A Physics Rebel Shakes Up the Video Game World, Literally

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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.

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

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