Interview with Jim Richardson, NaturalPoint President

by Jorgen “Troll” Toll

Today we have the pleasure of talking to Jim Richardson, president of NaturalPoint -the makers of TrackIR, who has supplied a substantial part of his busy day to answer our questions.

Welcome to SimHQ.com Jim!

SimHQ.com: Could you begin by telling us how NaturalPoint came to be, and what’s your history.

NaturalPoint: NaturalPoint was originally called Eye Control Technologies and was founded in 1996. As you can guess, we started out making eye tracking systems. The company was started because, years before, my cousin was in a severe accident and could no longer communicate in any manner but eye movement. I had been going to college at Berkeley, majoring in mechanical engineering, and wasn’t really interested in the material, so I decided to put my education on hold and start the company with my partner, Birch Zimmer, who does all the programming, to pursue alternative input devices for people with disabilities. Our first product was the ION E, an eye tracking system, and they are still in use today, although we no longer sell the product. We transitioned the company into head tracking because we could reach a much wider audience and help more people. Our technology revolutionized head tracking for people with disabilities, who were used to paying over $1500 for a similar device. Fortunately, we have some great users and one of them had a trackIR and loved flight sims, and there the discovery was made. I started monitoring the SimHQ message boards and the rest is history.

So, the initial development of TrackIR was with people with disabilities in mind?

Yes, our company was started to create alternative means of interfacing with computers for people with disabilities. We made eye tracking systems for about 2 years, but found that the setup was too tricky for non technical people, so we moved to head tracking, which is also a much larger marketplace. We feel that the assistive technology marketplace is very demanding and that our products must meet very high standards when being used as a primary communication device all the time. In the same way, the gaming community demands a quality product, so we see a good fit with these markets, first developing technology for assistive applications and then releasing more consumer-oriented devices that follow the same path.

So there was no deliberate effort from the start to make TrackIR a gaming peripheral as well.

No, we had always hoped that our products would find a larger market, but we did not find flight sims on our own. It was actually a user of the trackIR who pointed us in this new direction and opened our eyes to the world of flight simulation. Obviously, we love people to point out new applications for our technology and this idea was one of the best.

Do you have any figures of how many TrackIR units that have been sold to people with disabilities versus gamers?

Yes, we do keep track of all this information, but we don’t release precise figures. I can say that thousands of systems have been sold over the last 2 years. Also, this was the first month that sales of the trackIR (for games and simulations) have been greater than the SmartNav (for the assistive technology market). We expect this trend to continue.

Do these figures surprise you, or are they a result of dedicated marketing towards either area?

They are a bit surprising, but not for the reasons you might think. We expected the gaming market would adopt the trackIR much faster than it has, because the market place is so much bigger than assistive technology, and that there is an easy way to reach the users. We have found that potential users just don’t intuitively understand how the device works. Specifically, how you can move your head to change your view and not be looking at the wall next to you instead of the monitor. Now, what we having going for us is great word of mouth from our users, who are the best I have ever seen.

Yes, I see the problem. I guess that has to be experienced to be fully appreciated.

So, who’s with you at NaturalPoint? Who makes the wheels turn?

We have a nice small company, about 8 employees. The only things that are important to us is loving our work and having new things to do. My area of expertise is in image tracking / processing from a hardware perspective and also general mechanical and electrical engineering. Birch Zimmer handles all the firmware and low level programming. Eric Jennings is the Windows guy who makes it all look good and work. All the design and construction of the trackIR is done in house, by us guys.

It’s been a year and a half since I first tested the TrackIR, and wrote the review. Much has happened since then, in the world in general for sure, but also at NaturalPoint. What have the major goals been the last year and a half?

Our goals have been to refine and segment our product line. We now have two separate web sites, one for the smart-NAV and one for the trackIR. There have been many improvements to the device in both hardware and software. We all know that the economy hasn’t been the best so we have also been working hard to build our dealer list and find opportunities for growth with the trackIR. We feel that this coming year is going to be our best ever and we can’t wait to see what is going to happen.

There has been several updates to the TrackIR software since the review. Amongst other improvements there has been several additions and updates with gaming in mind. Is this a continuing effort from your side?

Yes, we are now actively focused on creating and maintaining a gaming specific version of our headtracker. We segmented the software to create trackIR and smart-NAV specific versions not long ago, and now we are working on a completely new version of the trackIR software. This is being created from the ground up for sims and gaming. We think it’s important to continually rev and release new code with feedback from the trackIR community, as it helps the product become better and better for users.

