Hardware Review: DOC'S Infrared Dreamcast Controllers

Wireless controllers are pretty standard in the modern gaming era. The Dreamcast has recently joined the Bluetooth party through the excellent but expensive DreamConn; and the soon to be released wireless peripherals from Retro-bit will hopefully expand that reach (no pun intended) even further, should they get the price point right. However, neither of these options can lay claim to being the original method of playing Dreamcast games without being tethered to a console by a physical cable. Far from it in fact, for you see, way back at the turn of the century an outfit called DOC'S released an infrared controller system for the Dreamcast.
It's hard to ascertain exactly when these controllers were released as information on them is pretty scant online and is mainly limited to old forum threads, but one thing is certain - way before the DreamConn and Retro-bit came along, the Dreamcast did indeed have a wireless controller and with this review we'll take a look at the physical design of the controllers, the antiquated connection method and investigate just how well the DOC'S hardware works. It's also worth noting that DOC'S also produced infrared peripherals for the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation too, and while these are a little more common than the Dreamcast variant, they're still fascinating from a technical standpoint.
First though, a history lesson. DOC'S was a subsidiary of electronics firm Arista Interactive, a company now trading under the name Arista Manufacturing and you can find their website here. Oddly, there is no mention whatsoever of the DOC'S brand on the current site and the firm now appears to be completely out of the gaming business, but for a short period in the late 1990s and early 2000s (I can't be sure which), this outfit was doing some pretty admirable things with wireless console gaming technology, even if it doesn't really stand up by today's standards...

Pippin Atmark Applejack
DOC'S Dreamcast IR Controller
The first thing you're probably baulking at here is the physical design of the controllers themselves. They look sort of like the bastard lovechild of the original PS3 'boomerang' controller and the Apple Pippin Atmark 'Applejack' controller. The elongated handles and the fairly unorthodox placing of the analogue stick do make the DOC'S controller look pretty awkward to hold. However, once in the hand they do actually feel pretty comfortable and your thumb naturally rests on the analogue stick due to its central position. Unlike the official Sega controller, the d-pad is placed above the analogue stick, and this is quite interesting as it almost mimics the placement of the left analogue stick on the PlayStation's Dual Shock controllers.
The DOC'S controller places the analogue stick below the d-pad
The start button sits where you might naturally expect to find a second analogue stick on a modern controller, and the other face buttons are as they were, present and correct. Sadly, they don't feel anywhere near as tactile or solid as the buttons on the official pad, and neither does the analogue stick feel as precise; but it rotates nicely in its socket and the analogue triggers likewise, are pretty smooth in their travel.

To be totally honest, the elongated 'handles' of the DOC'S controllers do actually feel a bit better in the palm than the official Sega controller's stunted appendages - to me at least - but it's all down to personal preference I guess. On the top of the controller, there's a distinct lack of an aperture for a rumble pack or a VMU, and that's because the transmitter array is located there. And this is where the 'antiquated' (by today's standards, anyway) remark from earlier comes into play. See, the DOC'S controllers hark from an era where Bluetooth was something kids got from eating too many raspberry-flavoured ice pops (probably); and not a widely available wireless standard, and as such they rely on infrared technology instead.
In order to communicate with the Dreamcast, the controllers must send their signals to a receiver box that plugs into the Dreamcast via the A and B ports. This is most likely because the DOC'S set comes as a pair of controllers and they can be assigned to player 1 or player 2 via the toggle in the centre of the button cluster. Interestingly, the receiver box has a range of LEDs and IR receivers that blink as they receive inputs from the controllers, and the back of the receiver box also allows for a VMU to be plugged in. Only one mind, but it's better than nothing. The controllers also have built-in rumble so the need to slap in a rumble pack is negated, but the implementation of said rumble effect (at least in the units I have) is pretty hit and miss.
And 'hit and miss' is a pretty good way to describe how these controllers actually perform when you try to play games with them. Naturally, due to the reliance on infrared you need to maintain a line-of-sight with the receiver so that the inputs can be fed into the Dreamcast, and as such it can be a bit unwieldy constantly pointing the controller at the receiver. Putting the receiver on top of the TV like the Nintendo Wii bar can help with this, but the stingy length of the DOC'S wire can hinder you in this particular endeavour. Who want's a Dreamcast dangling precariously off the side of the TV? Not me, sunshine.

On top of this, it seems that if you break the IR beam by pointing the controller away from the receiver, and then point it back, it takes a few seconds for the connection to be re-established and so you'll find yourself momentarily unable to control what's happening on the screen. Furthermore, the connection is incredibly erratic with the inputs sometimes being laggy or duplicated, which is especially annoying in menus, for example. Constantly pressing up or down on the d-pad only for the menu to react a few seconds later is a sure fire way to unwittingly invite the emotion commonly known as annoyance into your living room, crack it a beer and ask it to put a film on.

These gripes aside though, once the connection is stable and you're not waving your arms all over the place, the DOC'S controllers can perform pretty well. Analogue controls function as you'd expect - I headed to Sega Rally 2's calibration settings screen to test the analogue stick and triggers, and while the results aren't as accurate as a standard wired controller or the DreamConn, the results were more than acceptable.
Note the analogue steering at -70
Note the analogue brake/left trigger at 38
The DOC'S controllers themselves run off four AAA batteries, while the receiver draws power from the Dreamcast, and while the controllers may look a little ugly in comparison to other third party and official peripherals, they are comfortable and work well for the most part. That said, the annoying lag and the fragile infrared connection can be a problem, and as such I really wouldn't recommend these things to anyone but those who wish to collect random arcane Dreamcast rubbish. They aren't accurate enough or responsive enough for the majority of titles and the number of button presses that simply aren't registered boarders on the maddening at times.
The original boxed article. Source
These controllers are - I'm lead to believe - pretty rare these days and are really only worth seeking out if you want them for your collection. Trying to use them regularly isn't really a viable option so you're best off sticking to the standard wired controllers, forking out from a DreamConn or waiting for Retro-bit's upcoming wireless offerings. Still, as a cool bit of antiquated and lesser-spotted Dreamcast paraphernalia you could do much worse!

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hoogafanter said...

Thank the lord that extension cords exist and are cheap af... I'd hate to deal with all this wireless nonsense...

Jeremy Hobbs said...

Oof...I swore off IR controllers back in the NES era. Excited about those new bluetooth ones though.
Thanks for the writeup!

jon lee said...

Awesome article as usual well timed with the upcoming Bluetooth controller release