If there´s one thing that the Sim Racing and Flight Simulator fans have in common, is that they value immersion greatly. Either when you play Forza Horizon 5 or Microsoft Flight Simulator, you want your experience to be as close to the "real deal" as possible.
To that end, you can get yourself a better graphics card, buy one of the many high-end (and occasionally overpriced) add-ons for the genre like a racing wheel or a HOTAS, and you can even get yourself a head tracker... but what is that?
What is a head tracker for flight sims and sim racing games?
A head tracker is, like the name the describes, a camera that tracks the movement of your head and then translates those movements in-game. Move your head left, and the pilot or driver in the game will do so likewise, the camera moving along with them.
Short of VR goggles, this allows the camera to be as immersive as it can be, as your screen will change as if you were looking around the game with your own eyes.
The way to achieve this tracking can vary, there are a lot of options on the market depending on what you look for and what´s your budget.
Buying a head-tracking camera
The easiest to set up, but probably the most expensive alternative, is to pay for one of the TrackIr cameras. The company sells specialized devices that will track the movement of your head.
You attach one of these cameras to the top of your screen, and the device will use infrared sensors to detect your movements and translate them into one of their 100 compatible games. So long as the game you want to play is on that list, you really shouldn't have much problem setting your TrackIR.
The problem mainly comes from the price, the cheapest of their cameras cost 100 dollars, so they are a considerable investment. If you have already spent a considerable amount of money recreating the cockpit of a formula one car or a plane, then it might not seem as expensive, but it´s still something to consider.
Some other paid alternatives use modified PS3 cameras, but they tend to be rather complicated to install, at least in comparison to TrackIR.
One such system that uses the PS3 camera is this one from DelanClip. Their head tracking kit already comes with the camera and the other tools you need to use it. Cost about half of a TrackIR device too.
Another company that also sells you a kit with the camera included is this one, Trackhat. The difference is that their head tracking needs their signature cap to work, so you´ll have to wear that while playing. It can be immersive if you are roleplaying a trucker, not so much a fighter pilot.
Another alternative is to use your computers own camera to try and get head tracking going
Turn your webcam into a head tracking device
If you already have a webcam, or if your computer comes with one included, then you might not need to buy a PS3 camera or a TrackIR device. There are several programs on the internet that can turn your camera into a head tracking device.
Most of these alternatives are thankfully free, so you can try them all yourself. The issue comes usually comes with setting them, as you´ll have to tinker with them a bit to get them to work just like you want.
As these software is coded by fans, they don´t have a full-blown QA or UX department to make sure they run smoothly at all times and are easy to set up, so keep that in mind as you try them all out.
Also, remember that your webcam has to pass some minimum requirements. It should be able to provide at least 30 FPS and have a resolution 640x480 resolution or more. The Logitech Brio cam is a good example of a webcam that works perfectly for head tracking... if it´s a bit on the expensive side.
To turn your webcam into a head tracker, you can try Aitrack or Opentrack , both are open-sourced programs that are free to download and install. To do so, find the "release" hyperlink in their GitHub and download the latest release.
Each of these programs has slightly different setups to install and configure. To find the exact instructions on how to do so, go to the wiki tab in their Github and follow each software´s respective user guide to install them.
If you want somewhat easier-to-install experiences with (arguably) a bit more polish, there are paid alternatives as well. You can try FaceTrackNoIR for less than four dollars, and ViewTracker for around fifteen.
FaceTrackNoir also has a wiki section on their site with all the installation instructions and common issues that you can face.
But what can you do if you don´t have a webcam? Can you use your phone? Well, yes...
Turn your phone into a head tracking device
If you don´t want to pay for a specialized head tracking device (or the ps3 camera) and don´t have a webcam, there is still one camera you can use, the one on your phone. There are some head tracking apps available that you can try to download that should be able to make your Android or Apple´s able to detect the movements of your head.
The advantage of running these apps on your phone and not your PC (if you have a webcam) is that it reduces the CPU strain on your computer by having face recognition be done on your cellphone.
Head tracking software can be somewhat intensive for your computer, especially if you are also running a game on ultra graphics. For computers that can barely handle the graphics of a simulation game, using one of these apps might be their only option.
A natively built head tracking app that is made for phones exclusively is Eye Ware Beam. While it is still in Beta, you can still download it for free and give it a try. Beam promises to track both your head´s movements and those of your eyes.
All these apps connect to your computer via wi-fi, so if you have a desktop without wireless capabilities, you will also need to buy an adapter like this one for them to work properly. Eye Beam also supports a USB connection if you prefer.
And that´s it, if you want to add head tracking to your game, you need to either buy one of the already pre-made solutions like TrackIr, turn your webcam into a head tracker or use your phone. With some finagling, it can even work on the Steam deck. You might also be interested in learning how to overclock your monitor.
While the free alternatives require a bit more setup, head tracking is accessible to pretty much everyone nowadays. You can try them out before deciding if paying for the feature is worth it. If you are interested in learning how to use motion controls on your PC, check out our article here.