Electronic vest adds a chest full of thrills to video games

August 27, 1994|By Howard Henry Chen | Howard Henry Chen,Sun Staff Writer

As if 3-D sight and true sound weren't enough in today's computer video games, a former defense contractor will introduce a device that will give Nintendo and Sega-ophiles another dimension: tactile feedback.

Imagine playing a computer fighting game and being able tsense the body blows, crunches and strikes. Or being on the receiving end of a video tackle in Troy Aikman's Football, and actually feeling what it's like to lick turf.

The device is called the Interactor, a plastic vest that usepatented electromagnetic field technology that can listen to audio output from almost any source and translate it to body-pulsing vibrations. The vest, which can be sat on, or worn on the back or chest, was developed by Aura Systems, an El Segundo, Calif.-based defense industry contractor that once brought us such wonderful toys as the space-based Star Wars missile-defense weaponry.

"The concept was originated last October and built by Aura Systems as an outgrowth of designing military systems," says Aura's senior vice-president, Larry Schultz.

Because the vest's target audience is males 10 to 17; users whose age may have expanded their girths may find it a bit constricting. After donning the vest and tightening (or loosening) the straps, the user simply plugs it into the audio port of a game system, TV or stereo. If you don't mind shelling out $99, the

suggested retail price,to look like one of Darth Vader's storm troopers, you're ready to go.

"It's pretty neat," says Brian Gates, 13, of Cockeysville, who, along with a handful of other kids, tested the Interactor this week at Hunt Valley Mall. "It makes the action more real. I can really feel it in my lower back, and I feel it when I'm getting hit."

Brian's mother, Pam Hodes, smirks as she watches her son use the vest at their Cockeysville home.

"I think I see this as being the next Christmas gift," she says.

An intensity control on the device allows the wearer to adjust the level of output -- or pain, if you will. Users can adjust it to emit nary half a foot-pound of corporeal pressure to nearly 20 foot-pounds of force. It's safe for anyone, says Mr. Schultz.

"It feels like a massager more than anything," says Barry Herman, 15, from Cockeysville, "but it does make the game more authentic."

The kids agreed that games without much music, such as fighting, boxing or sports games, work much better than games with background tunes. They suggest turning off the music when using the vest. Wearing the Interactor with certain games simply gets annoying, because the pulses are not synchronized with the action on the screen, the testers say.

According to Mr. Schultz, some video-game companies are now developing games specifically geared toward use with the Interactor, which is scheduled to hit area stores around Labor Day weekend.

The Interactor can also translate regular television, stereo and VCR sounds into body-shaking thumps and vibrations.

Imagine feeling the strum of a bass from an MTV video on your spine.

Maybe if you wore the vest while watching "Star Trek," you coulreally get beamed up.

Or picture watching an erotic movie while wearing the deviceHmmm, what possibilities.

One of the product's key selling points, says Mr. Schultz, is its flexibility. After Junior uses it to increase the tactile sensations of Troy Aikman's football, Mom and Pop can put it under the sofa cushions to enhance the sweet bass of their Yanni CD.

"When you consider some games can cost upward of $89, the Interactor, which can do so many things, is a pretty worthy product," says Mr. Schultz. "The vest is recommended to users 6 years to adult, and a lot of people will want to use it to listen to music and watch TV, too."

Some of the kids balked at the vest's price tag, however.

"They should make it cheap. I'd buy it for around $50," says Barry, still strapped to the device and not looking up from the screen, which was playing out his fight to the death with the computer opponent of Sega's Fatal Fury II. "I don't think it's worth $100. But it's worth having if I didn't have to pay for it."

And then this, with a sly, conspiratorial smile: "I think I'll tell my parents about it."

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