The Falcon Has Landed

Novint turned to Lunar Design to transform a $20,000 engineering device into a $239 video game controllerwith an eye on the medical training market

Here's a trick question (or two): How do you design a consumer-electronics device that has no precedent in the marketplace? Say, a miniature robot that can be used by both players of entertainment PC games and doctors? In other words, a controller for on-screen simulations, from shoot-'em-up war scenes to surgical practice sessions.

And what if you're challenged to design this mini-robot so that it can also provide a sense of 3D touch and texture, such as moving through liquid or passing over bumps? Finally, what if your last task as a designer was to ensure that this ultra-sophisticated game controller could be made from materials and mechanisms so affordable that the device would cost approximately $200, qualifying it as a mass-market item?

This is exactly the challenge that the design team at Bay Area-based Lunar Design faced when creating the Falcon, a new type of haptic, or tactile, PC game controller that was released last week by Novint Technologies (NVNT), a maker of 3D touch products and a Lunar client.

In the past, Albuquerque-based Novint concentrated on developing similar technology for corporations such as Lockheed Martin (LMT), Chrysler (DCX), and Chevron (CVX) for training and research purposes. But the company was looking to make the technology available to consumer audiences and thus expand its market, according to Novint's founder and chief executive, Tom Anderson. So Anderson turned to Lunar Design for Novint's first foray into the world of gaming devices for a mass audience.

Innovative Portfolio

Lunar is one of the world's top design strategy firms—a frequent winner of the Industrial Design Excellence Awards—whose portfolio includes such innovative products as the Oral-B (PG) CrossAction toothbrush (with its novel criss-crossing, plaque-busting bristles) and the da Vinci Surgical System (featuring a uniquely ergonomic booth from which surgeons can manipulate remote robotic arms that control small surgical instruments within a patient's body, thus requiring minimal incisions and shorter recovery time).

And Jeff Salazar, Lunar's director of design, and his team have repeatedly taken on design briefs from some of the world's leading corporations, many in the personal computing market. In addition to Intuitive Surgical (ISRG), the maker of the da Vinci Surgical System, and Oral-B, the nearly 24-year-old firm has worked with corporations such as Apple (AAPL), on the first PowerBook design, and Hewlett-Packard (HPQ), on the Pavilion family of home PCs. The firm's mix of experience with revolutionary new devices and its familiarity with the PC market appealed to Novint.

With the Novint Falcon, as with the Oral-B CrossAction toothbrush and the da Vinci Surgical System, Lunar was "dealing with an object that isn't familiar. It's not an MP3 player," says Salazar, who with Lunar lead designer (and avid gamer) Alex Rochat led the team working on the Falcon. "We knew we were breaking new ground." Which, Salazar adds, meant that Lunar's designers faced a tough challenge, one more daunting than, say, simply redesigning existing objects.

Original Technology; New Price Tag

Novint's challenge for Lunar was to transform a high-end, industrial controller produced by Swiss company Force Dimension, from a $20,000 device used by scientists and engineers for technical training and research into a desktop version that would cost consumers only 1% of the original design. (The Falcon is currently being offered at an introductory price of $189 via online sales and will cost $239 when it hits stores in August.)

"The primary goal from the outset was to retain as much as possible of the original. The [Force Dimension] controller had a Ferrari feel. It was clearly a high-end machine," says Salazar. And the original technology, which uses algorithms to mimic the physics of moving through textures, had to remain to make it work as a truly haptic controller. It's this technology that causes the robotic arms of the device to push or pull against the hand of its user. Moreover, the look had to appeal to the mass gaming market. "It couldn't just appear industrial and mechanical," says Salazar. "Otherwise it would feel foreign and not as approachable." In other words, the designers had to avoid alienating potential customers. Users had to understand instantly what the controller was and how it worked.

Desktop Downsize

Before Lunar agreed to take on the seemingly impossible challenge, the firm's Hong Kong office (one of four, with others in San Francisco; Palo Alto, Calif.; and Munich) met with vendors of mechanical parts and motors in China. "We wanted a robust estimate to convince ourselves that we could do it," says Jeff Smith, Lunar's chief executive. Meanwhile, Lunar's Engineering Director Art Sandoval, consulted with experts in electrical engineering, physics, and robotics at Stanford University—an open-innovation approach that Lunar often takes when putting together what Smith calls "an all-star team" for each individual project, especially those involving complex engineering.

