "try before you buy". If you've never used a TrackIR before, the sensation can be intense, and it may take a little getting used to. If you buy a product directly from NaturalPoint and find you don't like it, they are happy to accept returns up to 30 days from the purchase date.
If you already have a TrackIR, the TrackClip PRO provides better tracking accuracy than the spring steel reflective Vector Clip, although in my tests the Vector Clip performed extremely well. The big advantage to using a TrackClip PRO is that you no longer need to wear a hat to gain 6 degrees of visual freedom, and you certainly don't need to paste reflective dots onto your face.
When I write a review for Avsim, I like to leave the last word regarding the product to the developer. Here is what the good folks at NaturalPoint have to say about themselves:
" If you like TrackIR, have ideas to make it better, questions about how it works, or want to know how you can check it out in your neck of the woods - please stop by our forums and let us know. We'd love to hear from you, and believe strongly in our growing community."
|What I Like About The TrackClip Pro|
|What I Don't Like About The TrackClip Pro|
Tell A Friend About this Review!
All Rights Reserved