Interview: Philips amBX, your own holodeck?

Turn on the lights, roll the camera, start the wind machines

A set of five or six LED lights, two fans and a rumbling wrist strip. That's Philips' amBX gaming peripherals, which aim to extend the game's experience beyond the screen and immerse gamers in their fantasy worlds. We're also told that design teams have been using the technology to experiment with bubble machines, water atomisers and even smell-o-vision for games.

It may seem a little bizarre - and even intrusive - at first, but then who'd have expected Philips Ambilight TVs to have sold a million units in just over a year? It's even won the hearts of the often cynical Guardian Games Blog . So we caught up with its co-founder and main evangelist, David Eves, to find out more.

TECH.CO.UK How long has amBX been in development?

DAVID EVES We've been working on amBX in the research lab for about five years now; we spent two or three years developing the concept, and then started to look at what the business opportunities were. Which is when we started to work towards the PC gaming product.

TECH.CO.UK And what was the inspiration behind it?

DAVID We were looking at the possibilities of creating a 'holodeck' type environment at some point in the future, but then moved on to what was actually practical to do right now. We thought that we could help you interact with the devices that are around you already in your home, and make them more of an experience.

TECH So PC gaming is just the start then?

DAVID Absolutely. PC is where we see the experience as being really effective and a great starting place, but beyond that we want to create the ultimate movie experience, and then add music, mood lighting and general atmosphere creation too.

TECH What sort of time scale are you looking at for other applications of amBX?

DAVID We hope to bring our first console versions within about a year of now, and beyond that we're looking at home theatre within a two to three year time period.

TECH How hard is it to apply amBX effects into movies? With games you can hardcode it into the program, with movies do you have to be a bit more clever about how you go about integrating the scripts?

DAVID In some ways movies are easier because they're a linear piece of content, so you're creating a single script that is predefined over the period of the movie. But then you've got to find a way of actually delivering it with the film. There's lots of ways to do that - it could be on the disc, it could be via an internet connection, it could even be embedded within the picture signal itself.

TECH How long does it take to put amBX code into a game?

DAVID It's typically taken about three or four weeks so far. It depends on the type of game as to whether there's a lot of coding to add to the game engine; in a shoot-em-up for example you want to create particularly colourful effects tied to specific events; whereas in something like Broken Sword 4 the effects are more scene-based, so a lot more work goes into the creative process of the amBX script building up effects for complete scenes. But typically there's about a man-month of effort involved.

TECH And will all effects have to be scripted, or can amBX generate effects on the fly like the Ambilight TVs?

DAVID We can certainly do Ambilight-type effects for any content. That's a way of very quickly making your entire catalogue amBX enabled - to an extent. Then, of course, there's the halfway house where you automatically generate some of the content by software analysis, and then have an author improve that. That can speed up the process too.