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This instalment of ‘What You Can Do in a Day’ started out primarily as a fix to my personal gaming dilemma for PC-based flight simulator games. It developed as I discovered a whole host of other applications for this kind of input device. So let’s find out what you can do in a day with APEM’s TS Thumbstick.
PC gaming is not a very sociable pastime. Until recently, PC gaming required a pretty powerful desktop computer, complete with keyboard, mouse and controller. Over the years, I have been able to collect some pretty sophisticated kit for flight simming, but therein lies part of the problem. Joysticks, throttle quadrants and rudder pedals all take up quite a remarkable amount of space, even when you have a desk available.
In accordance with Moore’s law, the power of laptop computers had grown exponentially over the last few years, which means that dedicated PC gaming is no longer the preserve of the large desktop machine. This is good news for the occasional gamer like me. No longer am I banished to the spare room, there to hide away from my family. Now I can sit in the comfort of my living room, on the sofa next to Mrs Geek.
However, there is still the thorny problem of flight controls. Anybody who has played a flight game with a keyboard will know that there is something slightly unsatisfying about the experience. Traditional joysticks are still too big and cumbersome. The technology to create a compact, custom system has existed for many years, but for a lightweight geek like me, it can hardly be described as user-friendly. What I needed was some kind of compact, plug-and-play solution that would allow me to get flying quickly.
I have known about APEM for many years. They manufacture some wonderful switches and controllers, but for the purposes of a PC gamer, they seemed too industrial to be easily integrated into a home setup. I am not familiar enough with software to be confident in my ability to programme some kind of interface.
Imagine my delight when we received a call from APEM telling us about a new family of USB-compatible thumbstick controllers
The TS Thumbstick
APEM were kind enough to send me a sample of the new TS product. The thumbstick itself uses the Hall Effect, a non-contact technology that means the stick is immune to the effects of dust and should have a long life of very precise control. The thumbstick is contained in a metal case with a USB cable sealed into the base. The stick is provided with a flexible rubber boot and a selection of three tops, which are easily swapped with a small Pozidrive screwdriver. In addition, there are two frames allowing the switch to be front- or rear-panel mounted, and a rubber o-ring for sealing.
TS Thumbstick kit contents
That’s it – it’s a pretty simple kit. The stick is compact and solid.
In true USB style, the thumb stick is a plug-and-play device. A PC will recognise the TS thumbstick as a generic HID (human interface device), which means that when connected, the device will be detected and automatically installed. Depending on your computer, this may take a few seconds or a few minutes, but it requires no software driver to be installed. Once the process is completed, the thumbstick is listed as the ‘APEM TS Series Joystick’ and can be calibrated in the same way as more sophisticated game controllers – all very straightforward.
'Devices and Printers' in Windows Control Panel
Putting the thumbstick to use
In order to test the thumbstick in everyday use, I turned to the internet for some inspiration. If you’ve never looked, you may be surprised by the level of sophistication of free games that can be played online, including a number of games that can accept joystick input. My experiences on this were hit-and-miss, in that some were easy to use whilst others were not. I am perfectly willing to accept that any problems were down to my lack of skills, and a few minutes of work would have resulted in a more positive experience.
Microsoft® Flight Simulator 2004
With that in mind, I then turned to a game with which I am familiar, namely Microsoft’s Flight Simulator. The version I use may be well over a decade old, but the flexibility of the platform combined with the power of the online support community make this my preferred choice. In the role of a hand-held joystick, I can happily confirm that the TS thumbstick performed flawlessly. The amount of force needed to move the stick felt just right, and when combined with software-controlled sensitivity setting, I can see this becoming an excellent solution to my need for socially-acceptable gaming.
So far, we’ve established that the TS thumbstick is easy to install, solidly built and smooth to operate. However, it is easy to see that the thumbstick lacks a certain ergonomic style out of the box. For long-term use, I would like to see the thumbstick mounted into some kind of handle.
APEM have recognised this already, and are developing a hand-held device which incorporates the TS Thumbstick and a single pushbutton in a moulded pendant-type control device. I realised that with the power of 3D design software, allied to a 3D printer, it would be very easy to create my own device which would have much in common with the kind of controller used by a well-known games console.
Wii Nunchuk Controller
3D printing is at the heart of rapid-prototyping technology. In practical terms, rapid prototyping with this technology means that it is easy to create, test and modify a design very quickly. This allows a design to progress through a number of versions very quickly. For my design, I used DesignSpark Mechanical to draft an initial design and then used an Ultimaker 3D printer to print the handle.
My 3D printed handle
I was unsatisfied with my initial design and was able to re-draft the handle to make it smaller and simpler. If you’re interested in getting your hands on the final DesignSpark Mechanical model to use for your own design, you can download it at the foot of this article.
DesignSpark Mechanical 3D Model
Not just for gaming
The focus of my efforts up to this point was entirely on the use of the thumbstick as a gaming controller. The quality and strength of the product suggest that this might be selling the product a little short, so I turned my attention to potential alternative applications for its use.
Thumbsticks like TS series, and in fact industrial joysticks in general, are used in a myriad of applications. From CCTV controls to robotics, this kind of input device can be found in almost every industry. The use of the Hall Effect technology means that these products are mechanically and electrically much more reliable than the average game controller. Where would the build quality of the TS series, combined with its plug-and-play USB interface, best be utilised?
My instant thoughts were around replacing the mouse of a PC (or the mousepad of a laptop). If you’ve ever tried to use a mouse or mousepad whilst standing up, or in any location without a flat surface, you will be familiar with the problem.
It is perfectly possible to use a conventional joystick as a mouse device, usually with the use of a small software programme. A quick internet search will yield a number of solutions of varying complexity. Adopting one of these methods, combined with a TS thumbstick in a small hand-held housing, would provide a quick solution to anyone needing to use a PC or laptop in awkward circumstances.
The key benefit of the TS thumbstick is the USB interface, which makes this robust, industrial-quality product accessible to a much wider audience. For the system integrator, this makes the panel mounted TS series easy to integrate, calibrate and replace. For the PC user like me, those same features are suddenly making the idea of a custom-designed control interface more attainable and keeps Mrs Geek happier to boot.