A Physics Rebel Shakes Up the Video Game World, Literally

What’s the connection between hardcore, chest-pounding video game action and Niels Bohr’s interpretation of wave-particle duality? It’s an Iranian-American physicist-turned-entrepreneur named Shahriar Afshar. Five years after Afshar announced the results of one of the most controversial experiments in the recent history of physics—one suggesting that it is possible, contrary to Bohr’s long-accepted theory, to observe light behaving as both particles and waves at the same time—the Cambridge, MA-based startup he founded, Immerz, is about to launch an “acousto-haptic” device that lets gamers both hear and feel gaming action at the same time.

Immerz’s product, called Kor-fx, is essentially a pair of woofers for your chest cavity, designed to enhance the sense of being immersed in a game (or a movie or a song)—hence the company’s name. Immerz showed off the device for the first time last week at the i-stage competition in Phoenix, AZ, where the Consumer Electronics Association—the same organization that runs the giant CES convention in Las Vegas every January—chose it as one of the 11 most innovative consumer technology products shipping next year. The company plans to bring the product to market in the first quarter of 2010, focusing first on PC gamers, and later on console players.

Afshar’s switch from experimental physics to gaming may sound like a strange change of direction—and it is. But there’s some logic to it, just as there is beneath the perverse and often baffling world of quantum mechanics. “My mission in life, ever since I have been mature enough to have a sense of a goal in life, has been to reveal realities that are right in front of our eyes but we missed,” Afshar says. “It excites me that there are so many hidden realities out there that we can unravel”—including the hidden monster who may be sneaking up behind you in a video game.

Shahriar Afshar, CEO of ImmerzThe Kor-fx device consists of a pair of vibrating transducers attached to a yoke that holds them snugly against a gamer’s chest. They translate the same audio signal going to a user’s speakers or headphones into a shaking sensation that is literally visceral—the vibrations echo through the user’s chest cavity and vastly heighten the sense of immersion when playing an action-heavy PC game, watching a movie, or listening to music.

Because the transducers vibrate in stereo, and because the human tactile system is pretty good at translating vibrations into directional information, it’s actually possible for someone wearing the device to sense which direction gunshots are coming from in a first-person-shooter game like Half Life, and even to feel events occurring “behind” them in the virtual world. Afshar calls this the “seventh sense.” (I’m not just repeating public-relations verbiage here—I’m one of the first journalists who has had a chance to try out the device, which adds an almost frightening level of you-are-there realism to both video games and action movies.)

Immerz, a two-person company based at the Cambridge Innovation Center, has applied for patents on the transducers. It has what Afshar calls “big name” angel investors, though he won’t identify them yet. But it’s also seeking venture-level financing so that it can start to produce the Kor-fx units in mass quantities (the company outsources a lot of its design and manufacturing work). The next big public showing for the technology will be at Pepcom Digital Experience, an event for journalists, analysts, and industry insiders preceding the CES trade show in January.

Afshar obviously isn’t your typical game-industry entrepreneur; my interview with him yesterday started off with a 15-minute discussion of quantum mechanics. In 2004, I learned, the Harvard-trained physicist presented the results of a groundbreaking … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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11 responses to “A Physics Rebel Shakes Up the Video Game World, Literally”

  1. Miramon says:

    There have been many supposedly immersion-enhancing toys released over the last 20 years or so, including a number of chairs with built-in subwoofers meant for gamers. So far as I know, none have had any sales worth mentioning.

    Frankly, I’m not sure I want to feel the impact of wounds received by my game avatar presented as vibrations in my pleural cavity.

    As for the “7th sense” (what happened to the 6th?) obviously, if you have a decent surround audio system already, you can just hear the location of the sound or the shot or whatever, so no information is being added by thumping away at a gamer’s chest with a subwoofer.

  2. Scott says:

    Wade can you tell us what game you actually played? Did they make the game for it? How much is it gonna cost?

    Miramon, methinks you are not an FPS gamer, otherwise you would know it is actually next to impossible to “hear” the direction of bass component of the audio, which explosions etc. contain. I don’t think you would actually feel pain when your “avatar” is injured, it probably just gives you a better awareness of the battlefield. If what is claimed here is true, I would get one no questions asked. Great vid with gamer reactions… “I’m actually shaking right now”…

  3. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    @Scott, I played Half Life 2 running on a (very expensive) Alienware laptop. Immerz doesn’t make any games — its equipment is designed to work with the standard audio output from any PC. (Later they’ll come out with a version that works with consoles.)

    Good question regarding the cost of the Kor-fx device. I checked with Immerz and they say they haven’t yet decided on a price range — they anticipate having more details on that “in the coming weeks.”

  4. MikeS says:

    Einstein was right about the shortcomings of Quantum Mechanics and so therefore String Theory is also the incorrect approach. As an alternative to Quantum Theory there is a new theory that describes and explains the mysteries of physical reality. While not disrespecting the value of Quantum Mechanics as a tool to explain the role of quanta in our universe. This theory states that there is also a classical explanation for the paradoxes such as EPR and the Wave-Particle Duality. The Theory is called the Theory of Super Relativity. This theory is a philosophical attempt to reconnect the physical universe to realism and deterministic concepts. It explains the mysterious.

  5. Great article, Wade. Kor-fx is something I think many gamers, cinephiles, and music fans will want to have. It’s one of those things you have to try, in order to really understand why you would want it.

  6. vatbier says:

    I put my headphones on my chest (the ears of my headphone can be rotated 90 degrees) and turned the volume up. I didn’t feel much in my chest cavity.
    And on another note: would Kor-fx work for girls too?

  7. Ka D'Dargo says:

    Seems like it’s just a remake of the Bone Fone:

  8. Jimmy says:

    @vatbier: of course you didn’t otherwise they would not have made this product if it were that EZ ;)

    @Ka D’Dargo: BoneFone was a fossil of a joke. It rattled the collar bone, which was the most annoying thing ever. Walkman killed the whole “wear your radio” nonsense. I know bcuz I’m old (and unfortunate) enough to have tried the gimmick. This thing Kor-fx though sounds like the real McCoy, since Wade is a reputable journalist, and not easily impressed with new tech and all that jazz… Somebody finally figured out the sweet spot

    And yeh, my money’s on this guy, who invented this thing, pretty clever guy, listened to his NPR interview a few years ago. I no nothing about physics, but I liked his rebellious streak kinda like einstin

  9. Wade RoushWade Roush says:

    @Jimmy: Thanks! That’s what they call me around here, not easily impressed.

    @vatbier: Yes, it works for girls too. Take a closer look, if you will, at where the transducers are positioned in the photo of Afshar. They’re in a spot calculated to send vibrations into the chest cavity without irritating any other anatomical structures. ;-)