Hardcore gamers are notoriously fickle creatures, but it’s hard to imagine that anyone who can survive for days on end busting virtual caps in monsters, robots and myriad other opponents wouldn’t enjoy immersing themselves even deeper into the first-person shooter experience. They thirst for any opportunity to make their preferred brand of fantastic violence even more realistic, short of jumping through the screen and personally facing off against a two-headed zombie minotaur wielding an axe made of human bones.
But this time, a 46-year-old vascular surgeon from Redmond, WA has the answer to their prayers.
When he’s not scrubbing for surgery or otherwise busy with his private medical practice, Dr. Mark Ombrellaro heads up a company that’s paving the way for a generation of players to experience gaming in a whole new way. In 2006, he formed TN Games – the gaming branch of Touch Networks, which he founded in 2000 – in order to launch a series of cutting-edge videogame accessories that stimulate the player’s sense of touch.
The company’s first product is turning more than a few heads in the industry. The 3rd Space Vest made its debut during the 2007 holiday season and is steadily building a dedicated user base. The 3rd Space Vest gives players a taste of what it’s like to be punched, stabbed, shot or blown apart – without the unfortunate fatal side-effects associated with the real deal – inside their favorite first-person shooter. Using a series of strategically-placed pneumatic cells located over vital organs, the vest responds to the action on-screen by delivering a swift jab to a player’s corresponding anatomy whenever he’s hit. It doesn’t dish out actual pain, per se, but you’ll certainly feel it every time foes land a blow.
From Health to “Hell Yeah”
Oddly enough, the vest was originally designed for use in the medical field. In the early 1990s, Ombrellaro was involved in a telehealth project designed to provide healthcare to inmates in a Texas prison via a long-distance AV conferencing system. Despite the use of high-tech equipment, the assistance of an on-site nurse located in the patient’s cell was required. The doctor could see and hear the patient, but they still couldn’t rely on physical touch to help make his diagnosis.
“The nurse would sit with the prisoner and do the physical part, but you’re still one step removed from them,” says Ombrellaro. “That still remains a problem with telehealth. With a remote environment type of interaction you can see and talk to someone, but you can’t do a hands-on exam.”
Ombrellaro came up with the idea of using a wearable interface on the patient’s side that would communicate with a tactile hand controlled by the doctor remotely. The garment would allow the physician to remotely apply pressure to the patient’s body while simultaneously reading the counter resistance to assist with diagnoses, he says. A few sketch designs on the concept and several years of technological advances later, the time was right to put his idea into motion.
Ombrellaro formed a team of friends, family and engineers to work on the project, and everyone agreed the device seemed buildable and workable. He obtained the necessary patents, and the team got together after hours and on weekends to chip away at building the unit. “As we’re talking about it, originally it was for healthcare,” he says. “At the same time I’m telling my wife and kids, and talking to these guys, everybody uniquely said, ‘Well, what about gaming?'”
It’s a cool concept, but a little hard to get one’s head around, he recalls. The team decided to focus first on building the medical device – the more complicated of the two ideas – to make sure it worked. Ombrellaro and his team began working on the project in 2000 and had the medical vest prototype up and running by the end of 2005. Almost immediately afterward, they began developing a gaming prototype.
“Around July of 2006 I got a phone call from one of my engineers who goes, ‘You’re not going to believe this … get up here.’ So I came up to the office and there’s this thing that looks like a vest, but it kind of has a Borg look to it with hoses and wires added on,” recalls Ombrellaro. After suiting up, he tested the Borg-like vest using an open-source FPS called Cube and was completely floored when he felt the unit respond when he was hit.
He looked around the room; everyone was laughing. “Is this what I think it is?” he asked. The signals causing the vest to react were coming from within the game.
“It was one of those moments where I just knew that this is like … amazing. For the first few times I was playing it, I was so caught up on what this new information I was getting was that I forgot about concentrating and got killed in the game,” he says. “Then I started figuring out what the cues mean and how they can help me. I began to play the game a lot faster, more aggressively and actually trying to dodge and get away from things.”
It only took a short time playing with the gaming prototype for Ombrellaro to realize he had something with immense potential on his hands.
Fast forward to the present. After a soft launch in November 2007 and a full-package release earlier this year bundled with copies of TN Games’ own Incursion and Activision’s Call of Duty 2 for $169, the 3rd Space Vest has enjoyed healthy sales in the U.S. and abroad. Ombrellaro expects sales to continue picking up as distribution expands through newly inked arrangements with several major online retailers. Both pack-in titles were designed with the 3rd Space technology in mind, but the vest also works with a growing number of other games thanks to mods and the downloadable 3rd Space Driver software. At present, the vest driver supports Unreal Tournament 3, Crysis, Clive Barker’s Jericho, Half-Life 2: Episodes One and Two, Medal of Honor: Airborne, F.E.A.R., Enemy Territory: Quake Wars, Quake 4 and Doom 3.
TN Games is working with developers to expand the number of upcoming titles that feature the integrated 3rd Space coding and other games that support use of the driver. “Our goal is to have more titles with direct integration for the deeper experience, as our company continues to add to the driver to pick up the tail end of things,” he says.
