Two weeks ago, a very high, S-level exec from the automotive industry asked me about upcoming technologies, since he didn’t understand the importance of new interfaces that are coming in mainstream computing. I was shocked, since operating the car interface while driving should require minimum attention. Drive on the highway in Germany at 150 mph and play with BMW’s i-Drive, Mercedes’es non-touch COMMAND or Audi’s Futuremark-designed MMI3D and you’ll see where you feel the safest (hint, the one that cannot be benchmarked, but still comes from a benchmark maker ;-).
There is an obvious need for development of true user-friendly computer interfaces. In this long article, you can read my 4-month experience with the Neural Impulse Actuator.
I have to say that OCZ neural interface is one of the ways we have to take. To be clearer, I would rate NIA even higher than multi-touch interfaces which started appearing from the likes of Albatron, Apple, HP and Intel (I am sorry if I omitted anyone, I worked only on these four), widescreens or Windows 7.
Even though I was supposed to write this in conclusion, I just decided to fire it away, so if you don’t want to read the rest – have fun. But you’ll miss out what happened when a 70+ year old interacted with the computer for the first time using nothing but NIA.
If you’re asking yourselves what’s NIA, explanation is very simple: EEG (Electroencephalograph) device used for gaming. The idea of playing the game using your brain signals instead of keyboard and mice is a very compelling one – the reaction time is cut by more than half and you can imagine what that means for immersive gaming experience.
Meet the NIA
NIA itself comes in a white, mysteriously labeled box (“Advanced Biotechnology for Gaming”), and is consisted out of headband with three carbon-fiber electrodes, NIA USB box, USB cable, CD and a manual. USB cable was long enough, but after some problems, I decided to use my 9-foot EMI-shielded USB cable from Hiper. The headband is without any doubt, least sleek part of the package. Rubber-band with residues of glue on electrodes left the impression of ultra-cheap part from mainland China, not of eye-opening device. There are three carbon-fiber diamond-shaped sensors at the front of the band, and two additional ones at the very end of rubber band, ideally positioned just above your ears. First three sensors pick up your electrical signals, while side sensors are picking up muscle contraction, such as swallowing, moving your teeth, eyebrows and so on. Through time, you will learn to use all of these reactions to control more and more controls with your face, rather than mice or a keyboard.
The rubber band will also leave a mark on your forehead after hours of long use, but in a sense – it is the ultimate geekdom. If somebody asks you on the street: “what is this mark on your forehead?” and your answer is: “Ah, nothing special. Those are marks from sensors that I use to control computers” – your status as computer-deity is nothing else but guaranteed.
Also, there is a special way how people look at you in the lounge. Last week, I was sitting in First Class Lounge in Munich, playing Call of Duty 4 using the NIA. Besides the fact that I was youngest by some 10 years, several guys approached me and ask me what the device is. When I briefly explained what is that, people started asking me where they can buy the device. When they heard about the price, they could not believe it.
The NIA box is quite small and easy to pack. You can feel the vibrations while the device is working, but that’s nothing special or annoying. OCZ did a brilliant job with the design of this one, completely opposite of headband.
How it works?
For starters, NIA is not a mind-reader. OCZ Technology worked hard with Brain Actuated Technologies on creating a gaming device that would read the reaction of your Glance, Muscles, Alpha and Beta waves. Gamma, Delta and Theta waves are not scanned due to desire to keep the price of device under $100,000 ;-).
Now, the hard part: if you think “go straight”, you will not “go straight”. NIA does not work like that, since it cannot translate your thoughts.
NIA measures electrical potentials when you are thinking about going left, right, straight, back and so on. For best possible results, your mind has to be as relaxed as possible, and without disturbances. What you need to do is allow NIA to adjust to you, and think of movements. Also, you have to adjust to NIA – this is a way into bionic computing, and instant gratification is something that will not happen (unless you have a focus-driven mind with high levels of concentration). After a while, NIA’s driver will begin to pick up your signals and move your virtual avatar in the right way. With combined usage of muscles and glands, your movement will become smooth, and shooting, jumping and similar operations will pass in mere milliseconds before they’re rendered on screen.
First of all, this is a device which you cannot benchmark. Every individual has a brain with unique signature, and it will take different time of adjustment between your brain and NIA. It may sound like rocket science, but Brain Actuated Technologies’ technology works adaptively, and adjusts to signals produced by your brain. Thus, this is no overnight “becoming super gamer” project, rather a timely and sometimes a frustrating experience.
NIA is only intended for gaming, not for your every day Windows experience. But after two weeks of using the device, I decided to try surfing through my site. Scrolling up and down was easy, but point and click is a difficult one, sadly. Back to square one. Today, four months later, I can actually go back and forward through websites, even managed to control switching between tabs. Yes, it is not easy and it still takes me much more time than to use a mouse, but this is a first generation device.
