E for All 2007
Bullet-proof: GameZone chats with TN Games' Mark Ombrellaro
By: Steven Hopper
"It's not reality or VR, it's that space between."
Last month, GameZone was given the opportunity to check out one of the more interesting gaming accessories that we've seen in a while, TN Games' 3rd Space Vest. The vest, which is hooked up to an air compressor and pokes you with location specific hits whenever you get shot, stabbed, or blown up in a computer game, was a pretty innovative idea and a suitable way for hardcore immersion addicts to truly feel closer to the game (check out a video me demoing the vest here). At this year's E for All event at the Los Angeles Convention Center, TN Games were on hand with a booth, showing gamers what their vest has to offer for an immersive gaming experience.
GameZone had a chance to speak with Dr. Mark Ombrellaro, President and CEO of TN Games, and asked him a few questions about the vest's creation and what the future holds for the company.
How did the 3rd Space Vest's life begin?
Mark: Well, I'm a vascular surgeon, and where this actually all started is out of a health care application, specifically in regards to what we call "telehealth". Telehealth uses audio/video communication systems to deliver health care. In the early nineties, I was in an academic career and we were asked in our Level One trauma center to help deliver health care to the prison population in Texas, so that the state could save some money and improve the logistics of transporting prisoners.
We started a pilot project and in doing that delivered health care very effectively. However, the one thing that you couldn't do as a doctor was the hands-on part of the examination. So, that is still an unmet need with respect to telehealth; as a doc you and see and talk to people but you can't feel it.
In the late 90's/early 2000, I came up with some ideas on how to solve that problem, and put a company together specifically with the idea of being able to develop a set of devices that would allow for two-way transmission of touch for remote telehealth applications. Our company put those devices together and built prototypes that were actually doing that, and out of that medical technology we said "Wow, this is great, if we could do live two-way touch transmission, why can't we do stored media one-way for video games?" And so we did a parallel development project with our gaming device.
There have been "rumble vests" similar to this released in the past. Intriguing ideas, but it didn't do so well with gamers. How do you feel that 3rd Space will do things differently?
Mark: I think that's a very important point. What we're doing here isn't just rumble. Rumble is basically a tactile vibration that cues you into a game event. What we're doing with this vest is actually delivering three-dimensionally spatially-accurate impact, which is totally different. We're not using non-specific game cues like the audio driver just to buzz and give you an indicator. With our code set, when a game programmer puts that into the game, they are specifying that they are getting a specific type of damage or impact. They can differentiate a knife from a gun, a machine gun from a blast. And they can add directionality, and that's never been done before.
So what's intriguing about this product is with our shooter vest, you can get that three-dimensional appreciation of the video game environment, hence the name 3rd Space. It's not reality or VR, it's that space between. We can take it one step further and we can give you an intriguing effect with G-Force or driving games or RPG games and a whole wide variety, and it's not just the rumble.
Along the same lines, how would you feel that this device separates itself from other "immersion" products on the market, like 3D-glasses or 5.1 headphones?
Mark: Well, I think in the big picture that we're all looking for in a gaming experience is a way to develop your own reality or entertainment experience. You want to play and you want to be engaged, and you want to be as close to the action as you can. All these other technologies help get you there, so I don't think of them as exclusive, I think of them as enhancing. Sure, some are better than others at doing that, but it really depends on the person and what they're looking for in their gaming experience.
You have on one hand folks that want to get in and get out fast and it's not as important and other people who want to drop themselves into the game, like Tron. So, I think we're giving folks an opportunity to get as close to that as they possibly can. And in a very easy way; it's a lightweight vest that you can put on, the set-up is less than 120 seconds, and you can be right there having impact. We think it's great and it enhances the other products that are out there.
How has game developer support been for the vest? Have you been getting back good feedback?
Mark: We've been getting a lot of great feedback. Right now, we've got our own game, Incursion, which we're going to ship with the vest. Activision has allowed us to integrate code into Call of Duty 2, so that will be a supported title, and on our website we'll have patches that will enable functionality with Quake 4, Quake 3 and the Doom series. So, we've got all of that from the release that those properties will work with and there's been a lot of interest with game developers in both moving forward with other titles, and that's what we're working on right now.
What are some of the vest's weaknesses/shortcomings? How would you want to improve upon it in the future?
Mark: I think this is a solid product, and we're very happy with it. A lot of the consumers that have tried it want a little more kick. There are some hardcore guys that say they want to be bruised. What we're going to offer is a higher pressure pump as an added accessory, but will have the same core. It's been an interesting proposition because we've tried to maximize the entertainment experience for the consumer while keeping the price point as reasonable as possible.
On our medical side, I can have 64 contact points just on the front, but I doubt a consumer wants to spend five or ten-thousand dollars on a vest. So, we have eight contacts and we can still do a lot of really cool things and emulate very well, and that's what we're doing with this, blending price considerations with manufacturability and usability and the entertainment experience. We keep it on a good level with all of those.
I'm really proud of it and I wouldn't change it, but we are going to release a different line of vests that will be specifically tuned to other applications, like the G-Force vest, that we're going to be bringing out next year and an RPG vest, because in those broad genres there are really some nuances that you can take advantage of.
Any chance of taking the vest and its concepts back to medical purposes?
Mark: Our parent company's name is Touch Networks and TN Games is our gaming division. Touch Networks is still working on the medical side, so that's still going on. I mean, getting a medical product on the market requires government and FDA approval, so there are lots of hurdles and it's a bit of a slower-moving process than taking a product to the mass consumer for gaming. That's why we've had the opportunity to bring this out first, but the medical side's coming.
What's in the future for the gaming division? Will you be moving beyond vests?
Mark: We're here to stay. We're not just releasing a single shooting vest and that's it. We've got a very comprehensive product line that will start rolling out soon. We're going to preview our next-generation vest and first line of add-ons at CES in January. Basically as a preview, think about arms and legs, helmets, a whole body suit type of an idea.
Anything you can elaborate on right now?
Mark: That's all I can really say. You'll see it at CES. [laughs]