Kor-Fx: How noisy neighbors sparked a new big idea for gaming

Back when Immerz chief executive Shahriar Afshar was just a controversial physicist , he was giving a summertime lecture and had to stay in university temporary housing. As he fired off e-mails to colleagues, however, he found himself becoming distracted by the kids next door , who were firing off virtual rounds of ammo at full blast in some loud, obnoxious video game.

 And he was annoyed.

 "I just thought there must be a way for them to enjoy their games without shaking the whole neighborhood," he said.

 His own crotchety reaction sparked a big idea. As Afshar got to thinking seriously about the problem of how to make games more immersive without blowing out the speakers, he hit on the idea of putting vibrating sensors on the body to enhance the audio of video games and movies. The result was the Kor-FX, a vest with "acousto-haptic" sensors that tell you both when noises are happening and where their origin points are. 

 The product has been a long time coming. Immerz first got buzz when it showed off an early version of the product at CES in 2010 that looked more like a big, plastic collar. The firm even went as far as to reserve pre-orders -- but never managed to ship. (An Immerz spokeswoman confirmed that those who pre-ordered were never charged.)

 The latest iteration of the Kor-FX was designed to put comfort first with a lightweight, wireless, half-vest design that's meant to be one-size-fits-all. Afshar put in some deep research to figure out how to translate audio into a type of vibration that mimics those of your own body's functions, such as the subtle vibration we can feel if we touch our collarbone while we speak. The sensors sit high on the left and right side of the chest cavity to replicate exactly that feeling. By getting the brain to recognize Kor-FX's vibrations similar to the way it recognizes the vibrations of the human body, Afshar said, the product can feel very immersive without forcing players to put on much extra gear. And, because it's wireless, players can easily use the vest with motion-controlled games.

 In fact, the whole product consists of the vest, a cord to plug into the audio port and a small box that fits easily in the palm and handles all of the processing and battery power for the device. The box charges over a USB cord, but you don't have to keep it plugged in all the time.

 First-person shooters, in which players fire and are fired upon, are the most logical place for Kor-FX's technology to shine. Players can adjust the vest to different levels of sensitivity, opting to feel the vibration of every footfall or roaring waterfall if they want. If not, they can stick to the loud noises such as gunshots or explosions. When wearing the vest, you can clearly tell where shots are coming from even if you don't see who's shooting -- a sort of early warning that you've got a problem coming at, say, your 11 o'clock.

 There are other applications for the technology, too. Because the vest responds to audio, it can be plugged into anything with an audio jack. So watching movies becomes a more tactile experience, particularly if you're watching a movie with a lot of explosions -- I got to try out the vest with a scene from the disaster extravaganza "2012." 

 A stripped-down version of the Kor-FX also adds quite a bit to music listening: It not only replicates that visceral buzz you get from the thrum of a deep bass but also adds another dimension to a Bach concerto. I listened to both in my time with the product, and was struck most by how the low notes triggered precise vibrations on the left sensor, while the high notes were on the right, as if I were sitting at a piano or bowing a cello. The company plans to release special vibration filters for different kinds of music, or maybe even specific artists, Afshar said.

While the first-person shooter market is Immerz’s initial target, Afshar said he's also thinking of ways to use the vests for therapy or other medical uses. He said the vest has already been used to calm children with autism and thinks it also has promise as an aid for the visually- and hearing-impaired. 

The Kor-FX should be available in the second quarter of this year; the music version will follow once the vest is off the ground. As for price, Afshar wouldn't be pinned down to a specific range, but said that he expects it to be in line with other high-end gaming accessories. 

Hayley Tsukayama covers consumer technology for The Washington Post.
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