Making Games Physical

A new vest from TN Games aims to bring more realism to the video-game experience by simulating impacts. In a first-person shooter, for example, the gaming vest, called 3rd Space, mimics the force of enemy fire.

The vest's air compressor controls eight embedded pneumatic cells that produce impacts of various strengths and in various locations on the player's torso, in response to events that occur in a video game.

The 3rd Space vest is a scaled-down version of a medical device that CEO Mark Ombrellaro is developing. A vascular surgeon by training, Ombrellaro was working on a pilot project for Texas Tech University, experimenting with using telehealth to deliver health care to prisoners. Using videoconferencing tools, doctors treat patients remotely. "Part of what I do normally as a physician is put my hands on people and examine them," Ombrellaro says. Although a nurse is present to perform physical exams, Ombrellaro was frustrated with getting information about patients secondhand. He hired a team of engineers to help him build a system that could transmit tactile information in real time, from a doctor to a patient and back again. The system he came up with includes a special version of the 3rd Space vest with 64 contact points on the abdomen alone. A glove worn by the physician has eight contact points that are used to touch the patient remotely and impart responses. While the medical device has not yet received FDA approval, Ombrellaro says that he was aware from the start that the device could have other applications.

Force feedback devices are already popular among gamers, and Ombrellaro says that his vest promises an even more realistic experience than today's vibrating controllers. "The drama moment with this is getting shot in the back in a first-person game," he says. In market tests for the vest, he says, people would turn around in surprise when they felt the impact in the back, even though they knew intellectually to expect it. Based on feedback from its tests, the company chose a standard strength of impact, which is palpable but not bruising. "We're pushing the edge," he says. "We're still keeping it very fun but, at the same time, giving you tactile cues that are important. There's even subtly a message--that there are consequences to shooting people." Ombrellaro says that he also plans to ship vests with a more powerful compressor for a subset of gamers who want to feel stronger impacts and for use in military and police training.

The vest is initially aimed at gamers who play first-person shooter games on their computer, Ombrellaro says, but he hopes to expand the technology across all types of game content and player demographics. Future plans for the vest include modifying it to simulate G-forces for use in racing or flying games. The gaming vest is designed for ages 10 and up, and it's expected to withstand two to three years of continuous use.

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