SST Lightning with Forza and the Fanatec wheels – not good enough

Some of you may remember that when Forza Motorsport 3 came out, I built up a pretty elaborate rig to use with the game.  Features included:
  • A full steel frame cockpit by Obutto
  • High end steering wheel and pedals from Fanatec
  • Anywhere from 3 to 5 Xbox 360's at one time driving triple screens and rear mirror/spectator cams
  • A small rack holding all of that equipment behind a UPS and surge protector.

The centerpiece of the whole rig, in terms of effort, however, was the custom circuit I designed to make the SST Lightning (a standard USB shifter designed for PC gaming) compatible with the Fanatec wheel.
As it turns out, I never really used the rig that much … and, although I presumed the SST Lightning was going to be a really high quality shifter when I purchased it, that actually wasn't the case at all.  In fact, the SST Lightning has a couple of major problems.
Problems with the SST Lightning
Solid, 360 degree mounting options – The shifter is made of solid aluminum and rotates 360 degrees within a heavy duty clamp that can be mounted to pretty much anything.  It's a good design in this respect and won't move around on you if mounted to something solid.
Click shift action – The click action is smoother than the Fanatec provided shifter and snaps into place more cleanly and readily.
2nd gear doesn't always engage – It's too hard to explain here, but tolerances are such that the ball detente mechanism used to snap and keep the shifter in place is slightly off.  In essence, if you move the shifter fully in, the gear makes contact.  However, the gear actually wants to snap in just before it is fully making contact.  If you shake the shifter a little, it will pop into place and lose contact with the gear.
I was able to fix this with some electrical tape over the switches to thicken the contact area, but that should not have been necessary.
Difficult to modify – Wiring out the contacts from the shifter bottom to make them work with my circuit was major work.  This is not a shifter that wants to be modded.
Poor feel (Short throw) – Despite the positive I listed above on this point, it's better than the Fanatec provided shifter, but still not very close to a real 6 speed shifter.  It feels like a lightweight toy or joystick, not a shifter.  "Dinky" might be the right word.
Poor feel (Not centered on gears 3 and 4) – Probably worst of all, it's an 8 position shifter that isn't centered on gears 3 and 4, but instead centers between gears 1/2 and gears 3/4.  For anyone that's driven stick in real life, this is completely unintuitive and hard to get used to.  In addition, with the throws being as short and light as they are, it's very easy to miss a shift since there's not much of a difference at all in motion between going into 3rd and 5th gear.
Poor feel (no Reverse/empty gear lockout) – In a normal 6 speed shifter, there is a lot more resistance moving the shifter over to the left into Reverse, and you can't move the shifter at all into the space below reverse.  Simulating this is something the SST lightning just doesn't try to do.  Again, combined with the unusual non-centered layout of the gear pattern and the shortness and lightness of the throws, you'll be hitting the wrong gears a LOT.
Embarrassing – In the end, although the shifter worked, friends who came over to try it out would constantly miss shifts and get confused.  All I could do was apologize to anyone that came over for how the shifter worked.
Moving forward
As you might have guessed, I was pretty happy with myself in terms of actually being able to engineer the translation circuit and build out a clean PCB to bundle it all up.  I learned a lot from the challenge and that was probably more important than anything else here.
But, in the end analysis, I wasn't all that happy with the actual setup, and combined with the fact that Forza is actually more of a sandbox game than it is a structured game with accomplishments for you to reach, etc … it didn't feel like much fun.  It probably didn't help that by the time this all came together, I also had a real car to take to the track!
But fast forward to nearly two years later.  Forza Motorsport 4 would be coming out in October (and has as of now), and I wanted to see if there was something more I could do to fix up all of the initial effort I had put into this.  And that leads into the next post … a new shifter and a new circuit board.
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