TrackIR Criticism

USB hardware key
Game support
Specification hype
Heat concerns
TrackClip... PRO?
TrackIR game interface limitations (NPClient.dll)
Forced obsolescence
Removed functionality
Hollow promises

USB hardware key

"The Premium Optical Head Tracker: The best headtracking game controller ever designed." -
The TrackIR camera is an optical capture device like any consumer camera, it is however distinguished by its monochrome sensor, infrared filter and dedicated image processing chip. The monochrome sensor affords marginally better effective resolution over a color sensor and the infrared filter makes it work as an infrared tracker out of the box. The dedicated image processing chip is its biggest distinguishing feature which removes unnecessary information from video frames before sending them to the computer to make them smaller and more manageable.

When TrackIR was first released in 2001, dedicated image processing hardware was important to minimize the burden on the single core CPUs of the time but modern multi-core processors can easily manage full color video alongside even the latest TrackIR game title. As a sign of this, both the Playstation Move and Xbox Kinect optical tracking systems have opted for software image processing instead of expensive dedicated hardware. The TrackIR camera's dedicated processing is a solution for a problem that no longer exists.

The Playstation 3 Eye camera is a small fraction of the price of TrackIR 5 and can match its resolution at a lower frame rate (75Hz), or exceed its frame rate (187Hz) at a lower resolution (320x240), has a much wider field of view (75° vs 51.7°) and also functions as a webcam. It well fulfills the role of an optical tracker, being designed for this purpose and used by the Playstation Move platform which has been widely praised for having no optical tracking latency or accuracy problems.

The TrackIR camera increasingly serves as Digital Rights Management (DRM) for the TrackIR software, avoiding piracy by being limited to their camera instead of working with any DirectShow compatible camera. NaturalPoint's motion capture software ARENA makes this more explicit, requiring a $99 USB Hardware Key when no OptiTrack camera is available. The TrackIR camera is looking more like an elaborate USB hardware key for the software rather than a necessary piece of specialized hardware.

Game support

"It's all or nothing." - NaturalPoint on games getting official TrackIR support. 
NaturalPoint initially supported games themselves in the early years of TrackIR but currently rely entirely on game developers adopting their proprietary and often encrypted TrackIR interface. Consequently, TrackIR purchases do not directly fund head tracking support in games and do not encourage adoption any more than free alternatives. Unlike alternatives, access to the TrackIR software development kit (SDK) is restricted which discourages head tracking adoption by the community.

Games supported by NaturalPoint Year
Flight Simulator 2002  2002
Combat Flight Simulator 3 2002
F1 Challenge 99-02  2003
Flight Simulator 2004: A Century Of Flight  2003
NASCAR Racing 2003 Season 2003
Colin McRae Rally 2004
Richard Burns Rally  2004
ToCA Race Driver 2 2004
Wings of War 2004
Flight Simulator X (SimConnect) 2006

The last game supported by NaturalPoint was Flight Simulator X (FSX) released in 2006 and have since made it clear they will not add game support themselves. Prepar3D (2010) is based on FSX, similarly uses the SimConnect interface which developer Lockheed Martin expect all third parties to use and only requires a small modification to work. But NaturalPoint claim it is an 'unpredictable pathway' and insist on the TrackIR interface being implemented instead. With no other pathway for community support they have effectively abandoned their customers.

TrackIR has one of the most restrictive SDKs for a consumer gaming peripheral device.

Comparison of game peripheral support
Peripheral TypeSoftware Development Kit (SDK)Add game support
Logitech GamePanel LCD KeyboardOpen SDK, strong communityNo
3DConnexion 6DOF mouseOpen SDKYes
D-Box Motion Code Motion systemNo SDKYes
JoyRide Motion systemNo SDKYes
X-Sim Motion system Open platform, strong communityYes
Novint Haptic feedbackOpen SDK, encourage communityYes
Forte VFX1VR head trackingOpen SDKYes (while available)
VRInsight HAT-Track Head trackingOpen SDKYes (while available)
Sixense Motion trackingOpen SDKNo
Microsoft Kinect Motion trackingOpen SDKNo
NaturalPoint TrackIR Head trackingClosed SDK protected by NDA
limited to commercial developers,
discourage community
Not since 2006

Since NaturalPoint stopped adding game support at their end, others have tried to step in, like Racer_S (ToCAEdit). Racer_S asked for the TrackIR SDK in 2004 for integration into his camera hacks but it wasn't until 2009 that he started supporting it. He was most likely refused the SDK for not satisfying the commercial requirement and later discovered the interface details by unauthorized means. The unauthorized nature of the support can be seen when they identify to TrackIR software as 'KAF Keymapper', normally associated with TrackMapper software, instead of an appropriate game profile. Despite bringing greater value to TrackIR his work has gone unrecognized by NaturalPoint.

