A Physics Rebel Shakes Up the Video Game World, Literally

What’s the connection between hardcore, chest-pounding video game action and Niels Bohr’s interpretation of wave-particle duality? It’s an Iranian-American physicist-turned-entrepreneur named Shahriar Afshar. Five years after Afshar announced the results of one of the most controversial experiments in the recent history of physics—one suggesting that it is possible, contrary to Bohr’s long-accepted theory, to observe light behaving as both particles and waves at the same time—the Cambridge, MA-based startup he founded, Immerz, is about to launch an “acousto-haptic” device that lets gamers both hear and feel gaming action at the same time.

Immerz’s product, called Kor-fx, is essentially a pair of woofers for your chest cavity, designed to enhance the sense of being immersed in a game (or a movie or a song)—hence the company’s name. Immerz showed off the device for the first time last week at the i-stage competition in Phoenix, AZ, where the Consumer Electronics Association—the same organization that runs the giant CES convention in Las Vegas every January—chose it as one of the 11 most innovative consumer technology products shipping next year. The company plans to bring the product to market in the first quarter of 2010, focusing first on PC gamers, and later on console players.

Afshar’s switch from experimental physics to gaming may sound like a strange change of direction—and it is. But there’s some logic to it, just as there is beneath the perverse and often baffling world of quantum mechanics. “My mission in life, ever since I have been mature enough to have a sense of a goal in life, has been to reveal realities that are right in front of our eyes but we missed,” Afshar says. “It excites me that there are so many hidden realities out there that we can unravel”—including the hidden monster who may be sneaking up behind you in a video game.

Shahriar Afshar, CEO of ImmerzThe Kor-fx device consists of a pair of vibrating transducers attached to a yoke that holds them snugly against a gamer’s chest. They translate the same audio signal going to a user’s speakers or headphones into a shaking sensation that is literally visceral—the vibrations echo through the user’s chest cavity and vastly heighten the sense of immersion when playing an action-heavy PC game, watching a movie, or listening to music.

Because the transducers vibrate in stereo, and because the human tactile system is pretty good at translating vibrations into directional information, it’s actually possible for someone wearing the device to sense which direction gunshots are coming from in a first-person-shooter game like Half Life, and even to feel events occurring “behind” them in the virtual world. Afshar calls this the “seventh sense.” (I’m not just repeating public-relations verbiage here—I’m one of the first journalists who has had a chance to try out the device, which adds an almost frightening level of you-are-there realism to both video games and action movies.)

Immerz, a two-person company based at the Cambridge Innovation Center, has applied for patents on the transducers. It has what Afshar calls “big name” angel investors, though he won’t identify them yet. But it’s also seeking venture-level financing so that it can start to produce the Kor-fx units in mass quantities (the company outsources a lot of its design and manufacturing work). The next big public showing for the technology will be at Pepcom Digital Experience, an event for journalists, analysts, and industry insiders preceding the CES trade show in January.

Afshar obviously isn’t your typical game-industry entrepreneur; my interview with him yesterday started off with a 15-minute discussion of quantum mechanics. In 2004, I learned, the Harvard-trained physicist presented the results of a groundbreaking … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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