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The (Game) Doctor Is In

Physicians are helping develop gear that lets players "feel" the impact of a bullet or a fist

On a typical weekday, Dr. Mark P. Ombrellaro is scrubbed in for surgery by 8 a.m. The 46-year-old vascular surgeon runs a private practice in Bellevue, Wash. The more he operates, the more he learns about how the body responds to physical trauma. The deep knowledge he gains of human anatomy also helps him in his avocation: He builds high-tech video game accessories, which heighten the game experience by giving players the faintest sense of what it feels like to be struck by bullets or battered by fists.

Ombrellaro is on the cutting edge—literally—of the most provocative new trend in the $18 billion video game industry. Today's slickest games render in excruciating detail the sights and sounds of a battlefield or sports arena. But that's not enough for hard-core gamers addicted to the rush of ultrarealistic simulations. They want to participate in scenes with as many of their senses as possible. A technology known as haptics—virtual touch, if you will—makes that possible. By donning a vest or helmet studded with tiny computerized air pistons, gamers can feel the thwack of a punch without actually having to suffer the pain.