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This $10 head-tracking app makes Microsoft Flight Simulator easier

SmoothTrack turns your iPhone or Android device into a head-tracking tool

A plane in Microsoft Flight Simulator Image: Asobo Studio/Microsoft Corporation
Charlie Hall is Polygon’s tabletop editor. In 10-plus years as a journalist & photographer, he has covered simulation, strategy, and spacefaring games, as well as public policy.

Flying a plane in Microsoft Flight Simulator is a breathtaking experience, with visuals that verge on photorealistic. The game is so popular that it’s caused a run on flight sticks and other specialty controllers. Manufacturers like Thrustmaster, Logitech, and others can barely keep their $100-plus peripherals in stock. But, for my money, the best new controller on the market will only set you back $9.99. It’s a smartphone app called SmoothTrack, and if you’re flying a plane on PC, you need to check it out.

The developers at Asobo Studio and Xbox Game Studios did an admirable job with the in-game camera controls in Flight Simulator. While flying, it’s fairly easy to look to the left, look to the right, and look down at the instrument panels inside the cockpit. But those view changes are set in fixed positions, and often, parts of the plane can obstruct your view of the outside. The result is that the simulation tends to feel a little claustrophobic.

One option to combat that sense of claustrophobia is to get a head-tracking solution, which gives your in-game pilot a neck. For example, TrackIR uses three infrared emitters attached to your headset and a receiver mounted on top of your monitor. Once calibrated, it translates tiny movements of your actual head into bigger movements of your pilot in-game. But rather than the stock perspectives included with the game, TrackIR gives you precise control over where you’re looking. It can even be used to lean your head out the window of the plane to line up for a landing.

There are open-source solutions, but I’ve never found one that works quite as well as TrackIR. Trouble is that the system will set you back $199.99, and it’ll take up another USB port on your PC.

SmoothTrack, on the other hand, only costs $9.99. The iOS and Android app uses your smartphone’s high-resolution camera to sort out the head-tracking bit without any additional costly peripherals. Prop it up on the desk in front of you, and it just works. Best of all, it’s fully compatible with Microsoft Flight Simulator (as well as many other spacefaring and flight simulators).

The user interface still needs some work, and you’ll need to know a little bit about networking to get it up and running. The developer tells me that in the future he hopes to have it able to be connected with just a USB cord. Compared to other solutions that I’ve tried, it’s an absolute winner, and it will make flying your virtual plane a lot easier.