Review by Ray Marshall. I have just finished reading the Avsim reviews of the Track IR4 published in 2006 and the TrackClip Pro accessory in 2007. After a quick overview it may appear that not much has changed in 7 years other than IR5 is now sleeker, neater, faster, better, less expensive, and the TrackClip Pro is available as a bundle. Actually there have been tremendous improvements since the IR4 review - on the order of 10x in some cases. Here is what Natural Point says about the specific improvements:
10x increase in effective resolution, resulting in much smoother and more responsive tracking and substantially less noise:
- Higher resolution image sensor, for 3x baseline increase in precision (triple the number of pixels)
- New method of processing images from that sensor (in technical terms, referred to as grayscale precision), yielding more precise data per pixel (1/10° of rotation and Video comparison.
- The above two combine for the 10-fold increase over TrackIR 4
- 12% increase in FOV, for more range of motion (especially noticeable when leaning left or right)
- Magnetic base and USB cable anchor for reduced damage from wear and tear
- ~2x increase in tracking range
I noticed the software interface is very much improved with instant feedback for your actions and settings. More proven profiles are freely available and a ton of YouTube videos are now available. I asked Natural Point for confirmation of my observations and they stated:
Yes, the instant feedback in the software is a biggie. We also reworked the way the curves work in our motion scaling graph, allowing much more specific control of how scaling ramps throughout a range of motion.
Additionally, we introduced major improvements to the ambient light is filtered, enabling much higher tolerance of background interference (though the system isn't immune to it completely, of course).
The optional TrackClip Pro (TCP) just looks fragile to me. I don’t think it would be a good idea to let a small child or puppy get anywhere close to this thing. The design looks like it came straight out of one of the later Star Trek sets, maybe a result of some secret trade agreement with the Klingons or Romulans. It couldn’t have been a Vulcan design because it would have interfered with their pointy ears (their left ear anyway).
No matter where it came from, it works great and those who have experienced the TrackClip Pro never want to go back to the static clip-on-the-hat method. As a matter of fact, Natural Point says about 70% of all TIR5 purchases include the TrackClip Pro. Actually, not one of my fellow Flight sim buddies use the hat clip. Every single one that I talked to uses the TrackClip Pro.
I suppose the only reason NaturalPoint continues to sell the TIR4 model is to offer a lower cost method of getting started with a Track IR as they state the IR5 is more popular than the older IR4 model by a factor of 20 to 1.
Let’s back up a bit and talk about how this neat invention got started. Jim Richardson, President and Lead Engineer and Birch Zimmer, a programming specialist, started NaturalPoint. Originally called Eye Control Technologies in 1996 the goal was to pursue alternative input devices for people with disabilities. The transition from eye tracking to head tracking paved the way for the invention of TrackIR. The original TrackIR was not envisioned as a flight sim gaming device but as a means of interfacing with computers for disabled users. One of the original TrackIR users just happened to be a flight sim fanatic and acting on his suggestion the rest is history as they say.
Although the TrackIR is mostly specialized for flight simulation NaturalPoint is now selling thousands of these units each year. This includes a lot of gamers like Rainbow 6 and Operation Flashpoint, etc.
Jim and Birch just happened to live in Corvallis, OR when they started the company in 1996. They are still there and both are still actively involved with the day to day operation of NaturalPoint along with another 40 or so employees, some also from Corvallis. Of course, they have branched out with new divisions and spin off products. SmartNav, OptiTrack and their most recent GEARS Golf for golf swing analysis.
The big jump in technology was the development of the full 6 DOF for gaming in TrackIR. We will talk more about the 6 degrees of freedom a little later in the review.
Continued TrackIR Development
NaturalPoint states that ‘Everything is driven by our users’. Almost all the newer features are direct results of user feedback and specific requests from users. Most game developers work with NaturalPoint to integrate direct TrackIR support into the basic game design. As of the latest count over 150 games have direct TIR support. This means that if you have a TrackIR loaded and you start a supported game, the game will recognize the TIR at load up.
