Developing an Innovative Video Game Controller
It all began when Charlie Van Noland was watching his son play a first-person shooter computer video game. “He’s playing the game, just wiggling his feet like crazy every time he’d get in a stressful part of the game,” says Van Noland, a mechanical engineer for the past 25 years.
First-person shooter games allow the gamer to experience the game as if they are the protagonist. The gamer moves the in-game character forward, backward and side-to-side to take out the enemy. Watching his son’s actions gave Van Noland an idea about providing even higher levels of personal involvement: “What if I could make a treadmill into a controller so you can run in these games?” he recalls.
The idea for “GameRunner” was born. But bringing it to life—from concept to production—was something that Van Noland discovered was no easy task, especially for someone with no prior video game development experience. He conceived the idea years ago and it’s just now hitting the market.
There were certain things Van Noland knew GameRunner essentially needed to offer:
• An adequate treadmill—yes, the gamer literally moves along a treadmill, thereby powering the motion of the protagonist.
• A durable controller—there is a handle bar-
level controller (think where the treadmill exercise menu would normally be) that lets gamers change weapons, look up and down, aim and fire as they move throughout the virtual world.
• Real-time response—gamers don’t tolerate lags.
• Wide ranging compatibility—given the investment gamers have made in platforms, this accessory needed to be capable of handling as many as possible.
Van Noland wanted the treadmill to be motor-less, or user-propelled, so gamers could dictate their own pace, unlike standard exercise treadmills, where users push buttons to adjust the speed of the track. Because of this, the treadmill also had to be robust enough to endure sudden changes in speed.
On the first GameRunner prototype, Van Noland designed and engineered his own bilateral treadmill. “It was just a series of rollers, like you would have on a device that moves boxes out of a truck,” he says. “I figured I would put rollers in there, put a belt over it and I’d be able to stop, run forward, run backwards.” While that was all possible, he discovered something else that resulted from this free-turning setup: “I almost broke my neck.”
He settled on developing GameRunner with an existing, forward-moving only treadmill. “I wanted a treadmill that was heavy duty,” he says. “A lot of them are really narrow and short, so sometimes you’d be stepping off the back. When you’re playing the game, you don’t want to worry about where your feet are.” So the one used is 2-ft., 7-in. wide, 4-ft., 4-in. long and weighs 69 lb. “The belt’s thick, the track is long enough, wide enough,” Van Noland says. It’s weighted to allow a smooth walking motion. Because it’s user-propelled, there’s no power cord. And it folds up when not in use.
Like GameRunner’s treadmill, the controller had to be durable. He designed it using SolidWorks (solidworks.com) CAD software and stress tested it in SolidWorks simulation software before building physical models. “The first prototypes I made were all aluminum and pretty beefy,” he says. This was good for durability, but Van Noland didn’t want the controller to look like a block of metal. It had to look sleek and cool, too.
To balance durability and aesthetics, the controller is a half-aluminum, half-plastic handle bar-like device. The places that bear the most weight, such as the bottom of the controller and the neck that connects it to the treadmill bar, are aluminum. The rest is a matte-black high-strength plastic with burnt orange buttons, a look that Van Noland says is inspired by the Hamann Ferrari 599 sports car.
The controller connects to a computer or gaming console with a standard USB cord.
Programming was led by Van Noland’s son, Charlie Van Noland, Jr. GameRunner works with any first-person shooter game that recognizes a mouse and a keyboard. The treadmill portion is program-med to act as the keyboard and the controller the mouse. Because virtually all first-person shooter games for computers, and most titles for gaming consoles, are playable with a keyboard and mouse, this met the need for wide applicability. It is compatible with first-person shooter games for the PC and Mac, as well as games for consoles including Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. GameRunner hardware is all digital, so there’s an immediate response between gamer and game avatar.
GameRunner is programmed so users control the movement of the game avatar forward and backwards by their pace on the treadmill; because the treadmill is only forward moving (remember Van Voland’s development experience), they must push a button on the controller to go backwards. Using the controller, they can turn right and left, look up and down and slide from side to side.