'Force feedback' is when the computer joystick pushes back

Personal Computers

March 03, 1997|By Stephen Manes | Stephen Manes,New York Times News Service

A YELLOW disk on the screen is the virtual ball. A green line serves as a virtual slingshot. But when you wrap your fingers around a new kind of joystick and pick up the "ball" with the "slingshot," this simple descendant of the game of Pong literally comes alive in your hand.

As the ball drops back into the slingshot, your hand feels the ball's "mass" stretching the "rubber." Hold down a button on the joystick, and the ball sticks to the slingshot, lurching to and fro in a genuinely palpable way. Let go, and as the ball takes off, you feel the reaction.

Realistic interfaces

The concept known as force feedback has long been recognized as an important element in realistic interfaces between computers and their users.

In his 1991 book "Virtual Reality," Howard Rheingold discussed several applications of the technology, from arcane systems designed to let chemists feel simulated molecular forces to an Atari arcade game called Hard Drivin' that let you "almost feel

the asphalt in the road" through feedback from the steering wheel.

Until recently, force-feedback products were far too expensive to think about trying at home. Now, for about $180, the Force FX joystick from CH Products lets you experiment with the technology on your own desktop. Information is available at (800) 624-5804 or www.chproducts.com.

With its broad base, six buttons and two four-way "hat" switches, the joystick resembles other fancy models that game addicts love. But in addition to its game port connection, it requires a serial port and AC outlet to control and power the two built-in motors that provide the unit's push-back force.

The skimpy manuals and clunky DOS-based setup software are all too common in the rough-and-ready gaming world. The Windows 95 calibration screens available from the joystick icon on the control panel are not much better.

Tip: When Windows tells you to "move the POV hat to the up position, and then press ENTER," be sure to press the Enter key before you let go of the hat.

On my machine the software did not properly calibrate the stick, forcing manual adjustment of the trim tabs to minimize annoying drift.

The hardware seems to work. The devil, for the moment, is in the software.

Limited applications

Although virtually any program that can use a joystick will let this one perform as a standard model, only a few games deliver interactive force-feedback effects. You can program the stick so that the buttons will deliver a standard force response like a brief recoil every time you pull the trigger, but that is hardly interactive.

And the games that do work with the stick tend to require commands and software "patches" to get things running.

Installing the Need for Speed SE on my machine was a heroic proposition and just getting it to run can demand dogged persistence, but this racing game lets you set up the Force FX to serve as the steering wheel.

The feedback is fickle; hitting certain obstacles produces a jolt, but you can plow into others without feeling a thing.

Worse, there is no way to keep the game from thinking that the button under your pinky is a brake, and every time you bump it accidentally, a scary spinout ruins your run.

Rival entrants

The force-feedback arena is destined to get more crowded. Logitech Inc. has announced plans for a product using similar technology. Last April the Microsoft Corp. acquired Exos Inc., a force-feedback specialist developing something called the Powerstick.

For any of these products to become more than just gimmicks will require software as startling as the simple ball-and-slingshot demonstration.

And remember: From now on when you kick your computer, it may well be able to kick back.

Pub Date: 3/03/97

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