Is there such a thing as too much immersion?
A great VR experience pulls you in and keeps you totally engaged. It doesn't matter if you're battling sorcerers, diffusing bombs, operating on people, or just running a convenience store for robots. That immersed feeling is everything, and it's never just one thing that pulls you in. A polished, natural-feeling environment coupled with some great audio can come together to build something truly special, but how much further can you go with home VR equipment?
For some, the next step is better whole-body detection. Others want a way to feel what is happening in VR with better vibration and impact vests. Some just want to increase the sense of presence by adding smells or air movement. The truth is there is no one way to move forward, as long as the ultimate goal is to increase immersion. The folks at SubPac have been working for a long time on making it easier for you to feel sounds as though they're coming from more than just your headphones, and it makes a surprisingly big difference in VR.
Suit up, you're going to feel this
SubPac offers several products with the same basic goal — to really feel what you're listening to. The SubPac M2 takes this idea and turns it into a system you wear on your back, as closely to your body as possible. The M2 design is almost like a vest, with shoulder straps and harness-like fasteners to keep the core parts of this system in place while you're moving around. It's not quite thin enough to want to wear everywhere, but it's plenty comfortable enough to want to put it on before jumping into VR.
Because this system is designed to be portable, the M2 is battery powered. The battery sits inside the control panel, which can be mounted in several places on the vest depending on your needs. This panel is fairly simple — there's an input and output for 3.5mm jacks, a power port, a power button, and an intensity knob. You connect your headphones to the output jack, connect the audio out from your VR headset to the input jack, and hit the power button to get started. SubPac claims the battery pack is designed to last for up to six hours of continuous use, but in our testing that number was closer to eight which is more than enough for a day or two of VR experiences.
By default, the intensity setting is set to 50% on the dial. There's even a small notch you can feel when turning the knob for that 50% mark, so you can quickly adjust without looking. This is particularly convenient in when the control mechanism is on either of the side holsters, making it easy for you to reach and adjust without taking you all the way out of VR.
What "feeling" sound means in VR
By design, SubPac takes all of the incoming audio and translates all of the low frequencies into the pad on your back. When the bass kicks in, your whole torso feels it. The louder the input volume, the more intense the vibration coming from SubPac will be. It's like standing next to a big speaker in a night club, only you control the volume and no one is spilling drinks on you.
In VR, that means you feel any kind of deep tone. If you're playing a horror game, the door slamming in the hallway you're standing in is translated into your torso. When you crash in a racing game, the intensity of the impact is felt through your whole body. If you're watching 360-degree music video, you're feeling that music course through your body in sync with the video. It's not a directional tactile vest, where for example you'd feel an impact on a specific part of your body when shot in a game. SubPac lets you feel the environment, and in many VR experiences that can be even more immersive.
That having been said, this isn't something you're likely to want to wear for every single VR experience. First-person action titles in VR often lead to jumps thanks to background audio hitting the vest, which can be disorienting. This is the kind of thing you'd want to wear when piloting a ship in Elite: Dangerous or punching music notes as they fly at you in AudioShield.
Is it worth it?
The SubPac system isn't cheap. In fact, at $299, it's the kind of thing you're only going to consider if the difference made in your life is significant. Adding SubPac to an HTC Vive or PlayStation VR means you're going to want to use it a lot, which means you're already using your VR system on a regular basis.
Feeling the audio in your body is a remarkable experience, but it's important to know this is not the same as a tactile response vest and will not give you a greater sense of depth or direction in any VR experience. As a result, this is not the kind of thing you want on your body if most of your VR activities are first-person action. If you spend a lot of time firing arrows, swinging swords, or reloading guns in VR, this is not the setup for you.
SubPac absolutely makes a difference in how you experience most forms of virtual reality. It makes racing games more intense, silly games more interactive, and horror games with one of these speaker systems on will have you seriously questioning your life choices. If that's the kind of immersion you want next for your VR rig, SubPac is absolutely what you want.