Back in 2005, Engadget wowed us with the upcoming news of AMBX, a suite of orchestrated devices (strobes, fans, smoke machines, heat lamps, even furniture!) that receive signals from "AMBX compatible" games and thus simulate in-game elements into your physical surroundings. Today, we finally have a video of what this technology actually looks like in practice. While poking around everywhere I could, I found this one forum reader's interpretation of how this could be a truly fantastic, immersive move towards virtual reality:
You're walking up to an (Elder Scrolls) Oblivion Gate. The sky is blue, the thurther you go up the sky begins to dim blood red. Slowly the sky is alight with thunder and it's burning hot as you face the gate you're about to enter. What a perfect scenario for amBX, the lights slowly changing red with strobes flashing thunder behind you, fans blasting hot air at you as you face the gate. The rumbling of the atmosphere shakes your seat.... TOTAL IMMERSION!
Sounds flawless right? HMMMMMMMMMMMMMM I dunno. Let's play Devil's Advocate, shall we?
Now, look at this photo and wash away all hazy perfectly staged video footage and idealistic writeups. The hard reality is that there are two big flashing lamps on either sides of your TV. Is this what you really want.... or do you want a pitch black room with nothing but the sound of your surround sound speakers and the rumbling of a subwoofer somewhere around you so you can focus your eyes purely on the screen? I'm not sure. This technology could be distracting as hell and flop like those gimmicky Philips plasma TVs that have LED backlights (surprise - Philips is backing this company, to sell more of those tv's I'm sure).
For developers, AMBX is a scripting language that they'd add to their engines to communicate with these devices. If it takes off, it will probably become a dedicated job just like there's somebody who is in charge of directing the sound experience for a team of musicians and sound effects personel. An atmosphere director, or something like that. But for now it's another damn piggyback assignment for a few of them I'm sure.
According to the AMBX web site, they are planning to implement this technology on PC gamers first, which makes perfect sense. We are way more apt to buy accessories and parts for our gaming rigs and try this than buy a peripheral for a console that 1-2 games will support (and then go in a box to die). No price has been set for the hardware yet, but you can imagine it's going to cost an arm and a leg. The technology reminds me of 60's era SMELLOVISION that they tried to pump scents into movie theaters to enhance the experience. Of course, it was ridiculous. But these products seem rather well built and designed - and it's 40 years since that illfated test. But some things don't change - like an eyeball's reaction to lights being turned on and off around them. When I saw that part in the video I was turned off by it - that seems super annoying to me. But maybe if you condition yourself to it after awhile you come to anticipate that and it's not so abrupt. A fan going on and off at my face near my pc? I think that would drive me nuts. STROBE LIGHTS?!! Don't even get me started.
Ok Ok, one more devil's advocate peep out of me about this technology: I couldn't help but notice how high end the houses in the photos are. I might know about 1-2 guys with houses like that, and they're not gamers. They might want this for movies, that's it. The average gamer has a big wooden entertainment center with all his consoles on it and a tv in the middle, and his pc area is a desk in a corner of a room somewhere with a bunch of other shit around it. To set up an elaborate system of pulleys and flashlights around either of those scenarios seems kind of incompatible, so I think this will ultimately be for that guy who's hired an A/V company to install his $10,000 Qualia flatscreen and will check of a few of these contraptions as novelties before speeding off in their Ferrari. I might have it totally wrong, but I'd be pleasantly surprised if I wasn't.
And as Jon Stewart once said, here is your moment of zen: