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Getting touchy-feely with gamers

Technology originally developed for complex information modeling may deliver a better game of virtual golf. Photo: Touch and play

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.--If it works for nuclear science, it's probably good enough for a game of virtual whack-a-mole, too.

That's the pitch behind Novint Technlogies, an Albuquerque, N.M.,-based company that has taken technology originally developed at Sandia National Laboratories for complex information modeling and adapted it for everything from dental education to geological exploration.

The company is now eyeing the video game market with the Falcon, a touch-based game input device being previewed at the Demo conference here.

Force-feedback, the technology that makes a game controller jump when you fire a virtual machine gun, has been around for years. Falcon goes several steps further by providing a three-dimensional tactile experience.

Grab the stylus that protrudes from the Falcon during a golf game, for example, and it pretty much feels like a golf club, requiring extra lift in the middle of the backswing and punishing you with a bad slice if you let the stick drift horizontally. Shoot a basketball and you'll feel the ball being released from your hands as you attempt a three-pointer.

Novint plans to begin selling the Falcon early next year for around $100. For now, the company is busy trying to convince game developers to support the device by adding the application programming interface supplied by Novint to their code.

The Falcon initially will work only with PC games, but Novint CEO Tom Anderson expects it will be relatively easy to adapt the device for game consoles such as Microsoft's Xbox.

The bigger challenge may be getting the attention of gamers already toying with alternative input devices such as Sony's EyeToy for its PlayStation 2.

Anderson is confident he'll get an edge from offering a device that works with anything from a sports game to a role-playing fantasy, where the Falcon should add extra oomph to players' virtual swordplay.

"Ours is the only device that improves the experience pretty much in any type of game," he said.

Marketing will be another hurdle for a device that people pretty much have to feel to understand. "It's something that's hard to get just from looking at it," Anderson said. "We're going to focus on getting it in the hands of early adopters and letting them build word-of-mouth buzz."