Got my RSI Mouse Mat!

RSI Goliath Mouse MatJust got my RSI Mouse Mat delivered.  Very quick delivery, only ordered it a few days ago!  Razer Goliathus mouse mat for scale.

 

IR Head Tracking with FreeTrack

I’ve recently been learning to fly in DCS: A-10c Warthog, deciding to stick to just one flight sim until I get good at it.  What I’ve been interested in is whether a head tracking system would be useful, and whether I’d like it.  The TrackIR 5 head tracking system runs about $200, which is a bit costly for an experiment – particularly if I didn’t like it.

First, some background.  A head tracker is a system which monitors your head for movement, and then can be used to shift the point of view in a simulator appropriately.  Some work from facial recognition, but most work by having either infrared reflectors or emitters in fixed positions on a harness on the user’s head, which are then monitored by a camera.  The TrackIR is one such system, and has high compatibility with many simulators and is quite popular.  But it’s expensive.

Enter FreeTrack.  FreeTrack is a free system which uses (slightly modified) Webcams and a head harness made with some infrared LEDs to implement a head tracking system.  I decided to make myself up a really cheap FreeTrack setup to see whether I liked it at all.  Total cost?  About $20.

The Hardware

I went down to my local games shop, and was lucky enough to pick up an old-style Playstation 3 Eye for $9 (!!!).  The PS3Eye is ideal for this sort of thing since it can be easily disassembled and turned into an IR camera and can do decent resolution and framerate (320×240 @ 120fps).  I ripped out the IR filter lens inside the camera (wrecking the filter in the process), and replaced it with a piece of cut-out developed photographic negative.  The black part of a photographic negative is quite opaque to visible light, but nearly transparent to infrared.  I only used one layer, but in hindsight I probably should have used 2-3 layers of film.

For the headset, I simply used three IR LEDs in series with a 220 ohm resistor and a 9V battery.  This means the LEDs will have about 40mA going through them, which is within their spec.  Those are mounted onto a hat (photos will be forthcoming) so that two of the LEDs are on the corners of the visor, and the third is in the middle at the top of the head, all pointing towards the camera.  I then covered each LED with a thin layer of Blu-Tac to act as a diffuser.  Blu-Tac is surprisingly permable to IR light.

The Software

Firstly, I got drivers for the PS3Eye from here.  Secondly, you’ll also need FreeTrack itself.  Setup here is quite easy, follow the instructions you can find at this link.

When FreeTrack is running, mess about with your sensitivities.  You will probably notice that FreeTrack will crash if you just hit Start.  Click on the tabs that let you select the framerate, and the Stream button that lets you view the settings for the camera, and it’ll be fine when you hit Start.

Assuming it all runs, you’ll now need to get it running in your flight sim.  We’ll assume you’re using DCS A-10c like me.  Download the Eagle Dynamics DLL‘s from the FreeTrackNoIR project (another head tracker) and then drop the files into a ‘headtracker’ folder under (I assume that the root of your DCS A-10c install is in C:\A10C for brevity);

C:\A10C\bin\headtracker    <-- put 64 bit DLL and files here
C:\A10C\bin\x86\headtracker     <-- put 32 bit DLL and files here On starting up A-10, it should ‘just work’. The Test

It’s impressive.  The level of immersion provided by something so simple is amazing.  You will definitely want to enable deadzones for all the axes though otherwise it’ll look like you have the shakes.  But once you get it tuned right, it’s amazing.  Just being able to naturally look out of the cockpit is incredible.

It’s impressive enough that I’ve just ordered a TrackIR.

Razer Blackwidow Ultimate

For home and gaming use, I wanted something a bit different.  I was after a mechanical keyboard which was lower cost, had a standard 104 layout and had key legends.  What I wound out settling on was the Razer Blackwidow Ultimate.

Meet the Razer Blackwidow Ultimate (pic courtesy Razer)


It’s ~$40 more than the Expert version, but the Ultimate version has the USB hub, audio passthrough and the backlit keys.  Other than that, the Ultimate has the same key layout and keyswitches as the Expert.

“Optimized” rollover

The Blackwidow does not have N-key rollover.  But it does have rollover that’s optimized around the ESDF/WASD cluster.  This means that the keyboard is set up so you can hit pretty much any combination of WASD/ESDF and two other non-modifier keys and have them all work.  That covers off the majority of gaming scenarios where you may want to, for example, move forward while strafing left crouched, while reloading and talking on Teamspeak at once.  With my layout, that requires hitting something like ESCA and Alt at the same time.  That sort of combination will work fine.

