Whirlwind FX VortX review: The PC’s first ‘environmental simulator’ is just hot air for now

“Immersion.” It’s become a meaningless buzzword in video games because it represents a dream. We might scoff when it’s applied to the latest Battlefield or whatever, but “Immersion” remains a driving force in the industry. We want to feel like we’re there, like these digital worlds are real. In virtual reality we speak of “Presence,” which is really just immersion by another name. But at a fundamental level, games play much the same in 2018 as they did in 1998: We sit at a PC with a mouse and keyboard and watch images on a screen.

VortX promises to change that, though—at least one small facet. Billed by its creator Whirlwind FX as “the world’s first environmental simulator for PC gaming,” VortX analyzes the action on-screen and blows wind on your face to match.

I knew we had to try it, but would it work? Or would VortX prove just a lot of hot air? Sadly, it’s mostly the latter.

Go on, blow my mind

I’ll say this for VortX: It’s an attractive device. Over the years I’ve tried other experimental haptic devices—gloves and vests to simulate touch, and even a box that generated smells. But they were all prototypes at best, barely functional and replete with naked wires. Not something you’d sell to consumers, in other words.

VortX looks like a finished product, though! It’s enormous, measuring maybe a foot tall and six inches to a side. It’s definitely a presence on my desk. Nevertheless it looks high-end, resembling nothing more than a miniature subwoofer, a black rectangle with a grill-covered vent on the front, a power button, and a control dial, with the VortX logo in silver on the side.

Whirlwind FX VortX IDG / Hayden Dingman

And because it’s a modern gaming peripheral, it lights up of course. There’s RGB LED underglow on the front and sides, plus a ring of light around the dial.

Taken together, it indicates a device with a lot of love and care put into its design. You can’t judge anything purely on looks, but VortX postures like a true consumer-facing product. “Haptics aren’t just an experimental niche for the future, they’re happening now.” That’s the intent I read from VortX’s design.

It doesn’t mean intent and reality line up. Virtual reality, for instance, saw a similar disconnect. Oculus in particular built a beautiful piece of hardware with the Rift headset, proof that VR was happening now—but nearly three year’s on it remains a niche.

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