For everyone who doesn’t have a finger on the mixed reality scene, you may have thought all significant developments died down after the PlayStation VR. And to be honest, I wouldn’t blame you—as soon as Fortnite became popular, the metalanguage of game development changed from “virtual reality” to “battle royale.” But don’t let the shift in limelight distract you, a ton of tech companies are still working to bring immersion via mixed reality into the forefront of gaming. And my recent obsession with that topic has been the Vortx by Whirlwind FX—an environmental FX simulator for PCs.
Let’s take a moment to navigate out of buzzword country; what exactly is the Vortx? The hardware is a novel design for the PC crowd, almost blending in as an RGB-packed speaker. However, instead of sound, the Vortx will instead illicit an environmental change. If you are navigating some icy tundras with wind whipping, a blast of cold air with pearlescent blue light will come from the machine. Meanwhile, exploring a desert location or watching a fire crackle will instead come with dry heat.
Ostensibly, the Vortx is a speaker for temperature and wind, and it is really freaking cool.
Part of what makes the package so interesting is how easy it is to set up. Provided you know how to find the device’s drive and hardware, it is as easy as plugging in both the USB and power cord and turning the machine on. Then, as all of the device’s promotional material states, it was my time to #GetBlown.
On one end, Vortx may seem a bit mundane—it acts as almost a hairdryer in your face at the highest velocity. However, there is a ton of complexity thrown into how the system operates. Given the company is a start-up, it is impossible to imagine they would contract with games for a specialized custom experience. Instead, the software within the driver taps into different factors like sound files and the dominant color on screen to determine how hot or cold the air should blow, and with what strength. Provided media was full-screen, I could just as quickly use this on Shadow of the Tomb Raider as I could watching Agents of SHIELD on Netflix.
Even better, this has helped re-evaluate how we experience games as a whole. Although the Vortx very much feels like a (worthwhile) 1.0 release, I’m interested to see how this medium is explored. Gaming to-date has been mostly an audio-visual experience. With the growth of haptic feedback devices and now environmental effects, I’ve been thinking. Where is immersive gaming going to be in the next five or ten years?
As I mentioned, Vortx often feels like a 1.0 release, which is by no means a bad thing given it is pioneering the market. But when Vortx 2.0 comes out, I would definitely be expecting some quality of life changes. The most significant issue I ran into was the disparity between “hot” and “cold.” The hot air seemed to blow out at well over 130 degrees and legitimately felt “hot.” Meanwhile, exploring dark lunar environments or watching snow-covered Fargo and the temperature went as low as 80 degrees. In other words, I wish the cold was colder – or could transition from hot-to-cold easier.
Apart from that, Vortx is also fairly loud. If you are someone who plays with headphones, go ahead and ignore this—but you are essentially putting a continually running fan on your desk, and it sounds like it is just that. If the Vortx was powered by Dyson’s blade-less technology, it would likely sound and look a lot cooler. But as it stands, the best use of the Vortx seems to be desert environment games with headphones on.
On the other end, Vortx has a ton of cool things that are entirely unnecessary to the environmental effects experience but very appreciated. While the Vortx could have just been a black, speaker-like fan on your desk, hardware designer Whirlwind FX smartly incorporated customizable lighting. When the Vortx is in use, that lighting will match up to what the dominant color on screen is, giving an extended hue. Despite not actually getting cold air during snow-settings, the blue light would help trick my mind into an artificial chill.
Vortx isn’t a must buy for everyone in the PC gaming crowd—there are plenty of people who will write off the add-on experience as a gimmick, just like people may write off motion controls or virtual reality. But I’ll tell you this: after many years of PC gaming, I haven’t played with anything like this. And for everyone curious to check out what the future has in store, you aren’t going to regret the $120 purchase.
Vortx isn’t for the average PC player—it’s for the gamer looking into the future of where gaming as a medium is going. Despite some clear improvements that will hopefully make it into an eventual hardware redesign, Whirlwind FX has pivoted mixed reality into something unprecedented but worth investing in.