4D cinemas offer moviegoers features that go above and beyond 3D glasses, utilizing air flow and other effects to help simulate the atmosphere on screen in a real-life theater environment. Starting today, Whirlwind FX is shipping its $120 smart fan/space-heater, the Vortx, in an attempt to bring that experience to PC gaming setups. It’s designed to blow either cool or hot air at varying intensities based on the action in the game you’re playing or the movie you’re watching on your PC. It does this by dynamically analyzing video and audio signals for telltale signs that Whirlwind FX’s engineers have flagged.
The great thing about the Vortx’s algorithm-based solution in theory is that it will work with anything you can display on your PC, but that also means the resulting effect is only as good as the analysis and math behind it. After a quick installation of Vortx drivers and configuration software, we spent a few hours throwing throwing various types of games and videos at Vortx with mostly inconsistent results. Scenes like first-person snowboarding and skydiving were reflected quite well by Vortx, with a sustained flow of air that, while not quite as strong as the real thing, was strong enough to feel like it enhanced the action on screen.
Similarly, playing a bit of 2016’s Doom, a game with plenty of fire and explosions, Vortx hit me with hot air that, while not the definition of comfortable, was what I bargained for. Not one to shy away from a hot time, I hopped over to YouTube and began my search for fire videos. These didn’t work quite as well, with Vortx rapidly shifting gears between hot and cool air and weak and strong intensities. This is likely the case because, despite those videos having roughly the same visual cues as Doom (so far as Vortx is concerned), a fire isn’t as loud as shotgun blasts and screaming demons.
Perhaps the most peculiar result from our tests was No Man’s Sky. Flying in a ship caused Vortx to produce a light breeze, which is all well and good, but turning the camera while running on terra firma caused Vortx to rev aggressively. This is one of many examples of a difficult Vortx moment. To oversimplify things: An algorithm is only as good as what it’s told to do with the variables provided, and it seems that Vortx’s solution still has a lot of room for improvement in that regard. It’s generally good at comparing audio signatures to colors or shifts in light values to determine how hot and hard to blow, but only in isolated moments. As it is today, Vortx feels more like a proof of concept than a finished product.
There’s are other factors to consider as well when weighing the merits of Vortx, such as the loud noises its internal mechanisms produce and the faint smell of electronic heat (typical of space heaters) that was present throughout our tests, a mere few hours after opening a brand-new retail unit. The two other units provided by Whirlwind FX produced the same amount of noise and smell. With headphones on your noggin, you will thankfully miss out on the majority of whirs and whines that come from Vortx, but rest assured anyone around you will sneer and laugh at the seemingly angry cube on your desk if it’s wrestling with rapidly shifting whims.
Though Vortx draws attention from anyone who sees it in action, it’s definitely a mix of surprise and bemusement, yet it has a certain allure that’s difficult to ignore. Whirlwind FX is onto something and has a foundation to build upon that should hopefully improve with time and feedback.
It’s cool that the company’s plan is to make Vortx work for you, with the content you want, but after using it for a few hours the idea of developers finding ways to integrate it into their games directly to eliminate any guesswork seems even more attractive. The odds of that happening may be slim at this stage, but if you consider the potential for use in VR games, you can imagine how studios interested in pushing immersive gaming forward may pay attention to Vortx as its development continues. While we can’t give it a solid recommendation, it’s no doubt an unforgettable product that we encourage you to try if you get the chance.