What is head-tracking? It’s a system that tracks and amplifies the movement of your head. With games like Elite: Dangerous (ED), which are designed for use with head-trackers, this will permit the movement of the character’s view as the player’s head moves, thus giving a more natural, flexible and effective view, independent of the character’s, ship’s, plane’s or other in-game vehicle’s fixed (usually straight-ahead) line of sight. The amplification of the player’s head movements means that the player can still easily look at the screen, even when the character has turned his or her view to the extremes of the ranges. In ED this means no longer using keyboard, joystick or other controller inputs to look around while flying.
Put simply, it’s brilliant! At about £180 new (for the TrackIR 5 Pro, which I review here) it’s not cheap, only works on Windows systems, and there are alternatives (see below). It has immediately added a significant improvement to my experience of ED, and after 2 weeks of use, it is hard to imagine flying without it.
Not only does it make dogfighting in small ships much easier, since both following and tracking your enemy’s moves become intuitive and effortless, but it adds so much more to almost all aspects of flying. It’s far more natural, and accurate, to turn whilst looking at where you want to go, than trying to manipulate head-look with keys, buttons and/or a mini-hat or simply leaving the view looking straight ahead and relying on the radar and other indicators. It’s also far more immersive and pretty to be able to watch planets, stations, ships and all the other wonderful ‘things’ in ED as you fly past them. There is an extra benefit too; you can select/target objects by looking at them first, again meaning you don’t need to point your ship at whatever you are interested in. This is useful in supercruise, as well as normal flight. OK, so you could do this manually using head-look, but that just hurt my brain whilst also having to juggle six degrees of freedom and other controls.
For an example of TrackIR, watch the Polygon team use and discuss it, whilst they give their first impressions of ED:
I found it very easy to install and configure (details below). The default ED profile works really well for me, though I am helped by having a great setup for TrackIR 5. I use a 32 inch monitor, and have a good fast graphics card with 3Gb RAM. I can’t speak for performance on less powerful graphics cards, but I know plenty of ED players use a 1Gb card and I have not seen complaints regarding TrackIR performance on the forums.
The software is easy to use, and looks like it has many options to tweak and customize your TrackIR profiles. To be honest, the default ED profile works so well for me that I have not found any improvement through changing settings or profiles.
With the Pro version, you get a choice of a hat-clip, which is designed for a baseball cap, but you could probably find other ways to fix it your head (gaffer tape?), or a plastic clip to attach to a headset. The headset plastic clip is probably the best way to go, since it includes lights for the camera to track, rather than just the reflective surfaces of the hat clip. This does mean you get an extra wire trailing from your headset, however. If you do go down the headset route, I would really advise investing the $8 in VoiceAttack too.
The camera is small and sits discretely on top of your monitor. The TrackIR 5 now features a nice magnetic connector between the camera and mounting bracket, so accidently pulling the wire won’t break the thing so easily. The headset clip plugs into the main camera cable, meaning you still only have one USB cable to connect to your PC.
There are a couple of issues to consider. I found that because I use such a big monitor I need to tilt my headset back by about 5 to 10 degrees to ensure the camera can still track the lights on the headset clip when I look down. This is no problem for me, but does highlight the sensitivity to the physical configuration of head position relative to screen(s). There are limits to this physical configuration, but they are probably not a problem for the vast majority of users.
