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Virtual Motion: Making games feel real

Mt. Washington start-up's tiny devices fiddle with your middle

Sunday, August 23, 1998

By Michael Newman, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Subtlety does not sell computer games. The target audience (read: sun-deprived male adolescents) for most games is interested mainly in killing strategies and cool graphics, preferably involving bloodshed.

  Scott Campbell, vice president of Virtual Motion, demonstrates his company's "Motionware" headset. The device sends tiny electrical currents to the nerve behind the wearer's ear, producing a sense of motion during video games. Bob Pavuchak, Post-Gazette)

Exhibit A: "Dear Mike," began a recent press release from a company selling a suite - like more sedate applications, computer games now come bundled together - of three computer war games. "Which machine of destruction would you choose to destroy your enemy? Would you scream through the skies in a jet fighter? Or do you prefer to swoop closer to the ground in a slick, advanced helicopter? Isn't it time you rumbled through the brush in a tank?"

Actually, no. I can wait a while longer before I rumble through the brush in a tank, even a make-believe tank that exists only on a computer screen.

I am, however, an exception. In the computer-game industry, the name of the game is destruction: The more of it, and the more realistic it is, the better.

This striving toward realism is encouraging to Craig Campbell. Campbell, a native of McCandless and a graduate of the University of Pittsburgh, is founder and president of Virtual Motion, a small Mount Washington software firm that makes a special computer-game headset. The device, dubbed "Motionware," is designed to give game users ("gamers" is the preferred term) a more realistic experience.

And how does it do that, exactly? "Essentially, it hyperpolarizes the eighth cranial nerve," he says, not too helpfully. Translation: It sends tiny electrical currents to the nerve behind your ear, messing up your sense of balance and making you feel as though you're doing something you're not.

These electrical impulses, he says, can be synchronized with the action on a computer screen. Thus, when a rumbling tank encounters a small obstacle - a herd of lions, say, or some hostile lines of programming code - the gamer should feel some resistance.

If the tank stops suddenly, he'll lurch forward. If the jet fighter does a 360, he'll get dizzy. If the helicopter starts rocking, he'll lose his breakfast.

Well, not quite. In a highly uncontrolled experiment, I donned a headset equipped with goggles and Virtual Motion's hyperpolarizing doodads. I was then treated to a few videos, including one shot from the first car of the Steel Phantom at Kennywood.

Campbell tells me I was leaning back and forward at all the right moments, but I might have just been showing off. (I have a tendency to do that.) All I really felt was a faintly annoying tingling sensation behind my ears.

Even Campbell's endorsement of his own technology is qualified. "For the consumer who wants to be totally blown away - I wouldn't say it delivers that," Campbell says. "Some people think it's going to levitate them. This is very new, very unrefined. It's the first advance toward something different."

Is it enough to make a difference? "I think it's pretty cool," says Andy Babb, a business development manager for Segasoft, a game maker in Silicon Valley. "But it's still pretty much in the early phases."

Babb tested the headset about four months ago, he says, when he met Campbell who was visiting Silicon Valley. "I definitely got the sensation of movement," Babb says. "I think it definitely has potential."

Whether it will find its way into any of Sega's games is another question. "It all depends on where their technology is," Babb says.

Virtual Motion has been in contact with several game makers and hardware manufacturers. The next step for the company is to hire a contractor to make "about 100" Virtual Motion headsets so the company can then offer them to computer game makers for testing. If the headsets are popular, Campbell says, the technology may be included with games in time for the holiday season in 1999.

Of course, that's an estimate. "Everything always takes longer than you think," says Campbell, 31, who started the company last year with his 35-year-old brother, Scott, who is vice president of operations. Bill Heckel, 30, is chief technologist.

The company's Mount Washington offices, which double as the younger Campbell's apartment, are above an Italian restaurant. "To all couriers and express deliveries," reads a sign on the front door, "Please have bartender sign in the event that we are out."

The modest offices serve their function, at least for now, and investors appreciate that "we're keeping costs down," Scott Campbell says. Thus far the company has raised more than $1 million from private investors.

Virtual Motion is working on other products, Campbell says, though none of them is currently aimed at the consumer market. And Campbell has a special interest in the Virtual Motion headset.

Before he founded the company, he was a professional skier in Colorado. He wanted to emulate that sense of excitement and movement in a computer game.

"I wanted to do something with virtual reality, but I didn't want to compete in the graphics sector," he says. So he came up with the idea of the "Motionware" headset, fine-tuned the technology and received a patent.

If it becomes the Next Big Thing in the computer-game industry, you can be sure that the leading video-game makers will rewrite their press releases.

"Dear Mike," they'll say. "Feel the G-forces press you back as you scream through the skies in a jet fighter! Make sure you have the sick bag handy as you swoop close to the ground in a slick, advanced helicopter! Strap yourself in when you rumble through the brush in a tank..."

I can hardly wait.

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