Games supported by Racer_S Year
Need for Speed: Shift 2009
Need for Speed: Hot Pursuit 2010
WRC: FIA World Rally Championship 2010
Need for Speed: Shift 2: Unleashed 2011
Test Drive Unlimited 2 2011
Need for Speed: The Run 2012
Sleeping Dogs 2012
Ridge Racer Unbounded 2012

Specification hype

"Do these numbers actually mean something, or is this an exercise in hype marketing?" - SimHQ 
Version 5 of the TrackIR camera was the first to retain grayscale information in the captured images like a conventional camera and use it to improve subpixel resolution. In an effort to distinguish this new camera refinement, it was marketed as 'Precision Grayscale Processing' and pitched in a SimHQ interview, comparison video and three new camera specifications.

Of the three new specifications, only subpixel resolution is necessary, the other two are redundant and serve only to pad the table with larger and more impressive looking numbers. 'Reporting resolution' is an unconventional specification and to a casual observer could be mistaken for sensor resolution. All three imply subpixel resolution is a rigid camera property but it is actually the product of software interpolation and varies with the tracked blob's shape and size, so these numbers only apply for specific and most likely ideal conditions.

In stark contrast to TrackIR 5, NaturalPoint do not advertise the exact same grayscale tracking abilities of their SmartNav and OptiTrack cameras and don't provide subpixel specifications, neither do other manufacturers of optical tracking cameras and general purpose consumer cameras. This is because cameras that can capture grayscale images and algorithms for subpixel blob tracking are both simple and commonplace.

In the SimHQ interview NaturalPoint claimed their 'Grayscale Precision' is part of their 'superior engineering' and it is 'inaccurate to compare it with a consumer digital camera where the goal is to take a picture composed of pixels' even though TrackIR's goal is the same. They claimed their subpixel resolution is 'not the result of software interpolation' even though it is the very definition of it and 'sub-pixel tracking within the hardware is a far more effective solution' even though images can be processed just as well, if not better, on the CPU. They called out manufacturers who 'discard resolution on a device' despite doing this themselves for eight years beforehand by using a binary threshold. Finally, they challenged skeptics to 'conduct their own testing' to verify their 'over the top' claims. This interview pushes the boundaries of marketing spin in trying to make TrackIR 5's ordinary grayscale tracking appear extraordinary.

TrackIR 4's 'Resolution Doubling Technology' is claimed to effectively double the horizontal resolution but is strangely absent in its reporting resolution specification (7,100 x 5,760 should be 14,200 x 5,760). Assuming it is factored in, the vertical reporting resolution can only be half the claimed value (7,100 x 2,880).

Despite NaturalPoint's emphasis on resolution in marketing, they admitted in 2003 that improving TrackIR 2's 300x200 resolution was, 'not necessary for flight and driving sims' and was intended to 'enable us to eventually work well with video console games where users are generally farther from the screen'. This implies improvements since then have had little consequence for the vast majority of TrackIR users who have conventional desktop PC setups and sit close to the screen.

Heat concerns

"These units get very hot, they're barely touchable where the processor is after they've been on a while. I've lost one unit already (probably to heat) and now that it's out of warranty, I can't afford to lose another, so I designed a little removable fan mount to cool it." - LittleDangerous
TrackIR units can get very hot and lack conventional heat dissipation methods. Some users concerned that this might cause premature failure have resorted to their own cooling modifications, including drilling ventilation holes in the case, attaching a heatsink to the processing chip and attaching a fan. NaturalPoint claim 'it is designed to run that warm' and 'should work well up to 70C, the chips are rated at 80C.'

