|Background ambience around amBX.|
It's an often repeated promise that next-gen photo-realism is going to magically enable an emotional engagement with video games that has been apparently lacking. The accepted shorthand has always been based around words like ‘immersion' and phrases like ‘disappearing into the game'. Indeed, the measure of a great game has often been the degree to which the player can inhabit it – diving Max Renn-like into the screen itself. All of those ideas make Philips' amBX initiative an unusual proposition.
Rather than attempt to transport players from their sofas and into the game, amBX wants to take the game and put it into the room, sort of like reverse-VR. The company describes amBX as a technology which uses light, color, sound, heat and air to submerge the user within a complete "sensory surround experience". The company is is targeting PC gamers as the most likely early adopters of the technology, and has indicated that amBX-enabled games and peripherals will arrive later in 2006.
amBX In Action?
Arriving at the Philips labs in Redhill, Surrey, it's difficult not be seduced by this fascinating proposition. The demonstration begins with footage from Revolution Software's Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon title. Footage set in the desert, and the ambient lighting in the room floods yellow. As we move into darkness, so the light dims.
In another scene, a flame burns to the right of the screen – and so to the right the lighting in the room flickers orange/red. As collision events occur within the game, rumble features react from within the arms of the sofa we are sitting on. Finally, as a plane flies toward us on screen fans are activated in front of us and we are blown with air.
Experientially, this is probably the most striking moment – albeit also the most surreal. Lighting, sound and rumble are features we are conversant with as players – but air? Further demos showed the same experiential ideas running in different ways, from more subtle lighting changes, to a Spice Girls game which transformed the room into a disco.
|amBX in the living room.|
The proposition of amBX is undeniably exciting, although it's difficult to understand exactly how the product will function within a real domestic living room where the walls aren't a bare neutral color. The kind of wrap-around immersion that is amBX striding to create is up against some tough consumer benchmarks from highly controlled experiences buyers may have already experienced in theme parks.
For this writer, both the biggest shortfalls and greatest potentials of amBX were highlighted by the demonstration of a high-speed ride from Frontier's Roller Coaster Tycoon. Air was blowing in your face, light was changing to reflect the fast-moving environment and then – as your car passes through some water, pixellated splashes appear on the ‘inside' of the screen. A nice touch from Frontier, but one that immediately undermines the amBX setup. That said, I await the water-jet peripheral with anticipation.
The demo moved on to a different location, that of a desktop PC setup. Here the buzzer-sofa was replaced with a rumble bar on a mouse mat, the lights with smaller ones around the PC and the fan by a smaller one placed just to the left of the monitor. Functionally, the demonstration of Broken Sword worked in much the same way although they gave a much clearer impression of amBX working in a domestic context. In many respects this felt like a better context, the desktop providing a much smaller and more focused area to control the experience within.
|An amBX desktop PC setup|
Wisely, Philips have made it as easy as possible to integrate amBX into both the existing code environment, and retrofitting current titles. It is fully backwards compatible with any existing PC game. Essentially, amBX is a multi-media scripting language, which powers an expandable set of peripheral hardware. Philips expect that it will add approximately 1-2 months of 1 developers time into the process. The amBX scripting element can be driven either by pre-scripted sequence or directly from the live game lighting model, with amBX settings being written into map locations and events.
|Fans would be part of the starter pack.|
The offering to consumers will be built around a starter pack of basic lighting, rumble bar and fan – with third party manufacturer producing add-on amBX peripherals as the platform develops. Philips wouldn't be drawn on what these specific peripherals might be, consequently the kinds of experiential intimacy previously offered by third-party peripherals for the Rez title have not been ruled either in or out.
A strong amBX presence is expected at both GDC and E3, and with a number of undisclosed studios onboard, amBX is certainly an interesting proposition to watch.