Skyward's DIY Headtracker Build Guide
Updated: Mar 29
A complete guide on how to build a DIY head-tracking setup, from start to finish.
In twelve years of playing flight simulation games, I have only experienced a couple of hardware upgrades that have truly reshaped the way I played. The first one was when I started using a joystick. The second one when I replaced my joystick with a HOTAS (Hands on Throttle and Stick) and the third is when I built my own head tracking equipment. These are changes so substantial that I could never find myself going back to my old ways ever again. I had known about head tracking ever since I saw a video from one of the YouTubers I followed, Ralfidude, in which he talked about his TrackIR setup and my mind was blown.
I knew that motion tracking/capture existed but seeing it in action made me want to use one instantly. I went to see how much it cost, realized that it was way over my budget and told myself that I was never going to get one. The situation stayed the same until I started seeing some people building their own head-tracking systems. This reignited my interest in the topic, pushing me to start my research into what materials I needed. In this article I will share the results of that investigation and the process I had to follow to build the system I currently use with as much detail as possible so that you can build your own.
STEP 1: UNDERSTANDING THE TECH AND YOUR NEEDS
Before we get deeper into the building process we must first take a look into what this tech is really all about and the build alternatives you have at your disposal. In layman's terms this is basic motion tracking technology. The software has been designed to track a specific pattern of identifiable points to determine the position of your head in a 3D environment. It transmits said position to the game of your preference if it has head-tracking support. This is usually done with an Infrared (IR) sensitive camera and a tracker which emits an IR signal, be it self-powered (IR LEDs) or through the use of IR reflective surfaces.
TYPES OF TRACKERS
There are two types of trackers that have become the most popular options for gaming related applications. These are clips and caps.
Clips are usually self-powered trackers that come in a vertical 3 point layout comprised of three IR LEDs. These are pretty popular for their self-powered nature and ease of use.
Caps are usually powerless trackers that come in a variety of arrangements but usually they use two or more reflective surfaces which don't require power to work. The main aspect of the cap-type trackers is that they are always mounted on top a cap to allow for ease of use.
WHICH TRACKER TYPE SHOULD YOU BUILD?
Clips usually offer the most consistent and stable experience when compared to caps. By virtue of being self-powered it becomes a little harder to build as you have to design your clip layout and your circuit. There's always the option of 3D printing an opensource file to use as a base. You will always have to solder your own electronics so please keep that in mind.
If you don't posses any experience dealing with electrical circuits, then a cap-type tracker would be your best alternative and one that would give you a similar if not indistinguishable experience. This guide will follow the process of building a clip, so if you are going to build a cap you can go directly to step five for software configuration.
STEP 2: PREPARATION
The entire set up will consist of a PlayStation 3 Eye camera (PS3 Eye Camera), which we will modify to turn it into an IR sensitive camera, and a simple clip-type tracker which will be a basic 3v circuit.
DISCLAIMER: I am not an electrical engineer, so please take caution with the procedures that will be described in the following paragraphs. Safety first. Manage your tools correctly and take the necessary safety measures to ensure that.
You will need these tools to continue forward as they are crucial for everything we will do.
Hot glue gun
Electrical solder and flux
Xacto knife or equivalent
Patience, a lot of patience
For the clip we will be building a simple 3 volt parallel circuit with three IR LEDs connected to a CR2032 battery. Be careful with the ones you buy since this could cause the circuit to not work. You will need:
One (1) CR2032 PCB Battery Holder.
Three (3) IR LEDs rated at 3v.
One (1) 6 pin push switch (Mini DPDT Push Switch).
At least three (3) meters/nine (9) feet of UL2468 cable .
Three (3) meters/nine (9) feet of 1mm steel wire.
One (1) 2mm thick balsa wood plank.
You will also need a PS3 Camera which can be found for cheap and a floppy disk, but we will go more in-depth on that during step four.
STEP 3 (1): BUILD THE FRAME
Now it is time to build and for that we will be using the following printable template:
In the first step we will cut away the two balsa wood sections and bend the wire frame using the template.
Now apply glue to the bottom wooden section with your hot glue gun and adhere the bended wire frame to it. Make sure that the frame is straight as any excessive bends will affect the usability of it.
Before it dries, apply glue to the top wooden section and adhere it in place.
Let the glue dry a bit. The frame is done! The frame will also need a base to be held on your headphones but that one will be up to your design as each frame will have minor differences that have to be taken into account.
STEP 3 (2): WIRE THE CIRCUIT
To start, let's have a look at the electrical diagram of the clip that we will be building:
A very simple parallel circuit with a switch and 3 LEDs, as you can see.
Since we will be using 3 volt LEDs this circuit doesn't need any kind of resistor, making everything easier. The layout will be a little more like this:
The process will be quite simple, but have patience:
Cover the tips of the frame's legs with electrical tape before soldering to avoid any kind of undesirable contact later on. We will be soldering a bit so please do educate yourself on how to solder first. Measure using your wires the length you will need according to your frame's dimensions. Since each frame might have slightly different dimensions I won't give any measures whatsoever. You will need the following cables: (It is recommended that you cut them a bit longer what you will need since mistakes do happen and it is always better to have the excess than to)
Two running from battery (notice the length difference on the negative cable due to it's role with the switch).
