I don’t know how to feel about the KOR-FX gaming vest, and it’s not the fault of inventor Shahriar Afshar. There have been so many gimmicky products that claim to do the same thing, to put you "inside" the game, and there is no denying that wearing the hardware makes you look like an extra from a low-rent science fiction film.
The idea is simple to explain, but its inventor claims the execution is anything but. The hardware takes audio from your consoles, PC or even portable devices and turns it into haptic feedback, allowing you to "feel" what's going on in the game, and to sense where those things are happening.
On the other hand, after using the system I’m close to ordering a unit for my own virtual reality setup at home.
The quantum rebel
"I’m a physicist, that’s my background," Afshar explained. He’s well known for experiments that contradicted the work of both Niels Bohr and Albert Einstein. "I’m the quantum rebel," he said by way of introduction, showing me clips of his work in magazines.
This doesn’t seem like the beginnings of a man who would go onto working in video game peripherals, but he found himself staying at dorms during his lectures and was often bothered by the sound of the students in the rooms around him playing loud video games.
He’d ask them to turn it down, but the volume would increase again after a few hours. He soon realized that the players were getting something out of the feeling of the bass, and that the sound was providing tactile as well as audio feedback to the players.
"I realized they wanted something out of this experience, so instead of fighting the kids I thought about how to give them the experience they wanted without all that bass. To make it immersive," he explained. The KOR-KX vest is the result of that work.
The vest itself takes four AA batteries, and the dongle takes another four, giving you around 30 hours of play time on the vest and 60 to 70 hours for the dongle. You can adjust the "depth of field" further or closer to the player, which controls how much you feel of the sounds around you.
Other settings are controlled via buttons on the front of the vest, and a voice lets you know which setting you’re using as you toggle through them, which is a nice touch when you’re wearing a virtual reality headset. The system works with any console or portable device that has an audio output jack.
"It’s high definition haptics, it’s not like a rumble pack which is black and white. You can have subtle effects," Afshar said. "To be able to get this level of haptic information out of stereo audio is not simple. There are millions of lines of code, a proprietary chipset that is doing this kind of analysis … you can feel the advantage it gives you in the game. You know where things are happening."
So does it work?
I played a demo of Counter-Strike using the hardware, and could "feel" which direction the gun shots were coming from. Firing my own gun caused my chest to rumble, a similar sensation to being at a fireworks display. I could sense the power of the bullet by the deep rumbling from the hardware, and the popping sound of far-off gunfire felt like light taps.
It doesn't feel like bullets hitting you, that's not the desired effect. It feels like the shock waves of the actual events are interacting with your body. It's hard to explain, but it's moderately effective. It's odd being able to "feel" the locations of gun fights and explosions, but the extra sense gave me a better idea of where things were taking place in the level.
I then put on the Oculus Rift to watch a video with the effects cranked all the way up.
I watched a non-interactive video taken from a recent first-person shooter where you're sitting in a jet that's taken off, and suddenly the whole experience came together impressively. I could hear the jet engines spooling up through the headphones, but more importantly I could feel the power of the engines through my chest.
The illusion was very effective, and gave the demo an amazing sense of place. A jet blew up to my left, and I could once again feel the explosion from that side of my body.
The KOR-FX vest is in the Kickstarter stages right now, with a retail price of $149.99. The product was funded in only a few days, and has now exceeded the $75,000 goal by $25,000, with 34 days to go. There's clearly a decent amount of interest in the device among VR and haptic enthusiasts, although whether that translates into mainstream interest is a whole other question.
We'll be running the hardware through a more thorough series of tests once we get a unit in to try with the soon-to-be-released Oculus Rift development kit 2, and will share more thoughts. You certainly look goofy while wearing the vest, but it's hard to argue with the way it roots you into the game's reality while feeding the player information about whether things are happening in the virtual world.