Shock-effect controller set for the shelves

Charge: Though the system employs technology often used by adult athletes, some worry about the effect it might have on young gamers.

September 03, 2001|By Victor Godinez | Victor Godinez,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

A new video game controller could electrify the computer and video game accessory market -- literally.

By early next year, video game accessory-maker Mad Catz Inc. plans to release the first electric shock-emitting video game controller.

The device is built around the same technology used to stimulate and develop athletes' muscles, and the developers say the device will be just as safe.

The new controller might help drive the recovering peripheral industry, which manufactures joysticks, gamepads, steering wheels, mice and other devices for computer and video game consoles.

The industry saw sales dip 20 percent in 2000, according to NPD Intelect, a market research firm in Reston, Va., but it enjoyed a resurgence through the first half of this year.

The battery-operated Bioforce controller is identical to a regular joypad, except for two electrodes that attach to each arm.

Users set their tolerance levels, and every time a character gets punched, kicked or knocked down, a mild electrical impulse jolts the user's arms.

Steve Koenig, an analyst with NPD, said the Bioforce is an interesting concept but might appeal to only a select market.

"It's kind of an extension of force feedback," he said, referring to controllers that shake and vibrate as a character gets knocked around. "I think the people who enjoy playing with the force feedback-type gaming peripherals, I think that's the market that this is going to hit."

Koenig said that sales of computer gamepads -- which are used to play games on a PC -- have spiked 35 percent in the first half of 2001 versus the first half of 2000. Sales of all console peripherals, including memory cards, steering wheels and gamepads, are up 16 percent from the first half of last year.

Dallas-area sports trainers say low-level electrical stimulation, when used by professionals, is safe. But they question how the experience for mature athletes and physical therapy patients could compare with that of young game players.

"One of my concerns would be the same concern I have with all video games," said Jay Estes, a physical therapist at Matrix Rehabilitation in Richardson, Texas, who works with electrical muscle stimulation devices.

"You have the kids sitting around playing these games for four and five hours at a time. It's probably something that would be very safe for a couple of times in a few minutes, but over that period of time -- that would be what I would want to check out."

Ken Locker, a certified athletic trainer with Baylor Sports Care at Baylor University Medical Center, said muscle electrical stimulation devices use a fairly low charge. "There are units out there in athletic training rooms that people treat injuries with, and as far as I know, no one's ever been injured from them," he said. "It's pretty hard to hurt yourself with AA batteries."

Attendees at the recent Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles were the first to try out the controller, and the reaction was enthusiastic, said a gamer who tested it. "The current was very low, but you had the option of setting your own tolerance level," said Jon McCarron, developer relations manager for e-commerce software developer Tucows.com in Michigan. "Of course, I pumped it up as high as it would go."

Mad Catz, which is based in Santee, Calif., has not yet developed minimum age suggestions for users or warnings for gamers with medical conditions, saying it is still conducting tests before the Bioforce goes on sale.

Several pediatricians and neurologists declined to comment on a controller like the Bioforce, saying they would have to see it in action.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission said it has no jurisdiction over products such as the Bioforce until a user makes a formal complaint, spokeswoman Nychelle Fleming said.

Darren Richardson, chief operating officer and president of Mad Catz, said that while some game accessories can go from drawing board to store shelf in as little as two months, Mad Catz has spent more than a year to make sure all the health and legal concerns are satisfied.

He said the Bioforce is not dangerous.

"It's the same electro-stimulation technology that's used in muscle development," Richardson said, referring to the late-night infomercials in which muscular models smile stiffly as low-power electrodes jiggle their abs and biceps. "We're just trying to apply that to video games."

Richardson said that not only does the Bioforce make possible a new level of realism in games, it also can force gamers to change the way they play those games.

"In those fighting games, when you're actually on the receiving end, it does impair your ability to hit back," he said. "It really makes you play the game differently, because you don't want to put yourself in a position where you're exposed. So you have to be much more defensive when you approach the game."

There's also a more basic appeal to the Bioforce, Richardson said. "If you look at the demographics of the target, guys in that 16- to 30-year-old age group, it's pretty compelling to beat your buddy up."

But some gamers said they'd hesitate to buy a Bioforce without seeing it in action first. "I would definitely want to try it out before I bought it," said Harley Jebens, 34, senior content manager at Richards Interactive in Dallas.

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