Of course, the hardware pieces like the miniature camera that sits on top of your monitor and the TrackClip Pro are just part of the TIR system. The setup software is a large part of the working system. Using profiles to modify and save a copious amount of settings to drive the TIR within the game is paramount. Although your TrackIR5 will come with a default profile and a few other specific profiles, my recommendation for FSX users is to start with an existing, proven flight sim profile and make slight modification to it for personal preferences. You can download one named SethFlight from the NP website that is probably 95% usable for any FSX user.
One of our Avsim Moderators, Jeff is an old time TrackIR user and he sent me his modified SethFlight profile to try. He simply tweaked that last 5% to his way of looking around the cockpit. Once you have your profile set, you can save it and never look back. Maybe a new add-on aircraft might suggest you revisit a few of your settings. For instance if you were a general aviation only pilot and flew only small Cessnas but then purchased the PMDG 737NG or 777 or the Milviz 737-200 then you might need to do a little adjusting of your profile for the larger cockpit and panel layouts. Then you could have a personal profile for Cessnas and another one for the Airliners.
So How Does it Work?
Quite well actually. Technically, I don’t have a clue and no part of the hardware is serviceable or adjustable other than the placement and alignment of the hardware placed on your head in relation to the camera mounted on top of your monitor.
The quick start method simply involves figuring out how to open the molded plastic display case, inspecting the pieces, downloading the latest software from the NP website, installing it on your system and plugging it in the USB connector. You will need either a baseball hat or visor if you use the passive clip or some type of headset to attach the TrackClip Pro. The TCP will fit onto almost any headset that you may have. It is designed for the left side only and is intended to be used in a darkened room. Any direct light will interfere with the correct operation of your Track IR. I had to move my desktop simulator across my room so the bright sunlight coming through the windows would be behind my monitors rather than in front. This unwanted light interference shows up as a red dot or blob on the camera setup screen.
Continuing with the abbreviated startup, you need to choose either the hat clip or TrackClip Pro in the software setup and then select a specific profile, or just use the default profile. Minimize the window and startup FSX. This order is not a suggestion, it is a requirement. Start TIR then FSX. Those users with flight sticks, joysticks or yokes will want to assign three default function keys to their hardware. This is the Pause key, Precision Key, and Center or Recenter Key. The recentering will be frequently used as you fine tune or hone in on your personal settings. The pause key should be handy when you decide to look around the room or make some severe head movements while flying with the TIR.
The WOW factor
With the leaps and bounds type development of our FSX add-ons of the last few years, it takes something very special to make the short list of ‘can’t do without’, ‘Top of the List’ or something similar. I am talking about some of our very recent and revolutionary new add-ons like the PMDG offerings, the RealAir Legacy and v2 Duke, the A2A C172 Trainer w/Accu-sim or actually any A2A products with Accu-sim, the Flight1 Cessna Mustang and B200 King Air or the Milviz F-15 Strike Eagle or Beech Baron or the recent Majestic Q400 or the Aerosoft Twin Otter v2 or Airbus X Extended. Just about any of these add-ons or similar ones that I did not specifically mention are marvels in their complexity and operation as flight simulations. Each one has something unique or special that sets it apart from the standard ho-hum add-ons. Each one has their own version of the ‘Wow factor’, some even have the ‘Oh, Wow factor’.
Then come the add-ons for the add-ons. These are usually hardware related and includes all the yokes, pedals, joysticks, throttle quadrants, trim wheels, switch panels, etc. Many of these items add another tier to the ‘nearer reality’ rung of the ladder.
Of course, the basic FSX specific pc, overclocked and glycol cooled, hot new video card loaded with a ton of onboard fast memory and its own cooling fans, a few terrabytes of hard drive storage and a SSD or two for fast booting and loading our add-on airports and scenery. Many of us have finally checked the box for DX10 with Steve’s Fixer patching most of the holes the Aces left when they were disbanded.
