Bellevue surgeon designs vest that lets video gamers feel the action
By Brier Dudley
Seattle Times technology columnist
I love stories about tinkerers whose offbeat gadgets go from the garage to the big time.
That may be happening to Mark Ombrellaro, a Bellevue vascular surgeon who dreamed up a vest that thumps and prods you when you're playing video games.His "3rd Space" vest won't appeal to everyone, especially since it works only with a handful of games so far.
But the success of products like "Guitar Hero," "Rock Band" and "Wii Fit" show that people are willing to pay for expensive accessories that make games more realistic.
Accessory sales grew 52 percent last year, helping the overall video-game industry grow 43 percent to $18.8 billion, according to NPD Group research.
Ombrellaro's TN Games has a way to go, but it's been making waves since the vest was shown at game-developer conferences last year and the Consumer Electronics Show in January.
That led to national distribution deals, including sales through Costco.com, which will begin Tuesday, and Target.com, which begin today. When its software is meshed with games such as "Call of Duty," players actually feel the bullets and grenades hitting their characters. So far it works with about 16 PC games, including "Crysis" and "Quake 4," plus TN's own title, "Incursion."
Coming soon is a helmet in which players can feel head shots and a racing-game vest that simulates the g-forces felt by a Formula One driver.
Yet another model was created for military training. Ombrellaro said he's close to a deal with the Canadian military for units with wireless connections and gas cylinders that can be turned up high enough to leave bruises when soldiers are "hit" during training exercises.
The standard $169 vest includes a book-size air compressor and a USB cable. The compressor fills air bladders in the vest. When you start playing, it feels a little like getting a blood-pressure check, and the air drives eight quarter-sized actuators on the front, back and sides.
Hits are pretty gentle and don't sting. They have about 5 pounds of force, the equivalent of a roll of pennies dropped from about 6 inches above your stomach, Ombrellaro said.
But that's not enough for some early users, so TN developed an upgraded compressor with about 70 percent more pressure. It will sell for around $50 extra later this year.
The top priority for the company, however, is building relationships with game developers so that the vest activation codes are built into their games. It's also pushing hard to break into the console market.
"The goal is to have this as part of the core technology with all games," Ombrellaro said.
The vest began in the early 1990s, when Ombrellaro was doing research in Texas, trying to figure out a way for doctors to remotely examine prison inmates. He thought of a vest with air-powered actuators that would press different spots on the torso.
In 1996 he moved to Bellevue to take over a surgeon's practice, then started working on the vest in earnest around 2000. It got serious after he hired a programmer who had lost a contract position at Microsoft. Then he hired an aerospace engineer laid off from Boeing, and now he employs 10 people in an office down the street from Microsoft in Redmond.
While gearing up for U.S. Food and Drug Administration trials a few years ago, they came across an open-source shooting video game and figured out how to send signals from the game to the vest.
Ombrellaro then met with people on the Xbox peripherals team. They suggested he take the vest to trade shows to get exposure and start working with game developers to get the vest control signals into their games.
TN still doesn't have a deal with Xbox, but Ombrellaro hopes to be in the console market soon.
With several big deals in the works, Ombrellaro expects to sell 50,000 units by the end of the year. Most of them appear to be ready to ship, stacked floor to ceiling in boxes in the back of TN's office.
Ombrellaro, 46, funded the business mostly himself, then raised about $3 million from angel investors. He's starting to consider venture funding, if the deals come through and he needs to scale up quickly.
If it doesn't work out, there's always his day job.
Brier Dudley's column appears Mondays. Reach him at
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