From sound to fury, video-game enthusiasts can be truly immersed in an alternate reality, but they need more than just a PC or a game console for that experience.
Enter a number of developers, who have adapted off-the-shelf products to make game play more realistic and offer the promise of giving players a leg up on the competition.
Whether these items add to the experience is often in the eye (and ear) of the user. But there is no question that these add-ons help move game playing from a solitary experience into one that affects every member of the house—for better or worse.
SPEAKERS: Philips believes that video games should involve more senses that just sight and vision. To enhance the virtual environment, the company is marketing amBX, a combination of modules that create sound, light and wind effects when played with certain PC games.
For example, when a character walks out into a storm, the fan module blows wind in the player’s face. During a storm, white lights flash to mimic lightning and a rumble pad produces a thunder effect.
The system will be available in July, priced from $199 to $399 depending on the modules included. It works best when played with amBX-aware games, specially coded versions of PC games that cue the modules to light up or the fans to blow. The company expects to have up to 15 titles available by the end of the year from developers including THQ and Gas Powered Games.
When playing non-amBX games, users still see special light effects; the system takes lighting cues from the game's primary colour at any moment during play.
Advanced consoles, like the Sony PlayStation 3 and the Xbox 360, can produce multichannel surround sound and can play movies.
David Bales, a Pioneer Audio product manager, said that gamers should look for accuracy of sound and the ability of speakers to place a sound effect correctly in the room.
"The sound must get to you at the same time from any speaker, and correct for any room anomalies," Bales said.
When playing action games, it is important to know where an enemy might be, to make quick work of him or her.
To create an accurate sound field, Bales recommends buying a system that includes a microphone to calibrate the speakers automatically. Last year, Pioneer introduced such a product, the $500 HTS-GS1, a speaker system for Xbox 360.
Pioneer has stopped production: the original $500 price proved too daunting for most game players, Bales said. It is still available at greatly reduced prices. Pioneer and a number of other companies are turning towards audio devices that help gamers shoot to kill, even when everyone else has gone to bed.
Pioneer sells the SE-DIR800, a wireless headphone unit that uses Dolby Headphone technology to recreate 5.1-channel surround sound through two speakers. The $399 product uses infrared technology to allow gamers to sit away from the TV and not worry about connecting cables or having anyone complain about the noise.
Turtle Beach (www.turtlebeach.com) offers a range of wireless headphones for the Xbox and Wii consoles.
For those playing PC games, the company's new $129 Ear Force HPA2 wireless headphones include front, center, surround and subwoofer speakers for each ear, which the company says more accurately re-creates audio direction while improving the bass.
CHAIRS: It’s not enough to sit on the carpet or the sofa when playing games; special chairs help place the gamer in the most advantageous position while enveloping him or her in sounds and furies.
"As gamers, we were always lounging against the base of the couch," said Michael Feldman, co-founder and president of Pyramat, a game chair manufacturer in Cerritos, California. The company's least-expensive model, the $50 G-Flex Sound Booster, pipes a game’s sounds through two speakers embedded in the chair, which can be rocked back and forth as the player reflexively moves to avoid being hit.
The PM440W Deluxe Wireless Sound Rocker transmits sounds wirelessly up to 25 feet; in addition to two speakers, the $200 chair includes a powered subwoofer embedded in the seat “to really jam you in the back with a lot of bass”, Feldman said.
When body-shaking sound is not enough, the $499 Ultimate Game Chair, from the company of the same name (www.ultimategamechair.com), uses 12 vibration motors whenever the leather chair picks up vibration cues from PC games, as well as from titles for the PS2 and original Xbox.
An updated model, shipping in August, will work with the PS3 and Xbox 360 and use sounds rather than vibrations to set off the motors. However, the current chair does pass surround sound through to the two speakers embedded in the headrest.
For the ultimate in body-shaking and teeth-jarring movement, the $15,000 GP-100 motion gaming chair from D-Box Technologies (www.d-box.com) uses three motion actuators that, responding to cues downloaded to a PC, can create 100 motions a second, and replicate up to 2Gs of acceleration.
When playing a racing game, the player feels the acceleration and deceleration, as well as different pavement surfaces, according to Claude McMaster, D-Box president. For players in a first-person shooter game, different weapons produce different senses of reverberation. At times, “the chair shakes so much you can’t control the keyboard,” McMaster said. The chair, complete with six speakers, goes on sale next month.
Television LCD and plasma TV sets may be capable of producing stunning images, but some manufacturers believe their standard pictures and features are not good enough for gaming, especially as sets become bigger and technologies like Blu-ray and HD-DVD discs are able to reproduce much higher picture quality.
"As a gamer, every pixel counts," said Ali Atash, a Samsung senior marketing manager for LCD and picture-tube TVs.
All of Mitsubishi’s new rear-projection DLP sets that begin to ship next month will include a special Game Mode picture setting that both increases contrast and decreases the lag time between the push of a controller’s button and the response by the image.
Similarly, all of Samsung’s new models will have a game mode, which will increase the contrast, sharpen the picture, reduce the processing time between the game controller and the TV sets, and enhance the sound. Connectors will be added on the side of the sets.
The new mode will add "subtle improvements" compared with existing models, Atash said.
Rather than add game features, Sharp is marketing two new LCD 1080p models specifically for US gamers. The 32-inch, $1,700 LC-32GP1U and the 37-inch, $2,000 LC-37GP1U (each $100 more than their nongamer equivalents) include increased contrast, a fast pixel response time to reduce blurring, Vyper Drive technology to reduce processing lag and a dedicated game-setting button on the remote.
Of course, the sets can also be used to watch regular TV programming.
Whether enhanced game modes actually do anything to improve a picture is an open question.
“We noticed no significant difference between the game mode and the regular viewing mode on the TV sets we tested,” said David Carnoy, executive editor at Cnet.com, a website that reviews consumer electronics.