One from switch to the negative junction.
Two from the negative junction to the corresponding LEDs.
Two from the positive junction to the corresponding LEDs.
NOTE: Remember to remove the isolation from the tips of your cables and secure your connections with the hot glue once you are sure that no more changes are needed.
Now onto the first electrical part, the battery. For our purposes we will be using only two of the three pins of the battery holder.
Since we will be using a CR2032 PCB battery holder, we will need to run cables from it as you can see above. IMPORTANT: Please make notice that the POSITIVE side of the CR2032 is going to be facing UP, which is marked by the positive sign (+) on the battery holder.
Paste the battery holder to the frame as indicated in DIAGRAM N°1 and follow the cabling routes.
We will run the negative cable directly to the push switch, connecting it to the middle pin which would be pin N°2 as per DIAGRAM N°2 (bellow) which is a top side view. Securing the cables can be quite tricky at first, so have patience and continue until both the output and input cables are secured on their respective pins.
For more information on this type of switch, this Hackster.io guide is highly recommended.
The positive cable will stay disconnected for now, just solder it to the battery holder and
secure it to avoid any possible damage.
After you have tested the connectivity and the switch's functionality with one of the LEDs by using your phone's camera to see if it lights up, secure the switch to the frame with the hot glue gun. Make sure that they have no play/slack and are stable. Now we move on to the major part, which is the connection of the battery with the rest of the cables and the front LED. This part will require that you remove the isolation from the ends of the cables, both for the upper and lower frame legs. Follow this diagram to see how the connection is done. Note that the front LED lacks any cable connections and is soldered directly into the joint. Trim the LED legs accordingly and please make sure that the polarity of the LED is being soldered into the correct joint.
The longer leg on the LED typically is the positive anode.
We are almost done, now all that's left is soldering the other two LEDs. This step should be pretty simple since you have already made more difficult joints.
Now that you are done, make sure that everything is working by checking the LED's functionality with your phone's camera as we did previously. Once that's cleared out, secure the cables and the LEDs to the frame with hot glue to avoid corrosion and any kind of damage. At the end, you should have something like this:
STEP 4: MODIFY THE PS3 CAMERA
For this step you will need the PS3 Camera and the diskette/negative film that I mentioned back in step two.
There are TWO types of PS3 Eye cameras, one of which will be useless for this project. Thankfully, these two are very distinctive from one another when it comes to the lens. You DON'T want the one that has the flat lens. This one cannot be modified and would be a waste of time to even open it. Here is a reference so you can see the flat lens:
Please note the flat lens cover and the ring. These are telltale sings of this model of camera. The one we want has the rounded lens, which is very evident once you see it:
This is the one we want as it has a modifiable lens, specifically, it has an easily removable IR filter. This will allow our camera to become very IR sensitive. Since I modified mine off camera a long time ago, I cannot provide you with my own photos as examples. Instead, I will guide you to the video I followed when modifying mine. It was made by Vazina Robertson:
STEP 5: SOFTWARE
To get your computer to recognize the PS3 Camera, you will have to download drivers for it. The only one that's completely guaranteed to work is CL-Eye so look for that one. Make sure that it is working properly. For our tracking we will be using OpenTrack, which is an opensource head-tracking software that's very reliable and relatively easy to set up. When you first boot it up you will be greeted by this window:
Although it might look a little crude and daunting at first, this software is very intuitive once you are done with the initial setup.
Before you do anything else, please click on the hammer that's next to PointTracker 1.1
Make sure that your device is set to the PS3 Camera and that all the other parameters are good to go. Once you are done with that click on the Model tab.
Click on the correspondent tab and adjust the measurements to your specific profile, be it a clip or a cap. Calibrate your model position too, that will help the software to make more precise calculations. We are now done with the model side of things!
Now we need to set up our curvatures and game detection.
To make OpenTrack function with most games, you will have to go to the Game Detection tab under Options:
Click the + icon and add the executable name and a profile. It is that simple!
To set up the curvatures we will need to click the Mapping function on the main menu which will open this window:
These values are completely up to your discretion and will be completely dependent on your setup, distance to the camera and head position. This will take some effort and time to get right but you should be able to tweak this values down to your liking.
STEP 6: ENJOY!
I hope that this guide helped you build this game changing tool and I wish that you will enjoy it as much as I do. Please contact me if there are any mistakes on this guide or parts in which I could expand upon.
About the writer:
Santiago "Cubeboy" Cuberos
Longtime aviation fanatic with particular preference towards military aviation and its history. Said interests date back to the early 2000's leading into his livelong dive into civil and combat flight simulators. He has been involved in a few communities but only started being active around the mid 2010's. Joined as a Spanish to English translator in 2017, he has been active as a writer and content manager ever since. Twitter | Discord: Cubeboy #9034