I’m digging up not the newest piece of hardware here, NaturalPoints TrackIR 5. What got me interested is that owners of TrackIR hardware often seem to be divided between lovers and haters. Either you love it, and use it, or you hate it and it gathers dust somewhere. This, combined with the fact Simflight doesn’t have a review for it yet, was the perfect excuse for me to give it a go.
First of all, if you can’t be bothered with technical information or specifics, just skip to the ‘Ease of use’ section below.
That said, back to basics for a while. For those who don’t know what TrackIR or headtracking in general is. Headtracking is the use of a combination of hardware and software to convert real life head movements into in-game camera movements on the pc. Although there are numerous solutions available nowadays, both commercial and free, TrackIR by NaturalPoint is by far the most integrated. By that I mean it delivers everything you need, and doesn’t require you to go on a ‘do-it-yourself’-tour. The TrackIR hardware, specifically, is a small infrared camera which also houses some infrared LED’s.
Currently, NaturalPoint sells two versions of their TrackIR hardware. TrackIR 4 Pro sells for $99.95, TrackIR 5 sells for $149.95. Both versions run on the same software. For this review, I’m using the newer, more expensive version 5.
Unpacking and installation:
The TrackIR 5 hardware comes in a clear plastic clamshell-box. Inside this box, you’ll find the actual hardware, a mounting bracket, a ‘TrackClip’, and a quick start guide. No CD with drivers or software is included; you have to download that via the website. The reasoning behind this is that this will ensure you always have the latest version. Good reasoning, but an auto-updater does the same. Also, for the price of $150, I think a CD might have been included, if only for convenience. The actual hardware piece is quite small, the pictures you see are enlarged. In reality, it is just 2″ or 5cm wide (measured on the actual piece, not the mounting bracket).
Actually installing the hardware is simple. It should be mounted opposite your head, which means on top of the monitor for most setups. The included bracket can be manipulated to fit any monitor easily. The actual TrackIR piece is kept attached to it by a magnet. Simple and reliable, as I like it. The 6ft (2m) long USB-cable is long enough for most setups. With the hardware mounted, all there’s left to do in the physical environment is provide some reference points on your head for TrackIR to follow. The included ‘TrackClip’ will do this just fine. The TrackClip is a small, lightweight metal bracket with 3 reflective strips on it. It just reflects the infrared light from the LED’s back to the camera. The TrackClip fits to your usual baseball cap or even many types of headsets.
Installing the software is as simple as downloading and executing the .exe file. One thing I did notice, is that the drivers for the TrackIR hardware are (according to my 2 Windows 7 systems) not digitally signed, causing Windows to give warning messages and asking for permission to install, even if you have UAC turned off. Not a big deal, but they might as well have done that right, and signed it.
There’s not much to do to get TrackIR working with your favorite supported game. Just have it running while the game is running as well. However, getting it to work in a way that suits you might take some more time. I’m not going to take you through the entire process, but I’ll give you the basics. First of all, remember TrackIR works in all 6 degrees of freedom (if the game you want to use in supports it. FS9 and FSX do, as well as X-plane…). These 6 degrees of freedom are 3 rotations (tilting or shaking your head), and 3 translations (moving your head without rotating it). You can set up general settings in the TrackIR software that affect all 6 axes. However, to get a far more personalized experience you can set up all 6 axes independently. And the movement of these axes doesn’t have to be linear either.
The result of all this, is that you can have very specific profiles for how you like it. For example, you can have very large dead zones, so that small head movements are not transmitted to the game camera. But dead zones can also be zero, so that even the slightest movement is transmitted. And it doesn’t have to be the same for all axes. An example of a non-linear axis is the possibility to set up TrackIR so that if you tilt your head 10 degrees out of center, the in game camera will tilt 10 degrees as well, but when you tilt your head 20 degrees, the camera can, for example, tilt 40 degrees. This example gives a stable camera in the center of the range, while also giving the possibility to make large camera movements at the same time.
Although you can completely personalize each setup, TrackIR comes with some useful default settings, which you can use as-is, or as a basis to create your own setup.
Actually getting TrackIR to work in FSX, and most other games, isn’t hard. Just connect the hardware, run the software, and run the game. Easy as that. Some other games might be more difficult, but most games that support TrackIR out of the box will work like this. By the way, a list of supported games is found on the TrackIR website. A link will be provided below.
TrackIR software also provides for 4 hotkeys, one to pause TrackIR, one for more precision, one to change profile, and finally the most useful, on to center TrackIR. These hotkeys can be enabled or disabled, and they can be set up to be hidden from the game, so you don’t send game commands at the same time as pausing TrackIR, for example. Flightsim users: check these hotkeys! By default they will overlay (and disable) some of your flaps commands. Changing them is easy though.
The TrackIR software and profile setup system is very powerful. The downside of this is that it might not be very clear and intuitive at first. Good advice here: read the manual! However, once you find out how the program is built-up, it’s easy to use and very powerful. For setting up the axes, the great thing is that the software has a built in ‘camera environment’. You have a first person view, that shows what the game camera will do and you have 3rd person views that compare input to output. These are very useful to get a general idea of what your profile changes do, without having to run your favorite sim all the time.
Whether you will like TrackIR in gaming (or simming) or not, is an important question. First of all, it will depend largely on personal preferences. If you stick to 2D panels in FS9 or FSX, it will be quite useless. Also, there will be people who won’t like it, no matter how good it works. That said, as long as you’re not in one of the above categories, the most important thing is a correct setup. If it’s not set-up correctly, TrackIR is worse than useless. However, if it is set up correctly, it’s a real game changer. So, my advise if you decide to buy it (or if you have it already, but don’t use it): do not skip on setting it up to your preferences. You will regret it later. I also suggest starting with some of the preset axes settings in TrackIR v5 (I prefer the ‘smooth’ preset) and go from there. For flightsim, a one-on-one setting will be quite useless. The tiny range in which you can move your head while still seeing the monitor, is too small to view your entire virtual cockpit in flightsim.
Of course, you don’t even have to limit yourself to one specific FS profile. Flying airliners, or flying fighter jets in FS are 2 very different things, and you might even want to have different TrackIR profiles for them. No problem, you can do that. This way, TrackIR v5 has it’s uses for every kind of flying you can think of.
For me, TrackIR 5 has really added a new dimension to my FSX. If I want to look behind me to check the runway position for my base turn, I just turn my head. If I want to turn on the landing lights in the airliner I’m flighing, I just look up a little, and click the landing lights. No need to use the hat-switch on the joystick, the mouse look function in FSX or 2D panels. However, I’ve also experienced why so many people buy it, test it, and then let it gather dust in some cupboard: if it’s not perfectly set up for your preferences, you will not like to use it. The only solution: patience, adjust, test, and repeat. If, finally, you get it setup like you want, it will be a hugely rewarding experience to use it. The biggest downside, in my view, is the high price. Version 5 will set you back $150, if bought via the NaturalPoint website, while a version available through SimMarket costs even more (although that one comes with a cap).
- It’s a game changer, do doubt about that
- Easy installation
- Fits on all monitors
- Powerful software for setup and preferences
- Very small footprint, so not much of a performance decrease in game
- High price
- Setting it up just right can take a some time, and is very important for a good experience
- No driver/software CD included. Come on, for $150…
Note: All pictures are from the NaturalPoint – Track IR website, and are property of NaturalPoint, inc; Except the for the picture with the dummy-head and cap, that one’s from thepilotshop.nl website.