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E for All 2008: Shot Through the Heart by TN Games

When I first heard about TN Games’ 3rd Space Vest, which is designed to bring the gaming experience beyond virtual to physical reality, I was pretty terrified. So, a vest that punishes me every time I get shot in a FPS? Shooting pains when tanking in WoW? None for me, thanks. Luckily, TN Games is at E for All this year, and set my fears at ease with a demonstration and explanation, care of President and CEO, Dr. Mark Ombrellaro.

The first reassuring point hit home was that vascular surgeon-turned-game-developer, Dr. Ombrellaro, initially created this technology “for medical purposes,” explained Cheri Le Penske of LP Group. “Along the way, he took that technology and turned it into a gaming application.”

Dr. Ombrellaro added, “The concept is ‘telehealth.’ So, if we were going to do a remote physical exam on somebody, as a doctor you push and pull on someone’s belly…that could be kind of fun for video games if we could get an impact. You ask, ‘How is a vibrating game controller the same as getting shot?’ Well, it’s not. So, really, a bullet will give you a physical displacement or impact. The way this system is set up, it will actually give you an impact or displacement. We thought, okay, one is cool, but how many would it take…where you can tell back, side to side…so we settled on eight.”

Reassured by its medical beginnings, I tried it on for a few rounds of Incursion, TN Games’ own FPS creation, specially designed for interaction with the vest. “Incursion...It’s got kind of a Quake feel; basically, we wanted to develop our own product that would directly integrate the code to highlight a lot of effects. We also did a direct integrated version of Call of Duty 2...we’ve had some time to build up our driver library so now we have 25 different games [compatible with the vest].” The vest ships with copies of Incursion and Call of Duty 2 included.

With a complete lack of PC-shooter skills (console gamer, apologies), I knew my bullet-ridden virtual self would be giving the vest a workout. The first shots caught me off guard, as a slight pressure suddenly appeared and then vanished in my lower ribs. But not painful at all–almost like someone pushing with three fingers (a la a doctor pressing on an inflamed organ?); noticeable, but not annoying.

Dr. Ombrellaro agreed with this realization: “It pokes you. It’s a little bit of a gentle tap. On the medical side, you can lift up to ten pounds… So with this, we’ve tuned it down to about five pounds. The idea is you don’t want to draw blood on people, but you at least want to give them an indication of what’s going on…” Cherie added, “It gives you a little advantage of knowing where the bad guys are.”

Beyond the die-hard, live-the-game players who want to experience what their in-game self feels, I think this is the most beneficial aspect of the vest. When I felt a hit to my right lower back, I knew to turn over my right shoulder to return fire to the little alien jerk behind me. When I felt a tightening in my chest, I knew I was just totally oblivious to the huge adversary standing right in front of me.

The vest comes with a special air compressor designed to monitor and control pressure sent to and in the air bladders within it (whose expansion and release create the player’s physical sensations). Dr. Ombrellaro: “With the air system, we’re looking at basically how long the bladders inflate, the duration that the valves are open and the amount of air that it holds in there. So you know, time versus opening pressure…so what we’re looking at is we can use those variables, basically 256 steps and…so based on that, we can do a sustained jab that opens quickly or opens more slowly, and holds more air in, and that will give you more of a sustained poke like a jab than a rapid fire gunshot, so by using that different combinations, that’s how we activate the various [sensations]…”

TN Games has put a lot of thought into these subtle nuances, from the differences between a gunshot and a knife slice even to how powerful and draining a spell might be. “We took the concept of casting a spell, it’s costing you some life energy or mana; if you were doing that in reality there would be some physical detriment or effect to that. So that’s what we have done: basically, on a spell that costs a lot more energy to cast would put you at a little bit of a greater impact effect on the vest, so it would hurt you or stun you a little stronger. And then you have the battle effects…when you’re facing your opponent, it wouldn’t make sense to have the back being activated when you’re getting killed because you’re facing [him].” On the other hand, the spell effects give you a three dimensional, full-body sensation, as they are ideally coming from your very self–not some external, pinpoint-able source. TN Games Vest

This offers an entirely new realm for non-first-person shooters, which contain spell casting, such as World of Warcraft and RPGs in general (TN Games’ new category, announced just today). Thrown into a WoW realm with the vest on, after getting a few hits to the upper right of my torso, I healed—and was met with a sudden succession of rapid-domino presses from the vest, to every plotted area. I was shocked, then empowered, and then even slightly drained. “There are eight contact points, two under each strap, and in the back two upper and lower. We designed it with real shooter anatomy, where would you target: heart, lungs, kidneys…” Of course, the doctor knows his stuff.

The vest currently works with 25 different games, from World of Warcraft to Half-Life, Bioshock, to Call of Duty 4. Dr. Ombrellaro: “The important part for us is the three dimensional aspect. So, we have to tie into the game precisely and figure out where those triggers are in the game that will give us information about the three-dimensional space. So we’ve developed this third space driver, that we’ve actually—we go out an buy a game just like you or anybody else would, and then with our software figure out where those points are and put them in our driver. So that you can have an accumulated software program that will take these different builds and allow you to play with those games.”

I’m personally amazed at the versatility of the vest, and the adaptive capabilities of the development team—not only for various games, but different situations and sensations. A powerful wind will feel different than a pistol shot which will feel different than a bare-fisted punch. Weighing in at three pounds, the vest isn’t an invisible addition to your gaming experience, but it isn’t a burden, either. And, if you want that “I’m right freakin’ there in the game,” feel anyway, adding a few extra ‘pack pounds’ will only enhance the realism.

What’s up next? A helmet is in production, for those of you who always aim for glory through gray matter. It retains the basic motto and goal of the whole 3rd Space experience: “It’s fun, it’s not violent. A lot of people are really into the head effects, wanting to know if they have a particular headshot, and it does a lot of visual stuff, too.” And it is fun, which is really what gaming—whether coolly detached or completely immersed—is all about.

Check out more details on TN Games and their 3rd Space gear at their website. Thank you to Dr. Ombrellaro and Ms. Le Penske for taking the time to share their amazing creation with us.