Simnology: Types of force feedback systems

( Images by Fanatec and Logitech)

There are many wheelbases available in the market today, but not all of them work exactly the same from the inside. Wheelbases have been through different technologies and mechanisms in the past decade. They only share one thing in common; to provide force feedback to virtual racers.

There are three major types of force feedback mechanisms on today’s gaming wheels. These are Gear Drive, Belt Drive and Direct Drive. Each has its own strengths and drawbacks in response time, smoothness, cost and torque.

Gear Driven wheels

( Image by Logitech)

The first type of force feedback system is the Gear Drive. Gear drives is one of the oldest type of force feedback systems and is usually one of the cheapest. In a gear driven wheel, one or two small motors are connected to a series of gears to provide a higher torque than what the motor would do on its own, thus providing strong force feedback on the wheel.

A well known downside of Gear Driven wheels is the clunky noise it makes as the gears grind. This can be a nuisance to some users who prefer a quieter experience. The gears in this type of wheelbase could also jump at times resulting in torque spikes, but this is a much less common issue not really pointed out much by the average virtual racer.

Despite the drawbacks of gear driven wheels, there are some situations where the force feedback detail is on par if not better than belt driven wheels. I for one prefer drifting on a gear driven wheel with default settings, but again this is down to user preference.

Belt Driven wheels

( Image by Thrustmaster)

The second type of force feedback system is the Belt Drive. As the name suggests, it uses a belt and pulley system rather than gears connected to a smaller motor to amplify its torque. Because there are no gears grinding or jumping, belt driven wheels provide a much smoother and quieter force feedback. It also allows the use of much more powerful motors with more torque, which can help provide better force feedback.

However the downside of belt driven wheels is that in some cases the force feedback could feel diluted as belts can absorb some of of the force feedback. Some of the force feedback detail needed by the driver end up missing. Perhaps this is why I find it easier to do some drifting on gear driven wheels. Earlier belt drive wheel models also had issues with belts stretching over time resulting in reliability issues, but newer belt driven wheels may have improved on this by this time.

Force feedback is smoother on a belt drive at the cost of some force feedback detail depending on the programming of the manufacturer. Because of its downsides, there are some wheels using a hybrid belt and gear driven system.

Direct Drive wheels

(Image by Fanatec)

This is the latest force feedback technology for gaming wheels and is quickly becoming the most popular. As the name suggests, the motor shaft is directly connected to the wheel rim in a direct drive wheel.

More powerful motors are required to provide sufficient force feedback in a direct drive wheel as there is no gears or belts to amplify its torque, but at the same time there is also nothing in between the motor and the wheel rim diluting the force feedback. As a result, direct drive wheels provide the best force feedback to virtual racers both in terms of detail and smoothness. Drivers can feel so much more on a direct wheel compared to a gear or belt driven type.

The downsides of a direct drive wheel however is the cost. This is due to the more powerful motors required by the wheelbase. Direct drive wheels also require a strong dedicated cockpit which can add up to the total cost of one’s sim racing setup, as opposed to lighter gear or belt driven wheels which can easily be mounted on tables using a clamp. In addition, the more powerful motors can injure a user if he/she is not careful with the settings.

Despite its costly downsides, force feedback wheel manufacturers are working to develop more accessible direct drive wheels to the market which use motors with less power, easy to configure on many racing games and console systems, and other quality of life improvements.

Beyond the motor

(This part can make a difference too)