A few of us are fortunate enough to have some semblance of a cockpit with a dedicated pilot’s chair and something to hang two or three monitors on and a couple of dozen USB cables snaked around to the powered USB ports. Maybe a dual throttle setup for the twins and airliners and a big ole trim wheel to keep it level with the autopilot isn’t working.
When we start to think that we now have it all and it just can’t possibly get any better than this, I am here to tell you that if you don’t have a TrackIR5 you may be missing one very big item in the big picture. I am the first to agree that it is not the most perfect add-on and is not the end-all addition, but I will tell you it is most definitely a game changer for me.
Track IR changes everything.
One, the TrackIR 5 is simple to install and simple to use. Two, it changes everything – yep, everything. Once you have your hardware tweaked properly, your FSX tweaked and running smoothly, your add-on hardware yoke, flight stick, pedals, etc. calibrated and functioning properly and the sound system adjusted for the engine roar and switch clicks - now what?
I will tell you what. You need to be able to look around your cockpit, either on screen in the VC or outside your aircraft as I often do when flight simming. Nothing even comes close to the Wow factor of using a head tracking device while flight simming like a calibrated TrackIR 5. This seems to finally fill the gap that separates simulation from simulated reality.
Is it really that good?
Yes, it is really that good, maybe even better than that. I am a real world pilot and I have been amazed at how rapidly our developers have been closing that gap by making the add-ons so realistic looking, feeling and sounding. But what has been missing for me was the freedom to look around the airplane like I do when flying a real airplane. It never quite felt right for me to have to use 2d popup panels when flying my FSX simulations. But it was necessary if I needed to flip a switch for a boost pump or to turn on the Avionics master because some were so well designed like their real world equivalent that we resorted to removing the yokes to be able to see those switches or levers. The same for those radio knobs or autopilot panels located way In the back of the pedestal or on an overhead panel.
What the TrackIR does for you is that it enables you as a simulator pilot to look around the aircraft, inside and out, like you would as a real world pilot. Oh sure, there are plenty of limitations, especially on the outside of the aircraft, but when properly coupled with an additional camera package like EZCA’s Ezdok you will be amazed at the astounding increase in visual freedom that you now have. Even without the additional views of Ezdok, you can find those hidden switches, valves and levers. You can zoom in and actually read the size of that circuit breaker or see exactly what the fuel flow is, not that it is just in the green band. You can look out the pilot’s window as you makes that turn to base or final and actually see what you are doing or to check for traffic.
Looking around for traffic has always been a big difference for me in real world flying and simulator flying. In a real airplane I am always looking out and about, keeping an eye for someone that may have their head in the cockpit or somewhat occupied with something other than flying their airplane properly. I notice that the few flight simulator pilots that I have personally observed in real life and on videos rarely if ever look outside the cockpit. It just doesn’t happen. But any and all real world pilot seem to always be trying or attempting to look around when flying as a simulator pilot. It is just one of those things that real pilot do, but few simulator pilots see the need.
Well, my TrackIR5 will let me look around like I want to look around and it makes a world of difference. It is nice, really nice to be able to see into the nooks and crannies of the panel with the TrackIR but it is absolutely wonderful to be able to rotate your head slightly and see down that wing or slight up or slightly down as you are flying along in FSX. Just to be able to lean forward a tad and look to the left prior to a turn is so satisfying. I think the term I’m looking for is ‘more natural’. TrackIR makes flying more natural for the simulator pilot. Yeah, that’s it, more natural.
Let take a closer look at the hardware
The clear plastic clam shell has everything needed to get going except the software. A couple of small booklets are included for installation instructions. It is important that you take the time to at least glance through them. You will need an available USB port for connection to your PC and to power the units. The camera and the LED receiver unit share one USB port on your PC.