The heat is the product of on-board image processing and can be compounded by enabling the internal infrared LEDs used for reflective tracking as well as positioning the unit on top of a warm monitor and in direct sunlight. Note that the need for on-board processing is dubious, the same processing could be done on a more powerful CPU core which comes with the necessary cooling and would greatly simplify the hardware, improve reliability and reduce cost.

This mod is a fan attachment that blows air towards the hot back of the case.

This mod has five ventilation holes in the top and two in the bottom of the case, they appeared to have tried a small heatsink first but later switched to a bigger one.

This mod has ventilation holes filling the entire top of the case and four in the bottom in addition to a large fin heatsink.

TrackClip... PRO?

"The 3 active IR-LED head-tracker clip was never made of sturdy stuff, constantly falling apart as soon as you put it down on the desk. Now it's finally disintegrated, I might have to resort to super-gluing the tattered remains." - FlexmanUK, Combat-Helo developer
The optional headset mounted TrackClip PRO is poor build quality for something promoted and priced as a premium device (PRO should imply PROfessional), the plastic is brittle and the joints flimsy, breaking easily under normal use. To NaturalPoint's credit they often appear to help people with prematurely broken clips but have yet to address the design problems since it was first released in 2006. Many resort to makeshift repair jobs, like this one that makes resourceful use of a plastic tampon tube.

The infrared LEDs used in the clip are 850nm wavelength which is closer to the visible spectrum than most infrared LEDs (880nm-950nm) and harder to filter from visible light. They are powered directly by USB with no switch or driver control, so remain on while plugged in. The LEDs should make tracking less susceptible to interference but this is offset by the TrackIR camera's weak filtering to accommodate for the weaker TrackClip passive reflective markers.

The TrackIR software and the clip design only permit it to be worn on the left side of the head.

The clip is falsely marked with 'patent pending'.

TrackIR game interface limitations (NPClient.dll)

  • Requires internet access to update the games list and work with newly released games. This list is encrypted but can be decrypted and viewed and includes unreleased games in development. 
  • Must be started before starting a game and if it is restarted, any running game that was receiving data must also be restarted (unless the game has special provision to restart the TrackIR interface). 
  • Data can only be sent to one game at a time, other games requesting data are ignored. 
  • Must be actively tracking when a game is shut down improperly (crash or kill process), otherwise it will continue to think the game is running and ignore newly started games.
  • Any alternatives that try to emulate TrackIR's encrypted protocol face the above limitations.
  • The TrackIR ID for a game sometimes does not match the game's title.

Forced obsolescence

Gamasutra: "How quickly does this sort of tech become outdated?"
NauralPoint: "As fast as we can make it outdated?" 
  • NaturalPoint have a record for being deceitful about the progress and imminent release of new camera versions
  • Most TrackIR cameras work with the OptiTrack SDK and the latest 64bit drivers but not the latest TrackIR software (TrackIR 2 and SmartNav 1 are disabled in the driver INF file).
  • TrackIR 1 & 2 cameras are excluded in v3 software and higher, limiting them to 2DOF.
  • TrackIR 1 & 2 cameras are excluded from using the encrypted interface introduced in v4.1.035 software and used by newer games. 
  • TrackIR 3 cameras require purchase of a software license for 6DOF with v4 software.
  • TrackIR 3 cameras and below excluded by v5 software, TrackIR 3 compatibility added over a year later in v5.1 but only with 6DOF license. 

Removed functionality

  • Camera image cropping removed in v3 software and above. 
  • Mouse emulation moved into separate executable (TIRMouse.exe) in v4 software and above and restricted to games using DirectInput. SmartNav software works in all games but refuses to work with TrackIR cameras and does not provide important autopanning functionality.  
  • Mouse override delay removed in v4 software and above.
  • Mouse button hotkeys removed in v4 software and above. 
  • TrackIR 4 and above not back compatible with software v3 and below.
  • More precise single point 2DOF tracking removed in v5 software, limited to SmartNav software. 
  • Preferred object size removed in v5 software.
  • Recording and playback removed in v5 software.
  • Profile categories removed in v5 software.
  • Language localization removed in v5 software.
  • Camera orientation control removed in v5 software, restored over a year later in v5.1. 

Hollow promises

  • Official keyboard emulation.
  • Official joystick emulation.