Smart-NAV? Is that a TrackIR with other software and target user?

Yes, the Smart-NAV is a hands free cursor control system targeted at people with disabilities and ergonomic issues. It is basically what the trackIR started out as, but we decided to keep the name “trackIR” for the gaming system and introduce the new name “smart-NAV” for the original product line. trackIR has a more gaming feel to it.

What other improvements will we see, software and hardware wise, that are of interest for PC games/simulations fans?

There are improvements all the time, in both hardware and software. We revise the hardware about every 3 months, to reduce the time it takes to make a system and help reduce the cost of the system, in addition to making them more reliable. A great example of this is our new lens system. We made a new mold for a custom lens that fits right onto the imager and it increased the FOV and made the center of the imager be the center of where the device is pointed. New hardware features are a clear case, which looks great, and new custom molded rubber feet to go over the metal base. There were some issues with the older feet coming off or the metal scratching laptops, but now there are nice rubber boots on there. Also, the metal base is no longer laser cut, but stamped, so the edges are very clean. You will be able to see pictures of this on our new site. Software wise, we are releasing a new version that has support for our Remote Software Interface built in. There will be games that take advantage of this new capability soon.

Ok! Hold it there for a minute! First, explain the new lens, if you would. What will that mean to us Simmers?

The new lens is now absolute to the imager, it is placed right on the imager. The older systems had a separate lens that was part of the housing and could be off center from the imager, giving the feeling that the unit wasn’t looking straight at the target. It is all a very fine adjustment when dealing with lenses and imagers, so it is important to line everything up correctly. Also, the larger FOV will allow for new accessories to be added easily, like an active LED on a hat brim.

And what about the Remote Software interface? Meaning?

Good question. This is something that our users have been after for quite some time. What we have always needed is a direct interface to the game, a way around the mouse panning interface. With this capability we can avoid the multiple mouse scaling setting, in Windows, our program and the game, and have an absolute cockpit to work in. This will mean that we can have dead zones, non linear scaling and never have to reset the “center” of the cockpit. This is an active project that Halstead is working on. As many users may have heard, we are expecting full support in IL-2 FB, as indicated by Oleg.

Ok! Interesting! Please go on…

On the broader scale, we will be increasing the speed of the hardware and the resolution of the imager in the future. We run at 60FPS now and should be able to up that to 120FPS. This will reduce latency in the cursor or view motion. Also, we will increase the resolution of the imager for finer control. These changes are not critical for flight and driving sims, but very important to other types of games like first person shooters. This will also enable us to eventually work well with video console games where users are generally farther from the screen. Version 2.0 software will be out in a few months and there will be major changes in it. We have been listening to user feedback and many suggestions will make it in, including a dead zone and nonlinear scaling. It will also have a completely new user interface, and will focus on make individual user set-up for different games as easy as possible. Finally, we will be releasing a new NaturalPoint hat with integrated dot in a month or so. This hat will be very high quality and will help make the trackIR work better because of the larger reflective area and that the “dot” is further from the center of rotation of your head. Oh yeah, I almost forgot, we are working on an ACTIVE LED project! The active LED in place of a reflective dot will greatly enhance the overall performance of the trackIR. I have read of some users going down to Radio Shack (I actually worked there some in college) and making their own active LED units, so we figured that we can lend a hand and make a new accessory. Look for it to be at the top of our list after version 2.0 is out.

Ok, Simmers are very aware of what an increase in FPS means, but a hat? Will the hat have the active LED, or a regular dot? How will a larger reflective area make TrackIR work better?

The hat allows for more “throw” when using the trackIR. The unit simply interprets the amount of translation of the dot and moves the cursor a corresponding amount. By having more translation you can decrease your scaling factor and smoothing so that the movement is more precise. The initial hats will have a dot built into them that is larger than a standard dot, this greater surface area allows for more precise tracking because there is more information to calculate the dot center point from and the dot can be seen from a greater angle. There will be an active LED to hook onto the hat as well.

Ok! So much for the gadgetry. What about the community support and the marketing?

We have started a very big push towards gaming with the trackIR. First, we have a new web site that will be launching shortly. On the new site will be track files and gameplay footage submitted by our users that highlight how the trackIR works. In addition, there will be better pictures of the device in action. Also, we recently launched our own user forums, which is already at about 100 users! Finally, we have hired Halstead York, a marketing professional with experience in the gaming industry. Halstead is responsible for much of what you will see and all of the games that will have built in trackIR support.

I you were to draw, or sketch, a road map for the future developments, what would it look like?

