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The KOR-FX haptic vest looks stupid, is a pain to set up, feels amazing

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Do you care about looking stupid when you play video games?

It's a question I often ask myself when I'm setting up a new piece of virtual reality equipment. The past few days have been spent testing the KOR-FX haptic vest, a device that straps to the top half of your body and delivers vibrations to the left and right sides of your chest.

Just like the Woojer before it, many players will be skeptical of the technology. We've all been burned by crappy haptic devices that just kind of rumble from time to time and do little else. The KOR-FX vest also costs $150, which is going to stretch the budget of all but the most dedicated fans of haptics or virtual reality.

It doesn't help that the device itself can be a pain to set up. It requires eight AA batteries, although the dongle can plug directly into a USB port to be powered that way, removing the need for four of them. The instructions request that you give the vest eight hours to break in before the performance picks up.

You'll need to familiarize yourself with a confusing array of buttons and modes, with many settings conveyed to you through verbal commands given by a disembodied voice that comes from the vest itself.

Figuring out the best selections of settings and intensities for each game can take a good bit of time. There are no instructions in the package, just a link to a bunch of awkward setup videos and a downloadable guide.

This is a device for the tinkerer and the enthusiast; someone who wants to spend the time and effort making their gaming experience just so.

Also, and I can't stress this enough, you're wearing what looks like a tactical vest while sitting in front of your television or computer monitor playing a game. Your headphones need to connect to the dongle, and the dongle needs to connect to the source of the audio, although the connection from the dongle to the vest is wireless.

kor-fx model

That doesn't much matter when the headphone connection is not. So you're strapped into a vest, connected to your console or PC through a cable, and sitting there while your vest shakes and rumbles on you.

It all sounds terrible. On paper, at least.

This is the best thing ever

I spent a few hours getting everything set up, and a representative from KOR-FX helpfully sent over some "recipes" of preferred settings for a few games. This is something they need to consider doing officially, as having a good working idea of where to start for different types of games proved helpful when getting my settings dialed in. They also sent a vest that had been used for a number of hours, so it was "broken in."

This is what one of their "recipes" looks like for a given game:

Alien: Isolation

  • Dongle Intensity 6
  • Vest Intensity all the way up
  • Effect Off
  • Filter 2

Getting these settings all locked in required a somewhat confusing combination of button presses, button holds and listening to the voice commands that, again, come from the vest itself. But once you use a few of the recipes and learn how each one feels, you begin to get a sense for what does and doesn't work for different games. Again, this is a device for enthusiasts and tinkerers, and getting everything perfected for a game is part of the fun, or at least it was for me.

The haptic effects are much stronger than what you get from the Woojer, and the plates that vibrate against your body are much larger. You'll also feel a stereo effect that allows you to tell from which direction an explosion came. The haptic effect is taken straight from the audio output, so the vest is compatible with your PC, Mac, console... whatever device you have that includes a 3.5 mm audio output.

kor-fx rig

To put it bluntly, it feels great, especially with good headphones. It's easy to be overwhelmed playing games like Call of Duty when the explosions and gunshots cause the entire upper half of your body to vibrate, and that effect is multiplied when you're playing something in virtual reality.

I demoed the vest with Radial-G, a sort of F-Zero meets Extreme-G racing game for the Oculus Rift, and being able to feel the engine rumble deep in my chest when I sped up went a long way to making me feel like I was actually in the game's world. The fact I could feel the direction the sounds were coming from also helped, as being slammed from the left or right caused that side of the vest to give me a solid sense of the impact.

The illusion was just as good as I played Elite: Dangerous in my Oculus Rift Development Kit 2. I was able to feel my guns spool up before firing, and the deep rumble that comes from your engines gives you a sense of connection to your ship that helps with the illusion that you're actually sitting in the cockpit.

Being able to get information about what's going on around you, and how fast your ship is going, from how it feels in your chest is amazing.

Verdict?

It's unlikely this $150 vest will find a broad audience, and I'll fully cop to my bias of being a virtual reality enthusiast who is always looking for a device to cement the sense of presence when I play games in my various headsets. That being said, I've become convinced that this sort of haptic device is going to become increasingly important and useful as virtual reality devices take off.

The separation of the haptic effects was also particularly impressive. Games like Call of Duty and Battlefield layer many sounds on top of each other, but when wearing the vest I could feel the difference between an explosion and my own gunfire, and I could even tell the difference between the different types of guns I was firing. The steady "whup whup whup" sound of a helicopter mixed with my own thudding machine gun, and both felt distinct and immediate.

It takes a while to get everything working, and there are still some hardware issues to work out; the straps that secure the vest snap onto the back, and it's easy to pop those snaps when you're trying to get a tight fit. But the core experience of feeling the games as you play once you get everything set up is more than worth the money, and I'm glad I spent the time tuning everything just so.

Just in case you're wondering what everything looks like when set up? Prepare yourself for the dorkiest soldier of the future.

kor-fx ben 2

Our KOR-FX unit was sent to us from the manufacturer, and will be returned once our coverage is complete. That's unless Ben buys it, and he's threatening to do so.