Physicist Shahriar Afshar thinks recreating that feeling is the key to making video games, movies and music more immersive, emotional experiences. He's created a vest called KOR-FX that plugs into an audio jack and turns sound into chest-rumbling vibrations, mimicking what your vocal cords do.
Most virtual reality hype has surrounded tools that create a visual experience, like the Oculus Rift goggles
. Gadgets like this vest could provide an additional physical, tactile element to virtual reality.
The $150 KOR-FX feeds sound to the two transducers on the front of the vest. Regular sounds are translated into vibrations that are felt directly on the body. It's the same thrill you get in a movie theater when the bass is so strong it shakes your seat, but it uses less power and is portable.
I strapped the vest on and tested it. The vibrations ranged from heart-racing to subtle, and are surprisingly effective when paired with audio from a good pair of headphones. Footage of a DJ Tiësto show imitates the experience from the bass at a live concert. Explosions and gunshots rock you in the first-person-shooter game "Counter-Strike: Source."
It was most effective in the cockpit of a fighter jet playing "Battlefield 3" while wearing an Oculus Rift. The vest hums with the constant roll of the engine and you feel the other planes shake as they zip by.
Vibrations in the body make the brain interpret experiences as more immediate, as if they're really happening to them and not just taking place on a screen, according to Afshar.
"The brain thinks, my goodness, all the stuff that's happening is so significant and the audio is so huge that it's vibrating my chest," said Afshar.
Afshar's company, Immerz Inc., is focusing on the video game market for starters since the audio on many big budget games is outstanding. Gamers are early adopters and have already proven they care about immersion.
Afshar, a self-described "very serious-minded professor of physics," was not a gamer. He stumbled on the idea for the vest while staying in a dorm one summer as a visiting professor (he declined to identify the campus).
The students were creating a ruckus in the common areas, blasting the sound on video games. Unable to escape the games' vibrations (or to convince them to turn down the volume), Afshar decided to learn more.
"I thought, 'They're enjoying something in the bass, go about it as a scientist,'" said Afshar, who also has a background in neuroscience.
After much research, Afshar launched a Kickstarter campaign, which raised $183,000 (245% of its goal) in July. The product became available in November and is available online.
Eventually, KOR-FX wants to open the vest up to developers so they can add vibrations to give the sensation of movement. Afshar says the vest could even be used to manipulate emotional states, like calming the wearer down or getting them excited.
Afshar recently used it to listen to Bach and experience classical music in a new way.
"All of the sudden I was engulfed in the genius, the amazing indescribable wrapping up of emotions masterfully put together," said Afshar. "It opened all these vistas that I had never thought of."