Today we kick off our â€œFlight Simulator Geekâ€ week by looking at the TrackIR 4 Pro by NaturalPoint. The TrackIR product line has been lauded as one of the â€œmust haveâ€ accessories for Flight Simulator addicts and today the geeks try out this newest version that has built upon their award winning line of head tracking systems.
What is the TrackIR? Well, before we answer that, ask yourself the following question â€“ â€œHow many times while playing a game did I have to use the hat switch on my joystick to change or pan around the view?â€ If your answer is â€œoftenâ€ then the TrackIR is for you! The TrackIR consists of an IR sensor and a set of IR reflective targets. The IR sensor tracks the relative position and movement of the target and determines how to set the view in your favorite game automatically. What does that mean? Now when in your Flight Simulator virtual cockpit, just turning your head slightly can pan the view to match!
Out of the box the TrackIR 4 Pro unit looks almost like a small USB webcam. And when we say small, we really mean it! The unit is about the size of 2 postage stamps side by side. A decently long USB cable allows the sensor to plug into your PC (although if your PC and monitor are a good distance away you might need to use a powered USB hub or a USB extension cable.) The IR Targets come on what the company refers to as itâ€™s â€œVector expansionâ€ unit. This is a little flexible metal framework that you can clip to the brim of a baseball cap or visor, or the cross-support of a headset. As you turn your head, move forward or back, up or down, the sensor picks up the relative position and size of the IR targets on the Vector and determines your head orientation. NaturalPoint even provided us a baseball cap to use.
The geeks took their TrackIR for a spin with both Flight Simulator 2004 and the new Flight Simulator X, although a growing number of other games are supported by TrackIR as well. In both versions of Flight Sim we found the TrackIR to be amazingly useful and intuitive to use. One of our hesitations in the past with this sort of concept was our concern that if youâ€™re turning your head to the side, how do you see the monitor? Thankfully NaturalPoint took this into consideration and very tiny head movements translate to decently large on-screen movement. This can sometimes be a bit frustrating though (for instance, trying to use the mouse to flip a switch on the Flight Sim Virtual Cockpit can occasionally be challenging as there is a natural tendency to keep turning your head to track the mouse movement, putting the pointer still farther from the switch! This can be alleviated by using options to make the mouse lock to the nearest control switch though.)
The TrackIR supports 43 degrees field of view from the sensor, so sitting 1-2 feet from your monitor should allow it to track your head movements without any problems. The sensor comes with an ingenious little stand that adapts itself well to either LCD or CRT displays. The geeks have to admit they were initially baffled on how to use this stand, but a quick glance at the instruction sheet (we know, we know, geek foul!) revealed how to use it. The system supports full 6 Degree of Freedom movement tracking (for you laymen that means up/down, front/back, left/right, roll, pitch and yaw. Driver support is excellent, and the company already has a pretty decently working alpha-version driver for use with Flight Simulator X, as well as full Windows XP x64 Edition support. (We have to admit that we forgot to check for Vista support, but we would be surprised if it isnâ€™t already in there or will be shortly after Vistaâ€™s general availability.)
After two weeks with this unit, we canâ€™t imagine flying Flight Sim without it and it has totally sold us on the 3D Virtual Cockpit mode. We do caution however, that we did our testing using a 24â€ Dell LCD, and we suspect users with smaller displays might find the â€œmy head it turned to the left, but the monitor is still straight aheadâ€ issue more irritating than we did. If youâ€™re a Flight Simulator (or for that matter a player of any sort of First Person perspective game that allows panning around the viewpoint) we have to say that the TrackIR 4 Pro is a must have accessory. While the price might seem a bit high at $170 MSRP (the Geeks have seen these units for sale for as low as $140) youâ€™ll never want to play without it as it totally revolutionizes the way you play.
We give the NaturalPoint TrackIR 4 Pro with Vector Expansion 5 out of 5 stars. If youâ€™re a Flight Sim player, this should be considered part of your â€œMust Haveâ€ accessories!