Trackballs and Thumbsticks Go Head-to-Head in Study

The “pro trackball” anecdotes of mine and other zealots are hardly convincing to those who haven’t had any time using a trackball controller. Wouldn’t it be great if there was some kind of study that tested whether people found trackballs more intuitive and capable than the right-hand thumbstick? Enter Daniel Natapov, a graduate from York University, who wrote a Master’s Thesis on this very subject.

Perhaps the stars had aligned in December. Within days of learning about Jay Garcia’s real-life, fully operational (and purchasable) Trackball Controller for the Xbox 360, Daniel Natapov wrote to tell me about his own working Xbox 360 Trackball Controller prototype, plus a Master’s Thesis he had just completed that empirically demonstrated the advantages of trackball control.

Natapov’s 2010 thesis includes several empirical tests using control groups and subjects with varying degrees of gaming experience. The test show, among other things, that whether a user is already accustomed to using a thumbstick or is a novice, thumb-operated trackballs are superior to right-hand thumbsticks:

The trackball controller outperformed the standard controller in each block, for both groups. Surprisingly, even for participants who were proficient with standard game controllers, but largely novice trackball users, performance with the trackball controller was higher. …not only is the trackball controller significantly better (in terms of throughput), it requires little or no re-learning for users who are experienced with standard game controllers. Overall, novices using the trackball controller outperformed advanced users using the standard controller

Natapov’s studies show that users not only performed better with the trackball controller, they preferred it to the “standard” console controllers.

Comparing just the console controllers, 15 out of 16 participants (93.8%) rated the trackball controller ahead of the standard controller in terms of preference – an overwhelming majority.

Thanks to work by people like Daniel Natapov and Jay Garcia, the ergonomic and performance benefits of trackballs are more undeniable than ever. I can’t help but think that, for a console maker looking to differentiate, the right thumbstick-to-trackball conversion is low-hanging fruit.

Daniel Natapov’s thesis, The empirical evaluation and improvement of video game controllers., is available on his website. In addition to other papers on the subject of game controllers, he has a YouTube video showing a modified Xbox 360 Trackball-swapped controller which was used in the study.

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