But ZXC will fail.  It’s only optimized around the WASD/ESDF cluster, and is 2-key rollover elsewhere.  That all said, what I want rollover for is to handle ESDF movement scenarios with stuff like talking on Vent while reloading and things like that, so the optimization is perfect for me.  But for some flight sim folks who may need to use really weird key combinations, it may not work as desired.

Keycaps and Backlight

The keycaps have an odd font, but it’s quite serviceable.  Additionally, the caps are made of some kind of high-friction plastic, so they feel slightly rubbery to the touch and give decent grip.

The backlight can be very bright, but is adjustable in several graduations.  I use it on the lowest setting, since that’s plenty bright in the dark.  All keys are individually backlit, resulting in an even lighting across the board.  The colour is your typical LED blue that everyone seems to love these days.

The layout is a standard 104/105 layout, with one variation – it’s got a “M” macro button at the bottom right where the second Windows button would be.  That key is used as a modifier to operate the media buttons, record macros and the like.  It also has five extra buttons on the left side which can be mapped to macros.  I don’t really use the macro feature, but it does make the keyboard slightly wider than a standard keyboard.

The Keyswitches

The Blackwidow uses Cherry MX Blue keyswitches, which are wonderfully tactile and responsive.  However, be warned – they are LOUD.  They have a very noticeable “click” when depressed, and they sound like someone banging away at an old-school typewriter if you’re in a quiet room.  I certainly wouldn’t recommend trying to use one in a room where someone’s trying to sleep.

That said, in my opinion the MX Blues feel better than the Browns of the Das Keyboard.  But I don’t think I could get away with clattering away on a Blackwidow at work.

There has been some commentary about people having problems with repeat keys because the MX Blue’s tactile release point is slightly out of position with its activation point, but I can’t say I’ve noticed any problems.  As someone who learned to type on a mechanical typewriter, I can be a bit of a keyboard banger anyway.

The Skinny

The Blackwidow Expert is amazing value for money.  For the extra amount you pay for the Ultimate, it’s worth it if you value the USB hub and backlight.  With the Expert, you’re getting the same mechanics, switches, and layout, all for around the $100 mark, which is excellent value for a mechanical keyboard.  But, this keyboard is loud.  Not quite as bad an IBM Model M, but loud nonetheless.  Keep that in mind.

Pros:

  • Looks good
  • Has key legends
  • Expert version is excellent value for money
  • Standard keyboard layout (barring macro key in bottom right)
  • Programmable through five special macro keys
  • Has media buttons
  • Has ability to disable Windows key for gaming
  • Rollover optimized around WASD and ESDF clusters
  • Good build quality, quite heavy
  • Keyswitches have great tactile feel and friction

Cons:

  • Macro programming requires Razer driver kit to be installed
  • Doesn’t have true N-key rollover
  • Can’t use with PS/2, must be used with USB
  • Requires two USB ports
  • Loud

All in all, I’ve been happy with the Blackwidow Ultimate as a home keyboard, and I’ve recommended it to others who have asked me.  One of my colleagues got the Expert version for use at work, but he cops a fair bit of ribbing about the clackity-clack.

Das Keyboard Ultimate S Silent

As discussed earlier, I got a Das Keyboard Ultimate S Silent for work.  It’s a normal layout 104/105 keyboard, with two USB ports on the right, no key legends, and high quality Cherry MX Brown keyswitches.  It’s pretty expensive, too.

The Das Keyboard Ultimate S Silent (pic courtesy Das Keyboard)

The keyboard also supports full N-key rollover, if you plug it in via the included PS/2 adapter.  Either way around, it’s going to use either one USB port and your PS/2 port, or two USB ports.  No drivers are required.  It’s also really heavy.

N-key rollover?  What’s that?

Rollover is the number of keys that can be pressed simultaneously before either keystrokes you didn’t press appear, or keys you did press don’t appear.  For a work keyboard, rollover isn’t important, since you aren’t usually hitting multiple non-modifier keys at once, but for an extremely fast typist, rollover can matter.  For a games keyboard, rollover is critical.