In terms of the Falcon's engineering, Sandoval and his colleagues decided to replace the single, powerful motor of the original Force Dimension controller with a series of smaller, less expensive motors. The metal details of the original industrial device were replaced with cheaper white plastic. The team consciously chose white, Salazar says, because it was already familiar to consumers—as in the iPod and Nintendo's (NTDOY) Wii.

To maintain a desktop-friendly size, the designers configured the unit's three arms to fold neatly inward when not in use, which the designers describe as a vortex movement. "This twisting movement cut the size of the controller approximately 40%," says Lunar's Smith. Over a period of roughly a year-and-a-half, Lunar's design and engineering team completed four or five prototypes, with both engineering and aesthetic tests, before alpha-testing the device among the staff from Force Dimension, Novint, and Lunar for about a month.

Winning Design

The finished Falcon has three robotic arms and a base that houses the small motors that drive the controller's movements. Players can grasp a handle with a round, ball-like grip, which is called an "end effector." That handle can also be fitted with different grips, including one that feels like a gun trigger for games such as the first-person shooter Half-Life 2.

The design is already drawing plaudits. At the 2006 E3 trade show, the respected gaming Web site IGN dubbed a demo version "best of gear," beating out the then-new Nintendo Wii and the Sony (SNE) PlayStation 3 controller. In January, the Falcon was recognized by the electronic gaming category with a Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2007 Innovations Honoree Award, presented by the independently juried International CES Innovations Design & Engineering Awards.

Sales Ride on the Gaming Industry

But how will this translate into sales? Novint says that the initial, preorder shipment of the controllers (which began in January at CES) sold out, although the company won't disclose figures. And now that PC game sales are showing signs of gaining steam after a recent slump, the Novint Falcon could be poised for take-off.

Market research firm NPD Group reports that sales of PC games in the U.S. were up slightly in 2006, fetching $970 million, or about 1% more than the $953 million spent on PC game sales in 2005, mainly due to the increasing popularity of PC games that require the purchase of software, such as World of Warcraft. The 1% growth in 2006 is especially significant given that 2005 sales represented a 14% drop from a total of $1.1 billion in sales in 2004. That decrease was in large part due to increasing numbers of gamers playing online-only games.

Not to mention that the breakthrough PC-game controller could ride the coattails of Nintendo's Wii. Thanks to the Wii and the popularity of its motion-sensitive controller (it outsold the PlayStation 3 during its first months of release), gaming audiences are used to new controller designs for consoles.

Still, video game industry analyst David Cole of DFC Intelligence warns that game developers will need to create titles that can exploit the 3D touch technology before gamers can experience the Falcon's effects, meaning the Falcon's success really depends on game publishers' and developers' acceptance and exploitation of the technology. To hook potential players, the Falcon comes bundled with Newton's Monkey Business, a suite of four "mini" or casual PC games, such as Feelin' It Golf, in which players feel the difference in weight between clubs such as an iron and a driver.

Beyond Video Games

Of course, fun and games aren't the only goals for Novint—and neither were they the main design concerns for Lunar. One of the mandates from Novint was to design the Falcon so that it might be adaptable for other markets, such as training doctors and medical students, by making it possible to attach a scalpel or a syringe to the controller to experience a haptic simulation of surgery or an injection.

This is a smart development and strong potential market—more and more medical schools are beginning to use PC game-like simulations. But it's still early days for this market—the first medical prototype was shown at the general meeting of the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons in San Diego in February, 2007, with an on-screen demonstration of injecting medicine into a knee. Doctors using an injection simulation with a syringe attached to the controller's grip could feel whether they were mistakenly hitting bone.

For his part, Salazar says the goal of the Falcon's design was to convey, instantly, what a product that users had never seen before can do—in order to draw them in. As with the earlier, unprecedented designs for the da Vinci Surgical System and the Oral-B CrossAction toothbrush, it's all a matter of context. "We had to figure out how to create interest [in the Falcon] and make its design approachable," he says. "With the Falcon, we designed it to make it seem touchable. We wanted people to see it and feel compelled to interact. So we thought of it as an object that was also an interface between virtual and real worlds. This was a challenge of illustrating how design speaks to people."

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