New Trackball Controller in the Making

Heads up: I have insider info on a new trackball controller project but I’m not at liberty to spill any more details. In fact, I don’t really have enough details to make much more of this, except to say that the developer is legit and they are determined to make native trackball controllers a reality. This project could be started in a matter of weeks and I expect to have more details very soon. Stay tuned.

Valve files patent for trackball controller

With the rumors that Valve is developing a “Steam Box Console”, plus their less subtle teasing of “big picture mode”, it appears Valve is hoping to heroically usher PC gaming from the office chair to the (much more comfy and social) sofa. So, it’s no surprise that Valve has filed a patent for nifty-looking convertible trackball controller to give couch surfers a practical point-and-click device.

The controller shown in the patent looks like a standard Xbox 360 controller, but with two bays where thumsticks would normally be located:

“A variety of modular input interfaces can be plugged into these sockets. Hardware specific to the input type of the modular input is contained within the modular input itself, and plugged in via an interface. This allows for dual analog sticks, a combination of analog and trackball, or further any combination of touchpad, directional pad, or additional components.”

Will Valve’s increasingly successful game delivery system does find its way into our living rooms? If so, here’s hoping that we can leave the mouse behind.

– Steven

Review Follow-up: The Logitech M570, Four Months Later

wireless-trackball-m570

There is a tendency to confuse familiarity with superiority.

It’s been almost 4 months since I posted my hands-on review of the Logitech M570 trackball mouse. It was a highly favorable review with a couple minor complaints. Since then, the M570 has become my mouse of choice, and with the benefit of hindsight I’d like to address a few of my older observations:

“Feels a little light and small (for my taste)”

I’m glad I mentioned the word “taste”, because my taste has changed. Now, when I put my hands on my old MS Trackball Optical, it feels excessively bulky and “heavy”, overall. I’ve actually come to prefer the size of the M570. At the time of writing the review, I felt like the MS Trackball felt more substantial and less fragile. Now that old mouse feels almost clumsy in comparison to the M570.

“Although the molded shape fits my hand well, the position of the buttons and trackball seemed to be geared for smaller hands and took some getting used to.”

It’s true, the M570 took some “getting used to”. My biggest concern was that the size of the M570 would turn out to be a critical flaw; I was afraid, that my thumb would fatigue faster because it had to be slightly contracted to stay “on the ball”. Yet, there has not been a single case where that has caused a noticeable problem for me, whether gaming or working. I do wish the mouse was slightly longer, with the ball was positioned farther away, so that my thumb was more often in a relaxed/stretched position. Still, this has mostly become a non-issue for me.

“…the ball makes almost imperceptible noise and feels a little â€?roughâ€? when you roll it. I’d compare it to the sound and feel of rubbing one of your fingers on paper”

In the comments for the review, other members mentioned a similar issue. Some even claimed the culprit was a tiny piece of rogue plastic in the ball area – an unintentional leftover from the manufacturing process. A couple users removed it and reported the issue to be resolved, thoughI wasn’t brave enough to attempt surgery on my mouse. After a month or two of use, I noticed that this issue went away. Now my M570 is almost as quiet as the MS mouse.

Since I wrote the review I’ve noticed one major advantage of the M570 over my old MS Trackball: It glides almost effortlessly, only sticking when it is severely dirty (which is easily resolved). This is somewhat counterintuitive: My old MS trackball mouse feels “smoother” when I roll the ball, yet it requires more effort to get going; There is more resistance. The benefit of the M570’s ease is most noticeable in games, when I need to make very minor movements.

The M570 has really grown on me since I wrote the review. Compared to my old favorite, the MS Trackball Optical, the M570 has proven to be easier to use, more precise, and less likely to gum up. After 4 months of use, there is no question that the M570 has become my favorite mouse, and I continue to give it my highest recommendation.

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.

Hands-on Review: The Trackball Controller for Xbox 360

Two weeks ago, I had the surprise pleasure of announcing Jay Garcia’s Trackball Controller for the Xbox 360 and, last week, I posted a few first impressions. Some of you know that this blog has been promoting the idea of a trackball controller for years, and I couldn’t be happier to provide the first full, hands-on review.

Trackball Controller for XBOX 360
Top view of the Trackball Controller for XBOX 360

(Photos copyright Trackballer.com)

Overview

The Trackball Controller for the Xbox 360 (Official site, $149 at eBay as of Dec 2010) is actually a modification to the Xbox 360 controller, performed by an inventor name Jay Garcia. He is probably most recognized for creating the SmartJoy Frag.

In a nutshell, Garcia has replaced the right-hand thumbstick on the 360 controller with an optical trackball input. Since the right-hand thumbstick on the 360 also has a “click” feature, he has added a button on the underside of the controller to handle that function. There is also an additional button which is used to calibrate the dead zone/sensitivity. (More on that later). Finally, the controller comes with two trackballs for you to choose from: a black plastic ball and a shiny metal ball bearing. I’ve stuck with the plastic one.

(Photos copyright Trackballer.com)

You might be asking…

Why use a trackball?

Mice and trackballs are simply better pointing interfaces for gaming — especially in first-person shooter (FPS) games. (If console thumb sticks were superior input devices for FPS, competitive PC gamers would have switched to using hand-held controllers or joysticks long ago.) To determine how well the Trackball Controller lives up to expectations, it’s important to note some of the reasons many have been hoping for a device like this:

  • Mouse style input is capable of both high speed and accurate “twitch” movement, while also permitting very subtle and controlled adjustments.
  • Mouse-style input requires less user input, per character motion: (e.g., move in one direction and then back to center to stop the character).
  • Trackballs are becoming increasingly popular now because they can achieve the same fidelity of control as mice, without moving one’s entire arm. Furthermore, trackballs are portable (can be used on a lap or any other surface), and they take up less desk area because they don’t need to move.
  • The right-hand thumb stick on console controllers (Xbox’s, Playstations) aren’t even used in most games. When they are, it is generally used for pointing operations like camera control and cross hair pointing — perfect for a trackball.

