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.

"There's definitely a market for products like this," says David Riley, senior PR manager for entertainment, software, and toys for market-research firm NPD Group. Riley notes that from January to September of this year, more than $1 billion worth of gaming accessories have been sold. The 3rd Space vest, he says, is a high-end accessory along the lines of special gaming chairs that provide enhanced sound and rumble effects, and it should be popular with a similar audience. Riley says that the vest may have additional appeal because it is portable and could be easily taken over to a friend's house. Although he thinks that gamers looking for a realistic experience will like the vest, he warns that the company will have to be careful about how it presents the vest, or risk trouble from special-interest groups.

The vest will be on the market in late November. For $189, customers will be able to purchase the device along with a special copy of Activision's Call of Duty II, enabled for use with the vest, as well as Incursion, an original title from TN Games. The company plans to release patches, which can be downloaded from the TN Games website, enabling the device to work with Doom 3, Quake 3, and Quake 4. Software developers can integrate their own games with the vest by downloading a tool from TN Games.

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