Console gaming changed forever in 1996, when Nintendo’s N64 was released with a controller featuring an analog thumbstick. It was a design not seen since the days of the Atari 5200, and one that would not only be copied by each successive console, but that would also help usher in an age of 3D gaming that took full advantage of the new apparatus. And the N64’s interactive legacy wouldn’t end there — an empty slot on the back of the controller would soon present Nintendo with the means to further revolutionize the medium. At first used only for memory cards, that vacant port realized its full potential on July 1, 1997, when the highly anticipated scrolling shooter “Star Fox 64” hit store shelves with an included Rumble Pack that, when plugged into the controller during gameplay, would shake in harmony with the on-screen action. The era of physical feedback from your entertainment had begun, and continues to this day, with rumble — as evidenced by Sony’s 2007 decision to replace the PS3’s original Sixaxis controller (rumble-free, reportedly because of a lawsuit) with a new, rumbly version known as the Dual Shock 3 — now an integral component of video gaming.
Rather than be used in ways that would seriously expand your gaming experience, rumble effects are generally just employed to enhance a sense of immersion. And they’ve proven unquestionably successful at that, to the point where you felt an appreciable loss when, after years of handling the PS2’s rumble-equipped Dual Shock, Sony forced gamers to make do with a next-gen console sans vibration. That deprivation is most acutely felt in first-person shooters, where the controller acts as a surrogate for the on-screen character’s firearms. Not feeling your hands rumble when pulling the trigger of a machine gun or rocket launcher is significant, diminishing the impression that you’re directly involved in the proceedings. In a small but important way, rumbling controllers break down the wall between the virtual and real worlds, creating the sense that we have some tangible connection to the digitized action.
If this simple bit of technology has proven itself to be such an essential part of gaming, then why haven’t the movies taken a similar tack? The answer, of course, is that they have — 50 years ago, when William Castle debuted his 1959 horror film “The Tingler.” Having once served as second-unit director on Orson Welles’ “The Lady From Shanghai,” Castle had by this point in his career established a reputation in Hollywood as a B-movie maven fond of gimmicks, and it was with “The Tingler” that he made his most indelible mark. Starring Vincent Price, the film concerned a centipede-ish creature that attached to the base of people’s spines and could only be destroyed by screaming. Publicity hound that he was, Castle sought to literally make his audience both tingle and scream by retrofitting certain theaters showing the film with joy buzzers under the seats, a trick that — along with his decision to hire actors to pose as moviegoers and faint during key moments — aimed to heighten the terror.
Like most of Castle’s stunts, it didn’t. And though plenty of other gimmicks meant to enhance the theatrical experience have come and gone in since — from 3-D (back again, like a virus, in 2009) to 1960’s Smell-O-Vision, revived as Odorama by John Waters for 1981’s “Polyester” — none have proven to be more than a passing fancy. This failure surely has something to do with the fact that, while video games create clear cause-and-effect relationships with their consumers, the same isn’t true of films, and so creating sensory links between entertainment that’s passively watched and those doing the watching inevitably comes off as a corny prank. But don’t go making such bold proclamations within earshot of D-Box Technologies, a Quebec firm that designs and produces home theater chairs and couches customized with a patented rumble feature (known as “D-Box Motion Code”) that offers a sophisticated version of the feedback traditionally conveyed through game controllers.