A Physics Rebel Shakes Up the Video Game World, Literally

10/27/09Follow @wroush

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the limbic system, which is in charge of emotions and also helps to assemble incoming sensory experience into a basic sense of self, Afshar says.

Experiments with a series of prototypes helped him to come up with a design for a pair of transducers that would be convenient to wear and yet would be ideally placed to feed vibrations into the chest cavity, where they’d send information back to the brain along the same pathways that sense the vibrations of one’s own voice. “We are activating the same parts of the brain that are typically activated when you talk, which is strongly associated with a sense of self and also emotions,” says Afshar. “What this ends up doing is giving you a sense that you are not experiencing something external—you immediately internalize it.”

When gamers put on the Kor-fx yoke, Afshar says, it enhances the illusion of being inside a world filled with gunfire, explosions, or crashing vehicles. “It’s almost like unlocking a sense that you always had but you were not aware of,” says Afshar. “Once people use it, it’s so natural that not having it afterward is like missing all the action.” (The video below, produced for Immerz by Boston-based advertising firm Hill Holliday, is pretty good at portraying gamers’ emotional reaction to the experience.)

The Kor-fx device comes with a splitter that players can use to adjust the intensity of both the vibrations and the sound going to their conventional speakers or headphones; it plugs into the audio jack of any desktop or laptop computer. A forthcoming version of the device will work with consoles like Microsoft’s Xbox and Sony’s PlayStation. But Afshar’s vision for the technology goes well beyond gaming.

“Because it’s platform- independent and works on audio input, we have access to all the entertainment media devices that exist, from PCs to laptops to DVD players to iPods and even cell phones,” he says. “We’ve been told—and this is a direct quote from a user—-that watching an iPod movie with this device is equivalent to having an Imax experience.”

Speaking of Imax, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Kor-fx devices turning up in movie theatres or amusement-park attractions. And after the entertainment market, acousto-haptic technology could even have applications in real-time sensing—it’s easy to imagine how the directional sense that the transducers convey might assist jet fighter pilots or people with hearing or vision impairments.

But all of that is in the future. The most logical way for Immerz to bootstrap itself, says Afshar, is to start with PC gamers, who are already accustomed to the idea of buying peripherals like force-feedback joysticks to enhance their gaming experiences.

Afshar says that if there’s one thing he’s learned from his time as an experimental physicist, it’s “not to regard any event or observation, as mundane as it seems at the time, as irrelevant. Once you have an observation, you think about its application and you run with it.”

That approach hasn’t won him many fans in the quantum mechanics community. But it might just bring him a few among college dorm proctors.

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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