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Once you have downloaded and installed the latest version of the TrackIR 5 software . (ver. 5.2.2 - Final) Be sure to select “Run as Administrator’ when you run the installer. Now launch the TrackIR software. You need to select either the TrackClip for the hat or the TrackClip Pro attached to your headset. The camera that you mounted ontop of your monitor now has to be aligned with the TrackClip. You will be looking for a cluster of three green dots near the middle of the screen. Selecting the Camera View will give you an enlarged view. The camera is connected to the adjustable base with a magnet. Although the magnet will hold the camera in place it is still possible to knock it off if you should get a little clumsy. Be sure to press the USB cable down into the groove as a safety measure just in case the monitor should get knocked off its mount.
Remember The TrackIR is intended for use alongside your mouse, keyboard and joystick and does not replace them, though it does replace the traditional function of a joystick’s POV hat switch.
The optimum distance between the user and the TrackIR is 24-36 inches. Using the TrackIR within this range will achieve the best balance between range of motion and tracking precision.
Introduction to the 6 DOF
There are six axes of movement in three-dimensional space, three for rotation (yaw, pitch, and roll) and three for translation (x, y, and z). These axes are collectively termed “Six Degrees of Freedom” (6 DOF). TrackIR’s three point tracking allows all 6 DOF to be tracked, resulting in a precise correlation of actual and in-game movement. There is a great little animated demo available.
1. Yaw (turn head left/right) 2. Pitch (look up/down) 3. Roll (tilt head left/right) 4. X (move head horizontally left/right) 5. Y (move head vertically up/down) 6. Z (move head in/out)
Camera Status LED Indicators
The TrackIR camera has status LEDs which give you visual cues about the status of the TrackIR software. Use the following key to interpret what the state and color of the status LEDs mean:
- Left Green : A clip IS being tracked.
- Right Green : A TrackIR Enhanced Title IS running and has registered with the TrackIR software to receive tracking data.
- Both Green : A clip IS being tracked, and a TrackIR Enhanced Title IS running and has registered with the TrackIR software to receive tracking data.
- Both Orange : TrackIR is paused
- Both Off : A clip is NOT being tracked, and a TrackIR Enhanced Title is NOT running or registered.
Camera alignment – 3 greens
Selecting a Profile
Once you get it all set up and calibrated, you'll want a flight sim specific profile. Assuming you're using a joystick or some type of HOTAS setup, you will want to set up a button for re-centering the view. I’m using the Saitek X-52 and this comes in very handy. As you look around or move closer/farther away the view center can move. This isn't a flaw, but rather just the result of the very complex algorithms that make the TrackIR do what it does. I can honestly say that once you have it set up properly, you won't ever want to fly without it.
I just installed and selected the Seth Flight profile, set the camera green lights in the middle, reassigned the Center key to my joystick and started flying.
Creating or Modifying a Profile
I would venture a guess that your only limitation here is the amount of time you are willing to devote to the ultimate fine tuning and allocating the time for testing and evaluation. I do not think the software will be a limiting factor. There are multiple web postings and YouTube videos explaining some of the more detailed profile details, especially for combat flying and helicopters.
Motion Control – Adjusting Smoothness
There are numerous adjustment that you can make with the NaturalPoint software, but the Motion Control is near the top of the list for tweaking the smoothness and speed of movement in the simulation. The level or amount of adjustment is practically unlimited and starts with a simple check mark in the box for the area of adjustment – Yaw, Pitch, Roll, X, Y or Z. Curves are available for visual feedback and drop down box selections are available for selecting templates. Assistance is available at the Natural Point web site and as always a request for assistance in the Avsim.com forums will usually get you almost instant help.
Adding Ezdok and other camera related software
I did not devote any time to these add-ons, however, many flight simmers use these additional camera related programs to expand and enhance the custom views. Evidently, this approaches the ‘marriage made in heaven’ type of experience.
Some tips from one of our Moderators (Jeff H)
Here are a couple of tips: If you want to ‘lower your seat’, just sit up taller in the chair when you hit the re-center view key. That way, when you slouch down in your normal position, the eye point will move down with you. Hope that makes sense. Likewise, if you feel like your viewpoint is down more than you like, look down a little more when you re-center. When you raise your head, the view comes with you. I find having a small dead zone at the center helps a lot. That way, the view won't change with every minor head movement. This is all a bit hard to explain in text as I'm sure you'll agree. I hope I'm making sense for you.
