Click here to watch a video demonstration of the vest at CES.
First-person shooter video games have become immensely popular because of their ability to let players mercilessly mow down digital foes from the comfort of an easy chair. When a new breed of video game technology hits the market next month, the machines will have their day as their flesh and blood opponents gain the ability to feel the impact of bullets, explosions and other blows by donning a specially designed vest rigged with pneumatic actuators and microcompressors.
The 3rdSpace Vest developed by Redmond, Wash.–based TN Games looks like the bulletproof flak jackets worn by police officers. Rather than block bullets, however, the vest is designed to simulate the feeling of being shot. Each features eight impact points—four in the front and four in the back—that use a system of pneumatic actuators and microcompressors to deliver a blow of 30 pounds per square inch, or psi (2.1 kilograms per square centimeter).
The force of the sensors embedded in the vests "is enough to make a game fun and interesting, but it's not going to hurt people," says Mark Ombrellaro, a vascular surgeon who formed TN Games and its parent company, TouchNetworks, Inc.
The vest is set to debut on November 21 with TN Games's futuristic 3rd Space Incursion game and will also work with a version of Activision's World War II era–based Call of Duty 2, which ships with the vest. TN Games has also developed software modules for gamers to download that will enable versions of Id Software, Inc.'s Quake and Doom games to work with the vest.
Ironically, the idea for a vest designed to heighten the experience of video games simulating violence evolved from a telemedicine project conducted in Texas prisons. In 1993 Ombrellaro participated as a physician in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Mednet video consultation pilot project, which offered inmates medical exams using videoconferencing technology, negating the need for physicians to be in the same rooms as their patients. The program was the result of efforts to save costs and decrease the security risks of sending doctors into prisons.
The inmates, who could be as far as 168 miles (270 kilometers) away, saw their doctors via a monitor set up at the prison. The remote physicians would instruct an on-site nurse on how to conduct the physical examination and rely on that nurse's observations to make a diagnosis. "With anything complicated, [the nurses] would say that they couldn't really tell or that the [inmate] would need more tests," Ombrellaro says.
With this experience in mind, Ombrellaro set out to create a device that could improve the accuracy of exams conducted remotely via telemedicine channels. In 2000 he formed TouchNetworks to develop what he saw as a "wearable network." The idea was to give physicians special hand control units that they could use to remotely activate sensors on the patient's vest, which would cover the body from the pubic bone up to the shoulders.
But the vests had to provide physicians with more than just the ability to inflate a small section to see if that caused pain or discomfort in a particular area of the patient's body. "You need to be able to figure out how much force to deliver and how much displacement that force is causing in the body," Ombrellaro says. "Beyond that, your fingertips tell your brain what they're feeling when they push, so you need to have not just a lever in the device but a receptor as well."
This was accomplished by placing eight sensors in the physician's hand controller (what Ombrellaro describes as a "tactile mouse") that touch different parts of the hand. The vest likewise includes dozens of sensors—64 in the abdominal region alone. Using software, the hand can be moved across the vest like a cursor across a computer screen, touching and probing sensors along the way. Ombrellaro calls the abdomen the body's "black box," where doctors are able to gather a wealth of information simply by probing with their fingers. Abnormal resistance in the abdomen, for example, can point to the presence of tumors as well as enlarged organs.
TouchNetworks is still seeking Food and Drug Administration approval for the medical vest, a process that could delay its medical use for several years. In the meantime, the company developed the 3rdSpace vest, a simplified version to be used in video games. Ombrellaro says he reasoned, "If we could do bidirectional touch for medical applications, why couldn't we do it in one direction for a video game?"
To pursue entertainment uses for the vest technology, Ombrellaro set up the TN Games division within TouchNetworks and delivered a prototype version of the vest last December. To ensure that gamers would be able to use the vest, TN Games worked with dot3 labs, LLC, in Las Vegas to create 3rd Space Incursion, a futuristic first-person shooter game that allows players feel the impact of being shot. "It's a way to showcase our technology," Ombrellaro says. The vest's eight impact points correspond to vital organs such as the heart, liver and lungs. "If a character in the game shoots you from behind," he notes, "you'll feel it."
The vest connects to PCs via a USB connection and is not yet available for most Apple computers. It does, however, work with Apple computers using Intel chipsets that can run Windows natively. TN Games plans to offer a version of the vest that delivers blows at 45 psi (3.2 kg/cm2) for players who want a greater sensation. Other possibilities include developing vests for military and law enforcement training.
Ombrellaro says that the vest technology will evolve beyond shooter games and will eventually be available for flight-simulation and racing games as well as role-playing and children's games.