“It doesn’t rumble; it gives you an impact,” Ombrellaro is quick to point out about the 3rd Space Vest. The word resonates with a tone that’s equally ominous and enticing.
The device looks akin to a military-style flak jacket; it’s sexy in an “I’m about to get my guts pummeled” sort of way. Jungle camouflage and bright pink versions of the vest are also available for those who want to get pounded in style. Then there are the umbilical cords that power the thing. One cable runs out from the vest into your PC’s USB port, and another connects the vest to an air compressor that plugs into the wall. A total of eight active pneumatic zones, four on the front and four on the back, react when information is sent to the vest from the game. The vest also differentiates between knife stabs, punches, single shots and automatic weapon fire, explosions and other impacts.
Designing the gaming version of the vest, the team put some serious thought into which areas of the body would be targeted if someone were trying to shoot you. The vest’s active zones are located over the heart, lungs, kidney, liver and intestines: all the bad zones where the organs are.
Stuck Like A Guinea Pig
The first time I took a hit with the vest on was a jarring experience. After slipping on the device, my immediate inclination was to take one for the team as quickly as possible to see what it was like, and running head-first into the gun barrels of some pissed-off mutant cyborg warriors in Incursion seemed as good a place to start as any. They were quick to oblige.
The few initial pot shots that struck my nameless, faceless virtual self manifested physically as a forceful poke in the front and back of the lower left region of my gut (presumably to replicate the lovely feeling of the bullets entering in one direction and exiting out the other). It’s an odd sensation that – under more intense gaming circumstances – could prove rather startling if you didn’t expect it. Within seconds I was getting hit all over. I even tolerated being punched repeatedly by a daft beast simply because it provided a slightly different impact.
After dying a few times at the hands of my quasi-robotic adversaries, I turned my attention to a series of explosive barrels. Why hadn’t I noticed them sooner? A few quick prods from my laser rifle elicited the response I was looking for: self-immolation. The screen was engulfed in a concussive, fiery explosion, and it felt like my entire body was being kneaded like dough.
The range of sensations continued to vary as I picked up additional armaments. My torso thumped from the recoil of higher caliber weaponry, and the kickback from a giant rocket launcher was extremely satisfying. But the best was firing a Gatling gun. My chest thundered mechanically as I sprayed a room’s inhabitants with lead.
Re-sensitizing The Desensitized
Feedback on the 3rd Space Vest continues to be encouraging, says Ombrellaro. Everyone involved in TN Games plays videogames of one sort or another, and this made it easier to design the product around gamers’ needs. “We started with what we want, and it’s resonating with everybody else,” he says, adding the real magic comes from watching hardcore gamers and new players alike enjoying the vest. “Everybody’s been really excited about it.”
Though the overall response to the vest has been positive, the product hasn’t escaped criticism completely. Some say a gaming vest that simulates being shot or wounded takes things a bit too far in a time when violent games are already extremely realistic to begin with. Others feel bloody FPS games already desensitize youth enough; they’re not terribly keen on the idea of a vest that makes the gameplay more lifelike.
Ombrellaro argues the gaming vest has a different effect on players.
The content of violent games is two dimensional, he says. Players are watching and listening to what they’re doing on-screen, but there’s a disconnect between their physical selves and the game environments. The vest changes this by re-introducing sensation into the gameplay. When a player is hit in the game, the vest will poke them as a consequence.
“It re-sensitizes you by making the reaction you get not just an artificial thing that means nothing to you. It puts a consequence back into the action,” he says. The team has watched thousands of people play FPS games using the vest in different scenarios, ranging from a casual office setting to the home. “When you’re watching people and actually taking a step back to observe how they react, their body is moving to avoid the action as they’re getting hit. They’re behaving subconsciously while playing this game, just like they would in real life: duck and cover. Their brain is getting the message, whether the gamer consciously recognizes it or not.”
On the far opposite end of the spectrum from opponents of the vest reside the masochists. Indeed, some hardcore players who’ve tested the vest feel the impact is not hard enough. In response, TN Games plans to offer an upgrade pack for the air compressor that will deliver a heftier blow.
Into The Future We Roam
PC gamers can gloat for the time being, but it may not be long before the 3rd Space technology makes the jump to consoles. The vest is already console-ready, according to Ombrellaro, and the product will become available once they complete a bundle deal for a console game. He notes the console version of the vest will have wireless aspects to it.
Getting blasted in the gut isn’t the only unusual experience in store for gamers in the coming year. Aside from the FPS vest, TN Games is also working on vests geared toward racing games, RPGs and other genres. The vests themselves are an impressive accomplishment, but TN Games strives to release a handful of other product variations by the end of 2008. A helmet prototype is complete and planned for release later this year as part of the extreme HXT (head and extremities) line. With the prevalence of headshots in the online multiplayer FPS gaming community, clocking noggins is bound to get a lot more exciting when the victims feel it.
The vest is the core concept for the technology, and the helmet is a fun addition, but the whole idea is to build a full suit, says Ombrellaro.
“It’s just a matter of what the consumer wants, how it’s going to fit into the game and trying to make it complementing as possible for as reasonable a price as we can make it,” he says. “We’ve got a few decades of fun stuff to roll out.”
Nathan Meunier is a freelance contributor to The Escapist.