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The (Game) Doctor Is In


Physicians are helping develop gear that lets players "feel" the impact of a bullet or a fist

On a typical weekday, Dr. Mark P. Ombrellaro is scrubbed in for surgery by 8 a.m. The 46-year-old vascular surgeon runs a private practice in Bellevue, Wash. The more he operates, the more he learns about how the body responds to physical trauma. The deep knowledge he gains of human anatomy also helps him in his avocation: He builds high-tech video game accessories, which heighten the game experience by giving players the faintest sense of what it feels like to be struck by bullets or battered by fists.

Ombrellaro is on the cutting edge—literally—of the most provocative new trend in the $18 billion video game industry. Today's slickest games render in excruciating detail the sights and sounds of a battlefield or sports arena. But that's not enough for hard-core gamers addicted to the rush of ultrarealistic simulations. They want to participate in scenes with as many of their senses as possible. A technology known as haptics—virtual touch, if you will—makes that possible. By donning a vest or helmet studded with tiny computerized air pistons, gamers can feel the thwack of a punch without actually having to suffer the pain.

Medical professionals are finding a profitable niche in the virtual-touch revolution. Their long-term goal is to simulate sensations from the caress of a hand to the impact of a bat against bone. TN Games, a division of Ombrellaro's 8-year-old Redmond (Wash.) startup, TouchNetworks, brought to market one of the first haptic vests during the holiday 2007 shopping season. It sold out its first shipment, according to Ombrellaro. In December, TN Games signed an agreement with video game giant Activision (ATVI), maker of Guitar Hero and other top-selling video game franchises, which bundled the $170 accessory with the war game Call of Duty 2. TN Games plans to sell a haptic helmet, sleeves, and pant legs by the end of 2008.

Medicine's contribution to the game business isn't limited to bullet blasts. Another touch startup, Novint Technologies (NVNT) in Albuquerque, got its start designing simulation systems for Lockheed Martin (LMT), Chrysler, and Chevron (CVX). In 2003 the company started developing medical software with Dr. John Wills, an anesthesiologist who heads the critical care department at the University of New Mexico. Novint developed a simulator to train doctors in administering delicate injections, mimicking the resistance a needle encounters as it passes through flesh. Based on this software, Novint released a game controller last June called the Falcon with an unusual globe-shaped handle. The device transmits subtle pressure signals to a gamer's fingertips. In one game, The Ship, the Falcon allows players to feel what it's like to inject enemies with lethal poison.

If such grisly technology were only flowing from docs to game addicts, society might raise an eyebrow. But expertise flows from the game room to the operating room, too. Consider the latest project from BreakAway, a game startup in Hunt Valley, Md. The company creates simulations for defense contractors such as Northrop Grumman and Boeing, as well as video game software for Electronic Arts and Microsoft. Its newest endeavor, a federally funded project called Pulse, is a detailed medical training simulation. It allows doctors to practice surgical procedures. The simulation, being tested at Yale and Johns Hopkins, leans heavily on game-related incentives—trainees are rewarded by points. Adding touch to the digital hospital is "absolutely a future possibility," says Pulse Executive Producer Ed Fletcher.

But Fletcher hasn't forgotten video games. He hopes to apply what he learns in the OR to game depictions of torn tissue and flowing blood.

Jana is the Innovation Dept. editor for BusinessWeek.

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