Most cheap keyboards only have 2-key rollover.  Try and press something like QAZ or ESC at the same time and see what your keyboard does – most cheap keyboards won’t handle that and only two keys will be output.

The Das has full N-key rollover if you use the attached PS/2 adapter, and 6-key rollover if you use USB (the limit of the USB protocol).  But there’s a catch.

The way in which the Das implements the key scanning for N-key rollover means that it prioritizes keys which are to the left side of the board if you depress multiple keys very close in time to each other.  So if you depress, say, FDSA nearly at the same time, but you know that you actually hit the F first, it will be scanned last and the output from the keyboard will actually be ASDF.  This usually isn’t a problem.


Blank keycaps!  Ouch.

The Das has no keycaps.  While looking totally boss and severely discouraging others from using your keyboard, this does have one good side effect – it forces you to touch type.  You don’t have much option.  The Das does include tactile markers on the F, J, and numpad 5 keys, so you do have something to work with.

From personal experience, I can tell you that the lack of keycaps isn’t a huge problem if you’re a competent typist.  The biggest problem by far is punctuation along the rightmost half of the top row – little used characters such as %^&* and such.  I’ve trained myself to run numbers off the keypad now, which is likely a better way to do things regardless.

It does throw people for a spin who need to use my computer, so I still keep a USB keyboard nearby to plug in, just in case.

The Keyswitches

The Das uses Cherry MX Brown keyswitches, which provide a softer tactile feel, and aren’t very clicky.  Note though, when they call the Das “silent”, they are being very optimistic.  It’s still much louder than a membrane switch keyboard, but not annoyingly so.

The Browns trigger only a small amount of the way through their travel, unlike membrane switches which typically have to be depressed all the way.  The reduction in travel and tactile feel is one of the main features that makes the keyboard nice to type on.

The Skinny

The Das is a great keyboard to work on, but it’s expensive.  There’s a few things in its favour, but it’s got a few downsides.  Some of these may be down to drivers and updates though.

Pros:

  • Looks great
  • Build quality is high, has solid weight and feel
  • Keyswitches aren’t annoyingly loud
  • Standardized layout
  • Lack of fancy features and blinkenlights is a plus in an office environment
  • N-key rollover
  • Side USB ports

Cons:

  • Lack of key legends gives it a pretty steep learning curve, especially for passwords
  • Requires two USB ports or 1 PS/2 + 1 USB port to run
  • N-key rollover has some quirks
  • Really expensive, even for a mechanical keyboard
  • Sometimes thinks that shift or ctrl are being held down (software, not physical).  Pressing shift and ctrl fixes this.  This may be a driver/OS issue.

Overall, it’s a good keyboard.  But for home use, since I play a lot of games and want key legends, I didn’t decide to go for a Das there.  What I went with is for the next article.

Mechanical Keyboards – Why?

For Christmas, my wife got me a Das Keyboard Ultimate S Silent.  I’d wanted a good mechanical keyboard for ages, since I spend a huge amount of time typing away on a keyboard and I’d gotten sick of mushy membrane keyboards.  So, I got one for work.


Of course, it wasn’t long before I couldn’t stand my membrane keyboard at home, and needed a replacement, but shelling out for another Das was out of the question.  So that led me to the Razer Blackwidow Ultimate.  It’s a mechanical keyboard using the Cherry MX Blue keyswitches (versus the Das’ Cherry MX Browns), so it’s a fair bit louder and clickier than the Das.  It has key legends, with a backlight, USB hub, audio passthrough, and macro keys.  And it’s pretty cheap for what it is.  I’m using one at home now.

So what’s the deal with mechanical keyboards anyway?

I won’t go into a big review of the differences, since there’s plenty of resources on the ‘net about it.  But suffice to say, if you type a lot, a mechanical keyboard is a godsend.  It’s far more responsive and tactile than a membrane keyboard, and they’re usually heavy and solid.

I was considering stuff like an old second-hand IBM Model M.  However, they lack newer keys and are very very loud.  Next on the list was the Unicomp Customizer, but again that is very loud.  Next up was the Steelseries 6Gv2, but that has a non-standard L-shaped Enter key.  I needed a completely standard 104 keyboard, to preserve key compatibility with my legendless Das Keyboard.

Next up, I’ll give some commentary and feedback on what I think of the Das Keyboard and the Blackwidow from actual use.