I have the camera set up about dead center on the top of my monitor and my monitor is positioned at about eye level. I find, with my profile, that if I look at the camera when I re-center the view, I'm looking out of the windscreen as I should be and it takes only a very slight head movement to look down at the panel and a bit more pronounced movement to look up. Just experiment with your head position when you hit the re-center button. You'll use that a lot, which is why I mentioned setting up a button on your joystick or throttle. There are times that I want to spend some time looking out the side window or sort of on a 45 degree angle, in the pattern, for example. I'll look where I want and then hit re-center. Then I'm looking where I want and it takes just a shift of my head to go back to the panel.
The possibilities are endless once you become familiar with how re-centering the view works in conjunction with your head position. You can try my profile and see how it works out for you. It's set up so you don't have to turn your head a lot to see around the aircraft. Works pretty well for me. I'm a pilot too, so I know just what you mean. You'll get used to it after a few hours of use
Another tip from one of our forum users (Q_flyer)
Don't judge TrackIR from one 10 minute try, it takes some adjusting and can make some people feel a little nauseous at first, (such is the immersion). You really need to give it a week; then you will never look back. If you use OPUS or EZDOK for custom views they fully support TrackIR, so unlike with native FSX, with those programs you can fully move your 'default' view point around, without having to use the centering key method.
Additional tip from a very experienced TIR user
TrackIR, IMHO, is the second most important device next to a good joystick that you can own when playing flight sims. Spending the time to get this device working properly is an investment which pays huge dividends.
Sometimes it is difficult to comprehend just how much improvement can be experienced with one more add-on. I am first in line to admit that I considered adding the Track IR to my flight sim setup many times but for one reason or another got sidetracked and failed to make the purchase. I’m sure many of us have had similar experiences, but when we finally ‘get around’ to seeing what all the hum is about, we can’t believe that we actually waited so long. It is quite common to read incidental comments on our forums where many of the Avsim members state ‘I wouldn’t fly without my Track IR’. Now it is easy to say, sure that is just another overjoyed flight simmer, and that is very possibly a true statement. However, should you decide to see for yourself, I suspect you will be joining that crowd.
There are many terms bantered about for these special add-ons. Terms like ‘game changer’, ‘most important piece of hardware ever’, or ‘best add on ever’ and similar. I agree with all of them. Today, the Track IR5 is at the top of the heap for FSX/P3D flight sim hardware add-ons.
This review was limited to FSX only and it not intended to cover any part of the other 154 or so TrackIR enhanced games. A constantly updated chart is available at Naturalpoint.com that visually shows the supported D.O.F. by game title. More than half the Enhanced games are Flight related. Aerofly, DCS, LockOn, Rise of Flight, Wings of Prey and X-Plane are just a few of the more popular ones.
Buy it and try it. The Track IR does take some time for your senses to adjust to these new views and most everyone agrees that it could take up to two weeks to feel really comfortable when flying in the simulator. I will tell you, I felt ‘comfortable’ the very first time I looked out the pilot’s window at my wingtip. I just got progressively more comfortable with more flights and a few more recentering adjustments. I have to admit that I still challenge the edge of the taxiway at times when I get busy looking around the nooks and crannies of the cockpit. It is indeed a wonderful new world when you add this one to your setup.
Immediately add the NaturalPoint Track IR5 to your wish list just in case you get lucky or have a birthday coming up. Otherwise purchase one this evening or as soon as you can. If the price puts you off, maybe you can forego the next flying add-on or maybe even the next two and save your pennies for the magic time to purchase. Go for the Pro Bundle for maximum enjoyment.
NaturalPoint, especially Seth Steiling for providing the evaluation copy, providing his excellent flight profile and answering my questions.
Our friends at Avsim.com that contributed to the review and my personal setup – especially Jeff H and Dave Romford (Q_flyer).