A Physics Rebel Shakes Up the Video Game World, Literally

10/27/09Follow @wroush

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experiment he’d carried out three years earlier at the Institute for Radiation-Induced Mass Studies, a privately funded research center in Boston. As Afshar explained, it’s in part due to the physics community’s incredulous response to the experiment that he is now taking a detour into acousto-haptics.

The experiment was a variation on the famous double-slit experiment familiar to any freshman physics student. Light passing through a pair of pinholes in a screen forms an interference pattern that’s most easily explained by thinking of light as a wave. Quantum mechanics, however, says that light travels in packets called photons.

In the classic double-slit experiment, if you try to measure which slit a particular photon passed through in the experiment, the interference pattern disappears; the upshot of this “principle of complementarity,” first defined by Bohr in the 1920s, seems to be that experimenters can measure the wave-like properties of light or the particle-like properties, but not both at the same time. Afshar’s test upset this conventional notion. By inserting a lens and an array of vertical wires into the double-slit apparatus, he says he was able to detect individual photons and wave patterns simultaneously. (For the details see this New Scientist article; subscription required.)

No less a thinker than Albert Einstein was doubtful about Bohr’s complementarity principle, but it’s become the accepted dogma in physics over the past 70 years, and Afshar’s results have met with widespread resistance. Afshar says he was prepared for this. “When you do an experiment that you know is going to change the very foundations of what everybody believes, you have to have a long-term plan—that is the reality of the world of science,” Afshar says. “Every time somebody does something like this they should expect at least five to ten years of complete isolation.”

Immerz's Kor-fx deviceAfshar’s isolation has not been quite complete: he has a position as a visiting research professor in the department of physics and astronomy at Rowan University in Glassboro, NJ. But he says he’s ready to wait for up to a decade on the outskirts of academia while the physics community assimilates his paradigm-busting research results, and while he cogitates about a new, even more convincing experiment. And he says that it was his stay in university housing at Rowan a couple of years ago—in the same dorm with video game-addicted undergraduates—that gave him the idea for a project to fill the gap.

“I don’t want to embarrass the kids there—I think they are typical of college kids all over the place—but I would from time to time tell them that they shouldn’t be playing their video games so loud,” says Afshar. “You could feel the whole place shaking. After harassing these kids a bunch of times, I realized, first of all, that my nagging was ineffective, and secondly, that there was something missing [from standard video game setups]. They really needed this pumping bass sound. So I said, instead of bothering everybody, why don’t I think about how to deliver the same experience on an individual level without having to make everything shake.”

Afshar says he spent the next two years studying the neuroscience and ergonomics of what might be called extra-auditory tactile perception—the way the brain uses information about vibrations below the level of sound to supplement its picture of the environment. Unlike visual information, which the eyes feed directly to the cortex, tactile information flows first to … Next Page »

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

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  • Miramon

    There have been many supposedly immersion-enhancing toys released over the last 20 years or so, including a number of chairs with built-in subwoofers meant for gamers. So far as I know, none have had any sales worth mentioning.

    Frankly, I’m not sure I want to feel the impact of wounds received by my game avatar presented as vibrations in my pleural cavity.

    As for the “7th sense” (what happened to the 6th?) obviously, if you have a decent surround audio system already, you can just hear the location of the sound or the shot or whatever, so no information is being added by thumping away at a gamer’s chest with a subwoofer.

  • Scott

    Wade can you tell us what game you actually played? Did they make the game for it? How much is it gonna cost?

    Miramon, methinks you are not an FPS gamer, otherwise you would know it is actually next to impossible to “hear” the direction of bass component of the audio, which explosions etc. contain. I don’t think you would actually feel pain when your “avatar” is injured, it probably just gives you a better awareness of the battlefield. If what is claimed here is true, I would get one no questions asked. Great vid with gamer reactions… “I’m actually shaking right now”…

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    @Scott, I played Half Life 2 running on a (very expensive) Alienware laptop. Immerz doesn’t make any games — its equipment is designed to work with the standard audio output from any PC. (Later they’ll come out with a version that works with consoles.)

    Good question regarding the cost of the Kor-fx device. I checked with Immerz and they say they haven’t yet decided on a price range — they anticipate having more details on that “in the coming weeks.”

  • MikeS

    Einstein was right about the shortcomings of Quantum Mechanics and so therefore String Theory is also the incorrect approach. As an alternative to Quantum Theory there is a new theory that describes and explains the mysteries of physical reality. While not disrespecting the value of Quantum Mechanics as a tool to explain the role of quanta in our universe. This theory states that there is also a classical explanation for the paradoxes such as EPR and the Wave-Particle Duality. The Theory is called the Theory of Super Relativity. This theory is a philosophical attempt to reconnect the physical universe to realism and deterministic concepts. It explains the mysterious.

  • http://www.cictr.com Geoff Mamlet

    Great article, Wade. Kor-fx is something I think many gamers, cinephiles, and music fans will want to have. It’s one of those things you have to try, in order to really understand why you would want it.

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  • vatbier

    I put my headphones on my chest (the ears of my headphone can be rotated 90 degrees) and turned the volume up. I didn’t feel much in my chest cavity.
    And on another note: would Kor-fx work for girls too?

  • Ka D’Dargo

    Seems like it’s just a remake of the Bone Fone:
    http://www.pocketcalculatorshow.com/magicalgadget/index3.html

  • Jimmy

    @vatbier: of course you didn’t otherwise they would not have made this product if it were that EZ ;)

    @Ka D’Dargo: BoneFone was a fossil of a joke. It rattled the collar bone, which was the most annoying thing ever. Walkman killed the whole “wear your radio” nonsense. I know bcuz I’m old (and unfortunate) enough to have tried the gimmick. This thing Kor-fx though sounds like the real McCoy, since Wade is a reputable journalist, and not easily impressed with new tech and all that jazz… Somebody finally figured out the sweet spot

    And yeh, my money’s on this guy, who invented this thing, pretty clever guy, listened to his NPR interview a few years ago. I no nothing about physics, but I liked his rebellious streak kinda like einstin

  • http://www.xconomy.com/author/wroush/ Wade Roush

    @Jimmy: Thanks! That’s what they call me around here, not easily impressed.

    @vatbier: Yes, it works for girls too. Take a closer look, if you will, at where the transducers are positioned in the photo of Afshar. They’re in a spot calculated to send vibrations into the chest cavity without irritating any other anatomical structures. ;-)

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