So, it’s no surprise that I get regular inquiries from gamers asking whether a device that incorporates a trackball is ever going to be released. Finally, we have a contender.

How it works

Currently, Xbox 360 games are not programmed to receive trackball/mouse input. That’s why we can’t simply hack a mouse USB adapter and expect it to work with Xbox 360 games. Consequently, the Trackball Controller works by interpreting user input into “thumb stick language” for the game. This video, released by Jay Garcia two weeks ago, does a good job of showing how well the controller works:

Using the Controller

After years of waiting for a working device like this to appear, my first experience holding the controller was happily anticlimactic; It felt as natural as an unmodified one. The “right click” button on the underside felt perfectly placed and it took me just minutes to get used to it. In fact, I actually prefer it to the somewhat clumsy act of pushing a thumb stick “in”.

The trackball itself sits somewhat high in the controller and doesn’t lock into place. That means it can fall out if you tip the controller upside down. However, I think it was a great design decision to place the ball this high because it maximizes the area where your thumb can maintain control. The looseness of the ball was initially disconcerting to me because I had a tendency to push too hard and make it wobble upward slightly. That concern quickly passed as I got used to the controller.

Making it Work Well

Remember that extra little black button I mentioned earlier? It’s a calibration feature and happens to be critically important to your gaming future with the Trackball Controller. Inventor Jay Garcia needed to add a calibration function to the device because every game on the 360 can have a different definition of 1) how big the dead zone is and 2) how the dead zone is shaped. Additionally, if you change the sensitivity settings in-game, that can also change the size if the dead zone.

Dead Zone: Space within which you can move an input device without input being registered in-game. Without a dead zone, unintentional movements or vibrations in your hand would trigger unwanted movement of your character or pointer in the game.

So, to compensate, the Trackball Controller has a button that allows you to calibrate the dead zone to your needs. For example, I found that Bad Company 2 was simply not fun to play if the controller had been calibrated for Black Ops. However, once calibrated, both games perform equally well.

In-Game Performance

Creator Jay Garcia had said that Call of Duty: Black Ops was a great demonstration of the controller’s abilities, so for the first day, I played it exclusively.

The first thing I noticed was the slow default pointing “speed limit” in these console games. If I quickly moved the trackball, the cross hair would have to play catch-up, moving at “thumb stick speed”. Thankfully, adjusting sensitivity settings improved things. With Black Ops, I increased the sensitivity as I high as I could without sacrificing “small aim” accuracy. That ended up being “7” (of 10) versus the default of “2”.

It’s worth noting that with normal thumb stick controllers, in-game sensitivity levels have much more severe costs and benefits: For example, when you increase sensitivity you can move the pointer faster, but the space with which you can make minor adjustments quickly gets too small, making the game unplayable. With the Trackball Controller, however, I was impressed that I could achieve very high aiming speed without losing any accuracy on the small end. This brings me to the most notable characteristic of the device.

Because the Trackball Controller for the Xbox 360 has to translate your input into “thumb stick language” there is a ceiling on how fast the cross hair can move; That speed depends on the game and how high you raise the sensitivity level. With sensitivity settings raised, you will be able to comfortably aim at higher speeds than ever before on your console. Though, if you are a PC gamer, you might still be disappointed that you can’t do instantaneous 180 degree spins to “check your six” and then another 180 degree back to front (how realistic is that, anyway?). For you, it will take a while to feel as comfortable as you are on the PC. I started to feel “at one” with the trackball controller after a week.

Even though this device is somewhat limited by games that have been programmed for normal controllers, it truly outshines its thumb stick counterparts, especially when it comes to highly accurate, fine-tuned aiming.

A case study: Aim small, miss small

Imagine, for instance, you are sniping from a bell tower, trained on a street below. You need to be prepared for the enemy either taking cover behind a wrecked car, running straight across the street, or running towards your position. To be successful, the adjustment to your aim will have to be very small, yet quick and accurate. Suddenly, an enemy combatant dashes into the middle of the street from the left side, appearing to run across. As you begin tracking him in your sites from left to right, he suddenly turns back to the left.

On a thumb stick, you have to move your thumb back to the left, past the center (dead zone), to a place where the cross hair will begin moving left at some rate . Compare that to the trackball controller: The instant you move your thumb left, the cross hair moves also, at a rate that is proportional to how fast you move your thumb. Hence the reaction time is shorted the movement is more predictable, and less input is required.

The Trackball Controller effectively removes the dead zone, and I can’t think of anything nicer to say about, well, anything.

Summary

Now that I have used the Trackball Controller for Xbox 360 for a week, I won’t be going back to thumb sticks. Despite being speed-limited by games that have been designed for thumb sticks, the Trackball Controller offers superior aiming control, letting you crank up the sensitivity and aiming speed, while still allowing for precise, controlled “small aiming”. If your budget allows, I highly recommend it, both to PC gamers making the transition to the couch and to console veterans looking for another advantage.

Pros:

  • Superb aiming control, especially at low speeds
  • Intuitive feel, well-placed buttons, nice calibration feature.
  • Worked fine on all games I tested, including non-shooters.
  • You will not want to use a thumb stick again after using this controller.

Cons:

  • Though you can comfortably achieve much faster aiming with the controller, aiming speed is ultimately limited to game sensitivity settings (e.g., no instant 180’s)
  • Needs to be calibrated to work optimally for some games.

Though I hope next-generation consoles include native trackball-style input, Jay Garcia’s Trackball Controller gives us very welcome performer today.