At E3 2014 I had the chance to try out the $150 Kor-FX gaming vest which has far exceeded its Kickstarter goal with 31 days left in the crowdfunding campaign. The vest seeks to add immersion to gameplay by rumbling appropriately with events happening in the game world around you.
I should preface my hands-on impression with a description of my current home console gaming setup which consists of high quality stereo speakers, a subwoofer, and a tactile transducer in my couch. The transducer is nothing more than a ‘dumb’ device working on signals from the subwoofer channel, and yet it provides an amazing sense of immersion, when compared to the speakers or subwoofer alone, by producing significant rumble right in my seat when there are guns firing and bombs exploding (and before you think I’m some rich gamer with a bunch of money to throw at a system like this—the transducer cost ~$15). Once and a while I like to turn my system up to what I like to call “real world volume”—to approximate how loud some of these events might actually sound (my neighbors are surely almost finished their plans for my demise). Simply put, I’m used to a very immersive audio experience.
Which brings me to Kor-FX. The vest is based on an interesting principle. Shahriar Afshar, the founder and president of Kor-FX, explained to me how the vest’s functionality is “based on neuroscience,” (which we should identify right away as a meaningless buzz phrase). Afshar gave me a brief demonstration which you can try at home: he asked me to cross my arms over my chest with a hand on each shoulder. With my arms in position and pushed against my chest, he asked me to speak and told me to note the vibration I felt from my chest in my arms. He pointed out that when he speaks, I don’t feel those vibrations, but when I speak, I do. Such vibrations are one signal that the brain uses to identify sounds that are acting on your body compared to those that are happening elsewhere. The Kor-FX vest attempts to exploit this sensation to make it feel like you are the one firing a gun or standing right near an explosion.
The first demo that I tried used the Kor-FX vest with the Oculus Rift. The Kickstarter video features the Oculus Rift prominently. However, the demo I was presented with didn’t give me much faith in the company’s dedication to the platform. The Rift demo they gave at E3 was a video of Battlefield 3 adapted for the Rift using VorpX (the carrier takeoff scene). It being a video meant no head-tracking, which wouldn’t have been too much of a problem if the video itself didn’t have recorded head-movement. That’s beside the fact that the video was either saved incorrectly or the VorpX settings used when recording were significantly misconfigured; the IPD felt way off and gave me near-instant eye strain while trying to focus. The video was supposed to be a few minutes long but I couldn’t watch the whole thing because of the eye strain.
For the time that I could stand watching the video, the Kor-FX vest felt entirely too sensitive, like it was just constantly rumbling throughout the scene with no apparent direction as to where the sound was coming from. Afshar told me that the sensitivity is adjustable and suggested trying another demo.
I moved over to another demo station which was playing Counter Strike Source. Afshar fitted the vest and adjusted the sensitivity a few times until it no longer felt like it was shaking constantly. At this point I could finally get some definition out of the rumbling. I could feel the sensation of some distinct left and right sounds, but never quite felt sounds coming from behind me. And for those wondering: the vest isn’t designed to make you feel like you’re being shot, just to add audio immersion to the experience.
With the sensitivity adjusted the experience was better, decent even, but never achieved more than a sense of glorified rumbling for me. It didn’t make me feel more like part of the action, which is what I’m looking for as a complement to virtual reality. Gamers who have only ever played with audio from their TV speakers—or PC gamers who have only ever used small desktop speakers—might be impressed, but for me, Kor-FX leaves much to be desired in the “oomph” department, and I think virtual reality gamers are going to demand more than rumble.
Kor-FX does score some points for usability, and it looks well made. It’s incredibly easy to put on and its wireless, which means it could be an easy way to add some audio feedback to a full-body VR system like Survios until something better, or an improved version of the vest, comes along.