|Aura Systems Interactor Vest
by Leonard "Viking1" Hjalmarson
The promise of Force Feedback is only beginning to be realized. Force feedback arrived first in sticks, then migrated to chairs, and will likely drift over to throttles. And even though three-speaker systems (L, R with sub-woofer) are catching on like wildfire, there haven't been any really creative additions to the force feedback arena for PC hardware.
Sometime around 1995, however, Aura Systems released two products that might have changed the face of gaming: a vest and a cushion, each crammed with hardware in the form of 5" speakers. This device was revolutionary at the time, and if the Internet had been what it is today it would have done well.
Aura Systems seems to manufacture just about everything related to sound; you can even buy individual speakers from this company! The cushion and vest deserved some special attention from Aura's PR department, but because of other business involvements at the time of their release they didn't receive the attention needed. As a result sales were slow and the company dropped the products after a year or so.
As I mentioned in my earlier coverage of the Interactor Cushion, I had only a brief Intensor chair experience, so it's difficult to compare the Aura products to the chair on the basis of experience. But I believe that if you already have a good sound system, the Intensor is more hardware than you need and more investment than you need to make. For around $49 US, however, (MSRP is $99) you could add the Interactor Vest and it would be WELL worth your investment!
The genius of the vest is that you can use it wherever you go. It's easily portable for that up and coming LAN meet, and golly-gee Batman, you can even plug it into your stereo or your home theatre system!
Like the cushion, I've had some fun with the vest. My first trials were in Falcon 4. I then graduated to WW2 Fighters and M1 Tank Platoon II. Finally, I tried out some music CDs and then plugged the device into my stereo for a go at The Hunt for Red October....
The Thing Itself
The vest is a smaller unit than the cushion, and the device itself measures 12x10 and is 2 inches at it's greatest width. The vest holds one five inch speaker that vents to the rear. The vest is black plastic construction and straps to your body like a backpack. You can then engage the belt strap, which has a connector much like a real backpack, to bring the vest solidly into contact with your body.
The power supply with this unit, as with the cushion, is a monster and does NOT have a power cord on the box, so you must plug the monster directly into your power bar. It's a bad idea since you will also block the adjacent socket, and this lack of a power cord is still too common on other hardware devices.
Ah well. At 40W and 1.25A the vest can blast you off your chair if you crank the volume. No kidding, the output of this device will surprise you!
My first experience with the vest was in Falcon 4. The rumble of the engine at 80% power could be felt through my body. I pushed up to full military power. The sensation was VERY nice. I kicked in the burner and WOW, my body was saturated with the feeling of power.
"Too cool," I thought. I chose a mission in the campaign that would take me into contact with the enemy in short order. I got in close and took out a MiG, and then had one on my six. I managed to turn the tables and get a piece of him, but was bounced in the process by another who locked me up and got an IR shot in close. When I took the hit the impact felt quite realistic! My Viper was rapidly out of control and when I ejected I got another kick in the back for my trouble. It was an immersive experience that added greatly to my Falcon4 ride!
Moving on from Falcon4, I selected Logitech's Wingman Force in my Game Control panel, loaded WW2 Fighters, and chose a single mission in the P38. I loaded up a ground attack mission and went out after some German tanks. Sound quality in WW2 Fighters is excellent, especially if you have high fidelity selected. As I reduced throttle to idle I was again amazed at how much the sense of immersion is increased by the bodily feedback of the vest.
P38 in WW2 Fighters.
In EAW or WW2 Fighers I could easily tell the engine revs by vibration alone. The combination of a force feedback device like the Wingman and the Interactor vest is sensation boggling. The difference using the vest and stick, compared to gaming without these feedback devices, is nothing short of spectacular.
Incidentally, I have to admit that the vibration feedback itself is quite pleasant. Engine vibration has a relaxing effect transmitted to your back, whether from an F16 or from a Spit Mk IX. The more sudden forces can be jarring, as one would expect. Because the pre-amp unit has it's own volume control and filter, you can adjust the effect independently of your main sound volume. This becomes significant if you are gaming in a quiet home since you can maintain an overall low system volume but still get good force feedback effects. Nice!
Music CDs also improve with force feedback from the Aura vest. I fired up a few of my favorites for fun, including some old 70's pop music and some more recent UK noise. As with games, the more base the better. After the musical interlude I loaded up both Hunt for Red October and Top Gun on my VCR and plugged the amp into my stereo.
Yes, as one would expect, the movie experience is equally enhanced by this device. And the more hum of motors and explosions involved, the better! This device is taylor made to improve your experience of your favorite war movies and science fiction thrillers. The THUP of a machine gun or the drone of a motor will all place you inside the action.
Vest or Cushion?
This is a tough call and one that would be highly personal. Strapping the vest on is an experience in itself. It's a quick and easy task, but somehow the act of strapping a piece of hardware on to your body is itself an act of commitment, much as climing into a G suit would be. You can't just walk away from your computer until you either unplug the device or take the unit off. If you have a spare pilot's helmet around, you would feel altogether at home in adding the vest.
The vest stays with you, unlike the cushion. If you lean forward in your chair and away from the cushion, you lose most of the physical feedback. But lean forward while wearing the vest, or even fall out of your chair, and the "force is with you" still.
Oddly, while the cushion included the Y connector necessary to allow you to simultaneously connect both your speakers and the cushion to your sound card, the vest lacks this adapter and you will have to visit a local Radio Shack to obtain one.
It's a great device, and a great shame that it is now out of production. The vest and cushion give all the benefits of a feedback chair like the Intensor for a fraction of the price. Cables are also supplied with the vest to allow direct connection to your VCR.
Although you can no longer get either device from Aura Systems, there are still some vests out there at various discount sources. Good luck!
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Last Updated March 18th, 1999