We are looking to have version 2.0 software out around the first of the year. This will add a number of features and capabilities to current trackIR users. A “pro” version with the enhanced imager described above should be out in Q3. This will be great for all of the current gaming applications, as well as a number of enhanced features for tactical first person shooters like Operation Flashpoint and Rainbow Six. Some *very* new stuff, offering more freedom of movement (without the crazy, obtrusive form factors usually associated with such products), will be out in Q4. We’re planning on having new products every 3-6 months.

Ok! Sounds like you guys are going to be pretty busy..!

What about pricing of the new gadgets? Will there be package deals perhaps?

That is more of a question for Halstead, but I think that you will be seeing a more tiered product line, with intro models and more advanced ones. This will be much like the high end video card market.

There has been frequent visits to the SimHQ.com message boards by NaturalPoint employees that have provided support and listened to end-user input. Is this a company policy, to roam the internet and helping out wherever you can, or is it by own initiative?

It is really both. We have a duty to our users to help them out and monitor the boards, but it is also a ton of fun to find out what people are up to and what unique problem or suggestion they may have. Honestly, I browse the boards when I need to take a break from work and have some fun reading posts.

It’s great to have such direct contact with developers.

What input has the TrackIR users had on the decisions for the increased development of TrackIR soft/hardware towards simulation games?

Everything is driven by our users. All the new features in version 2.0 of the profiler come from the boards and emails that we get. When we receive more than a few prompts for the same feature then it goes on a very large white board in Eric’s office. So when I say, “it is on the board”, I mean it is literally on the white board! Also, we just love to see our dedicated users post on the boards about their experiences with the trackIR, and then to see new people jump on board after they get one. It is great to make new toys and then have people enjoy them and give such good feedback about how to make it even better. I only wish that we had more resources to devote to our development program as things seem to take forever to get done.

One flight simulator that has been released since my review of trackIR is IL2-Sturmovik by Maddox Games/BlueByte. IL2 works really well with trackIR, almost like they designed those beautiful fast scrolling 3D cockpits with trackIR in mind. They set the industry standard for 3D cockpits, and others are to follow in their tracks. What role does NaturalPoint play here? Are you actively seeking to implement game support for TrackIR?

Yes, this is our number one priority. Halstead is in charge of this area and works with game developers on a daily basis to make sure that they integrate direct trackIR support. We recently finished the specification for our Remote Interface to the trackIR software, and it’s been sent out to a number of developers who are actively working on implementing it in their games and mods. There are a number of very familiar names currently playing with the new interface ;). In the next week or so we will be releasing trackIR software that supports this interface and then games will start to appear that work with it. I think that this will be a real revolution for our users. The experience will be very similar to how FS2002 is now, but easier to use and with even more control over your settings. We are very exited about it.

I said in my review that TrackIR is the best solution for headtracking, until Head mounted Displays are cheaper and better. Are there any plans or dreams for making a headmounted display for the TrackIR. I mean, that would really be the optimum Simulation display!

I have been talking about this on the boards in the past few weeks. I am lucky to have all the best toys including most all commercial HMDs made. I personally don’t like the experience that much when compared to a large monitor. I like to be able to see my stick and keyboard. My ideal setup is to have a large projector in front of a home made cockpit, like some guys have posted on this and other sites. I think that this gives you the best experience overall. I have tried this with a trackIR and the experience is overwhelming. Another benefit of having a projector is that you can watch movies on it as well. Look at the high end military sims, they all are projector based and provide the most real experience possible.

One day there will be a cheap HMD with a good FOV that we will all love, but that day hasn’t come yet. The best hope is in the new OLED area. Check out http://www.emagin.com/ for a good example. There are several issues to HMDs that won’t be solved for some time, such as the optics required for an immersive display and the inner ear problems associated with a scene that doesn’t move when your head does (your eyes are always compensating for this and you get sick when it doesn’t happen). If and when it happens I will be the first one to sign up.

Well Jim, I’ll be right behind you! ;-)

It’s been great “talking” to you! Good luck in the future! We will follow the developments with great interest!

And lastly: Keep up the good work!

Thanks so much for letting me participate in this interview. I have enjoyed the process and hope that our users and potential users find the information helpful.

That concludes our talk with Jim Richardson, President of NaturalPoint.

Looks like we’re in for an eventful year 2003. We’ll see many new developments and improvements. Hats, Active LED’s, new lenses and software… What it all will mean in the end remains to be seen. But SimHQ.com will be on the ball, so stay tuned folks!