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.
TECH Somebody told tech.co.uk the other day that one of the best applications of amBX is for creating lighting effects to music...
DAVID Music is a great area. With a film or a game there's usually one fairly obvious way that you would want to express a piece of content. With music there's hundreds of ways of expressing any single piece of content; so we see real possibilities for giving your MP3 tracks different kinds of styles and vibes for different times of day and different uses. So you could have 'party' effect or 'ambient' effect or just something in the background while you're doing your washing.
TECH So you're not just looking at turning a lounge into a movie theatre, but a nightclub as well?
DAVID Yes. It could be a nightclub, or an ambient chill out zone...
TECH Are there any applications for amBX beyond creating ambience?
DAVID Basically amBX is something that can be used by creative people in any way that they feel that people need. So they can use it to reinforce their user interfaces, for example; perhaps to give you warnings about things that are happening on screen or away from the action. So a light flashes when someone sends you an MSN nudge, for example. It could even be used for other applications, say you want to make warning signals for security: turning lights on to make your house look lived in while you're away. What we wanted to do was put the tools in the hands of creative people who can then surprise us with the ways they use it.
TECH Philips is one of the leaders in LED home lighting as well. Do you see amBX as being a partner product for that?
DAVID Very much so. There's an ideal synergy between Philips lighting and Philips amBX; this really is the mood engine to lighting products. The progression of LED lighting shows the need for something like amBX, because there are so many possibilities opened up by having 16 million colours available in one bulb.
TECH How long do you think it will be before we start seeing amBX lights for the home, rather than just for entertainment systems, in, say, Homebase or Ikea?
DAVID Well that's part of our hope and vision, but realistically within five to ten years that sort of lighting will become commonplace and people will want to do more than just turn it on and off. amBX is the way to achieve that.
TECH The first iterations of amBX are quite expensive. The full gamer package is going to retail for $399 [approximately £200]. Do you think those prices are going to come down a bit and make it more viable for the mainstream gamer?
DAVID It's always the case that when you introduce a new and innovative product it's always going to be at a relatively high price point. But the usual forces of the market will happen and the technology behind it - particularly the LED lighting - is very rapidly coming down in price.
TECH Do you have any partners lined up for third party peripherals?
DAVID We're talking with a number of partners both for PC gaming and looking forward into console and home theatre add-ons too.
TECH Looking at the success of Nintendo's Wii controller - has anyone come up with any ideas for making an amBX-enabled joypad that uses the effects as part of the gameplay, as opposed to just the ambient effect?
DAVID A number of the developers we've worked with have been very interested in the possibility that as amBX becomes more ubiquitous, that you can use it as part of the gameplay. Now that people are waving their arms around and pointing at the walls and so on, maybe you could design the effects to happen in the area you're waving at, rather than on the screen. It's certainly something I can see happening over time, once amBX becomes established.
TECH What other future peripherals can you envision? We've heard rumours of smell-o-vision...
DAVID The hardest thing about smell-o-vision isn't creating smells, that's just a case of having a small dispenser and a variety of cartridges that can be fired off by an amBX script. It's actually clearing the air of them afterwards - you don't want them hanging around and mixing. Maybe we could use the fans to do that, I don't know...
TECH You've been working with the guys from Introversion to put amBX effects into Defcon . They're pretty creative thinkers, have they come up with any good ideas?
DAVID They've been very excited about it. And they look at it in a whole different way. At first it was all about trying to create an emotion and a mood behind Defcon, but they have some very interesting ideas for the future too.
TECH Can you tell us anything about the work you've done putting amBX into rFactor ?
DAVIDAt CES we worked together with Intel and ISI to put amBX into their Formula One simulators. As a project, that was very interesting, because we were working on a show installation, as well as integrating it into the release for home PCs too.
TECH Is amBX compatible with any of the existing 'immersion' peripherals - like the rumbling game chairs that are already available? Or is it something that has to be built into the hardware?
DAVID Something we do quite a lot of for show installations is to build amBX interfaces onto existing professional devices, and it's a very simple process to add an amBX interface to an existing peripheral. So one of the ways the amBX range is likely to evolve is by taking existing devices and adding that amBX capability. We'd be very interested in talking to any partner or third party who'd like to become a licensee.
TECH How have the professional gaming community taken to amBX. Presumably they're not that interested in anything that distracts from the game?
DAVID Actually a number of the pro-gamers we've spoken to have found it quite exciting. There's still some questions as to whether you want to be seen as using something that's outside the normal competitive arena, but I think that as it becomes a more normal part of gaming it will become part of that competitive element as well.
TECH Are there any other games that are amBX enabled you're ready to announce yet?
DAVID Well, we've just announced rFactor, and of course there's Supreme Commander from THQ coming out in the next couple of months. But we're in discussion with a lot of other developers. The release schedules are set by them and their publishers, though, so the announcements will be in line with that.