A powerhouse gaming PC can transport you from your home to anywhere a good developer’s brain can imagine. But as you climb a mountain in Skyrim and take in the snow-swept scene around you, something is undoubtedly missing.
What if as you climbed higher, your PC would blow a cold blast of air? What if as a dragon circled overhead, things heated up as it breathed fire perilously close to your shield?
This week’s Kickstarter hopes to bring that level of immersion to your PC gaming sessions.
What is Vortx?
That’s Vortx in a nutshell. It looks like a PC speaker, sits next to your screen and emits hot and cold air at a rate that corresponds to what’s happening on screen. It is, as Whirlwind FX’s head of marketing Darren Yuen tells me via email, “the world’s first 4D environmental simulator that allows you to physically feel on-screen effects, like wind, fire and ice.”
“Tim Sun, CEO and founder of Whirlwind FX, was demoing a VR setup at a meetup and during the demo a door was opened to the venue,” Yuen explains. “As wind poured in from outside, Tim felt the coolness of the air which just so happened to coincide with the VR environment he was in – on top of Mount Everest. As a lifelong gamer, that incident sparked him to create an immersion device that bridged real life with virtual.”
And so, Vortx was born. Aware of how these things often live and die based on developer support, Whirlwind FX sought to sidestep the issue by use of software to algorithmically interpret sounds and graphics on the fly. “Originally Vortx was based on traditional haptic triggering – meaning that output effects were pre-scripted to match the visual timeline or triggered by simple voltage/audio cues like controllers, vests and other peripherals still do,” explains Yuen, but now the Vortx is capable of analysing AV feeds in real time. As a result, Vortx works not just with any PC game, but any video streaming service too.
It even works with VR, although room scale is a bit of a challenge for the device. While you can hook up two to a PC setup, the hundreds required for a standing VR experience is a bit of a big ask. “Air and temperature effects are best felt on exposed areas of skin, namely the neck and face when sitting at a desk or table, so if being used in conjunction with VR the user would not feel output effects if they moved out of range,” explains Yuen. “However, that doesn’t mean that future versions won’t be able to as we expand to other platforms and applications.”
The effects certainly seem impressive. Forbes, Tom’s Hardware and VB have all written about positive experiences with Vortx, and vox pops in the promotional video seem equally blown away – if you’ll excuse the pun.
I put it to Yuen that in-game environments may not always be completely desirable to replicate outside the screen. “The quote in the video is great evidence of immersion as the scene was perceived to be real enough that the tester was faux fearful that an actual dragon was spewing fire at him,” replies Yuen. “Obviously none of the effects from Vortx can be harmful, but if a user is truly in the moment it might be perceived as so. That’s when we know we’ve done our job!”
Why should I care?
Do you want your games to be more immersive? Outside of VR (or even inside of it, to be fair), this is likely as close as you’re going to get.
How much and when would I get it?
At the time of writing, Vortx is a sixth of the way to its funding goal with 47 days to go. The good news is that means the “Super Early Bird” price is still available, and you can back the Vortx for $US99. That will get you a single Vortx device, shipping in February 2018, but if you want surround then you can get two for the “Super Early Bird” price of $US198.
For the sceptics out there, the team have also created a $US25 Faux Vortx Mini Survival Pack comprising of a USB mini fan, a hand warmer, some stickers and a tee shirt. Bafflingly, two people have backed this joke tier at the time of writing.
How risky is backing Vortx?
That said, Vortx – appropriately enough – isn’t vapourware. It’s been demoed at trade shows and written about by reputable publications. Although the team has limited crowdfunding experience, they do have a decent CV when it comes to delivering products. “While this is our first crowdfunding project, our team has led or been a part of many CPG, consumer electronics and Medtech product launches in the past,” explains Yuen. “Combined, in our past careers we’ve moved millions of products through retail and direct channels over the years and are well-versed in hardware development and manufacturing.”
So the product exists and it doesn’t look like it’ll fail. Will it be what you hope for? That’s harder to say – people seem impressed, but how well it works on unscripted games and videos is harder to predict. That said, backing the early bird levels does give you access to the beta tester group meaning you can have a hand in how the software is fine-tuned.