The Novint Falcon may look like a space helmet with a robot arm sticking out of it, but it's really a kind of joystick that lets players "feel" the games they're playing: "When you hold the Falcon’s detachable Grip and move your cursor to interact with a virtual object, environment, or character, motors in the device turn on and are updated approximately 1000 times a second, letting you feel texture, shape, weight, dimension, and dynamics."
Anyone who's played Nintendo 64 games with the Rumble Pack or turned on the rumble feature in their PS2 DualShock controller has some idea of how force-feedback or haptic technology can influence gaming, but the Falcon takes this technology to a whole new level:
Hold the Falcon’s interchangeable Grip and feel a character’s actions, instead of controlling a game with mouse-clicks and meters. Feel the weight of a basketball as you shoot it towards a hoop—the momentum and impact as you swing a virtual golf club and strike a ball—the recoil of a weapon—or the physical characteristics of virtual objects and environments.
Novint Technologies is partnering with Valve to make games like Half-Life 2 and Counter-Strike: Source compatible with the Falcon, and I'm glad to see popular games take advantage of this technology. While tactile features might be a lot of fun for anybody, they could be especially useful for gamers with visual, auditory or physical disabilities. In the latter case, someone who has trouble feeling where, say, their hand is could find extra tactile feedback helpful in locating it.
Similar technology has been used to help disabled people navigate 3D environments by creating tactile maps or translating sign language into spoken or written words. A paper called "Using a force feedback device to present graphical information to people with visual disabilities" (PDF) describes real world uses for SensAble Technologies's PHANToM.
Some video games like Second Life are incorporating haptic technology to assist disabled gamers, and I wonder how much more could be done. Perhaps supplementing more creepy noises with jitters from the game controller could make many survival horror games more accessible to Deaf and hard of hearing players, for instance. Tactile feedback could even make more games playable by people who are deafblind.
But then a friend introduced her to the seedy underworld of the Mario brothers and she spent her saved-up birthday and Christmas money to buy a Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). Her mom didn't like the Nintendo at first, but The Legend of Zelda changed her mind. (When Tera got Zelda II: The Adventure of Link one Christmas, she suspected it was as much for her mother as for her).
Though she graduated from Agnes Scott College in 2002 and recently learned how to find the movie theater restroom by herself, Tera still loves video games. Far from being a brain-rotting waste of time, they've helped her practice spatial skills and discover new passions. Her love of games like Kid Icarus and The Battle of Olympus led to a degree in Classical Languages and Literatures. She thinks games have a place in discussions on disability and other cultural issues, and is excited to work with the like-minded staff at GameCritics.com.