The only other real issue/problem is with the UI panels in ED. The panels auto-open when you look at them, which is all great and as it should be. If, however, you want to look at them for a while (configuring fire-groups, selecting a subsystem on a target ship, etc.), then you are effectively having to hold your head still for a while (you can move it a bit and the panel will stay open, but it moves a little too). This seems an issue of preference and of style of play. Some people hate it and/or complain of neck-stiffness after playing, and some don’t even notice. You would think the obvious solution is to use the TrackIR ‘pause’ button (assignable) and then use joystick keys/hats/keyboard to select the UI’s… which works, but not really very well, as for some reason there is a 2.5 second delay when you pause the TrackIR and then issue a command to ED. I am pretty sure Frontier will find a fix, and probably provide the ability to override TrackIR when selecting panels from in-game. Until then you have 3 options: live with it and get good at looking at the panels (not so hard); 2. use a customized ED TrackIR profile (downloadable, easy to set up) which has ‘detents’ added on the yaw axis of TrackIR around the screens (disadvantage; these detents are effective at any pitch of your head, so there is also a dead-zone for head-movement when looking left/right above the panels). 3. Use some kind of multi-key-press profile to give you the option of the slower pause TrackIR/select UI/clear UI option + the standard and quicker normal TrackIR profile way of accessing the panels (I use the 3rd option, with VoiceAttack commands for the slower UI select method). I give details of these configuration options below, and note that this issue is far from a deal-breaker for me.
Alternatives: I have not tested any of the alternatives, so cannot comment on their relative performance. Many are much cheaper than TrackIR 5, however, so well worth a try if your budget is limited. There are many, many options around, but I only list the 3 I know are being currently used in ED:
- Homemade D.I.Y Headtracker for a Tenner (£10)
- FaceTrackNoIR (£0-50, depending on camera bought/used)
- Oculus Rift (DK2 version = $900!): Not just a head tracker, but a full 3D virtual visual reality, supported by ED. A very expensive option, however, that leaves the issue of now being totally ‘in’ the cockpit and therefore unable to see your real controller/keyboard/cup of tea). Users almost unanimously report a greater level of immersion and a real sense of depth, and very little, if any, of the motion sickess issues found with earlier versions. Interestingly some users report that it is so ‘realistic’ that when anything interrupts the immersion, (an FPS drop or stutter, for example), a sort of ‘uncanny valley effect‘ can kick in quite strongly.
The TrackIR 5 Pro is a great addition to the ED experience, which adds accuracy, effectiveness and fun to flight. It’s not cheap, but seems well made, with good software, and is widely used, so support and mods should be easy to find.
- Connect the camera and head-set clip to a single USB port.
- Download and install the latest drivers and software from Naturalpoint.
- Run the software, ensure you have internet connection, and click “Game Updates”:
- You should now see “Elite: Dangerous” in the list of titles (TrackIR software, advanced settings, “titles” tab).
- Look at centre of screen and press F12. This should centre your TrackIR.
- Run Elite: Dangerous and check functionality of TrackIR. It should be detected automatically by ED, and will disable manual head-look.
- If you lose TrackIR functionality, or the view suddenly flips to some crazy fixed position, then check the position of your headset permits a clear view of all 3 lights on the headset clip throughout the full range of necessary head movement. Note that blocking the lights with a hand, cup of tea, etc. will cause a similar malfunction. You can use the “Camera” pane in the TrackIR software to check this:
- Practice selecting the left/right UI panels by looking at them. If you want a more stable view, less sensitive to deselection from your head movements, then either use Maxim’s custom profile (see below), or use a custom key-press sequence using some kind of input profile, (for example, VoiceAttack; see below):
- Maxim’s custom profile, with detents for the left/right UI panels. I found this works well, but has the disadvantage of the detents (TrackIR deadzones) extending above the panels. Download the profile from here (Elite4_1.xml is the current version). It’s an excel file and needs to go in your TrackIR profiles folder (probably C:Program Files (x86)/NaturalPoint/TrackIR5/Profiles). This will now appear in the profiles drop down menu on the “profiles” tab, under “advanced settings” in the TrackIR software. Select it, and then check the “exclusive” box next to the drop down menu. This profile will now always start, regardless of what game you are playing, unless you uncheck “exclusive”.
- Using VoiceAttack to focus on the UI panels will give a 2.5 second delay between the command and UI focus. It does not however, change the ability to look at the UI panels and select them immediately. I detailed a simple set of VoiceAttack commands to enable this function in a post on the ED Forums.
- Download the latest manual, and, if you really want to, start exploring the full functionality of TrackIr5 more fully. I have not found any reason to tweak anything, so far, whilst playing/testing ED.
My current PC build (runs ED at 70 – 140 FPS, 40C max.)