Installing software was easy-peasy, and thanks heaven’s - OCZ released 64-bit drivers. You can turn on and off NIA control at any time by simply pressing the Ctrl+F12 keys. In order to test the device, I used 32-bit Windows XP Pro SP1 operating system and later migrated to 64-bit Windows Vista Ultimate SP1.
For the test, I selected couple of my family members:
- 75 year old female (grandma)
- 47-year old female (mum)
- 29 year old male (me)
- 23 year old male (bro)
23 year old - After four days of using NIA, it was a challenge to successfully navigate in 3D games. I was quite surprised to see this subject having so many difficulties and undergoing numerous calibrations, rotating the headband, and still nada. The issue was that the left diode is not touching the forehead completely, and this person has a perfectly normal, average forehead. But in some specific head-types, positioning NIA can be a challenge. After countless hours of calibration, we finally managed to get things going. But the feedback for the device was negative, since my brother felt that he is much faster with a keyboard and a mouse.
29 year old – By some odd stroke of luck, the author of these lines syncs with NIA without any issue. I’ve been covering NIA through the last two years and every event I had a chance to play with NIA – virtual or real foes just fell on the ground. If you’re able to calm down and focus on playing the game, adaptation to NIA should pass in a whim, and it is really easy to adapt the skills. I started playing Unreal Tournament 3 on novice level, and gradually progressed to on-line play. Within a week of using the device, I’ve managed to average 25 kills and 20 deaths on 50-kill limit deathmatch maps. Today, I can say that there is no difference for me if I play with the NIA or on a keyboard+mouse combination. To me, biggest challenge was alternative mode on rocket launcher.
47 year old – My mum sporadically used computers for the past eight years, but did not play 3D computer games. Setting the device proved to be the challenge similar to my bro, but in a matter of half an hour, we managed to get the perfect signal. The game of Pong proved to be quite fun, but mum was an avid fan on Tetris and complained that OCZ could have used Tetris as a training game. Guys’n’girls from OCZ, take note ;). Moving inside the 3D game proved to be a non-issue, sans often jumps (neck muscles were configured as jump). When we moved jumps to teeth and shoot to neck muscles, subject killed herself several times with a rocket launcher. Of course, commenting on the game and playing it at the same time proved to be quite… entertaining. Who says that the Wii is the only “fun for the whole family”?
75 year old – We decided to do something different with the three-quarter century grandma. Given her absolute-zero experience with computers, instead of learning to move on a keyboard/mouse combination, we did the opposite. Subject adjusted to NIA in a matter of minutes, instead of hours. After passing the Brainfingers and Pong training, elderly person started walking inside a 3D level for the very first time. To be honest, we’ve activated only one bot on novice skill level. After “thumbs up” and comments in regards to the late Arthur Clarke, grandma tried keyboard and a mouse. She complained that the commands are too unintuitive and wished NIA back. This is probably the most surprising experience with the computers that I’ve personally experienced, and a sheer witness of how genius the device is. According to her, “I did not believe that I’ll live to see the day Star Trek come to life”. The Original Series, not to confuse with franchise business of today.
From this small sample of four relatives, it is obvious that NIA has some design challenges to overcome. Mum and bro experienced issues with contact of one of sensors, which was a consequence of rubber headband. Personally, the best design was the “Rambo-style” cotton headband with Velcro adjustment that OCZ used while developing the NIA. Sadly, OCZ discovered that design was uncomfortable after a while, so the company came up with the actual design. Beside the 23-yr old, three subjects had no major issues in adjusting to the device and were able to move inside 3D space. Yes, I will continue to use NIA ;-)
Issues? What issues?
During past four months, I’ve only experienced two potentially major issues. Firstly, bear in mind that this device is nothing else but a cruder EEG unit. As such, the device proved to be quite sensitive to Electro-Magnetic Interference (EMI), and it refused to work in my Lab, surrounded by open configurations. However, notebook or a closed case resulted with no signs of trouble. This is the reason why I moved to Hiper’s USB cable, since I was able to put the NIA box far away from the testbed.
Also, I noticed an issue with cell phones. When cell phone positioned next to the NIA device went through standard network check, I lost control inside the game. Thus, I would recommend that you position the NIA analyzing part as far from EMI sources as possible. Since I haven’t seen any reviews online that mentioned EMI shielding problems, there might be a problem with my device.
Once more, I feel obliged to stress out that the headband is not the most comfortable device on the planet, and it will leave a mark. I hope that 2nd gen device will have a modified rubber band.
At the end, I cannot say that I am done with Neural Impulse Actuator. This device is just fascinating, and I hope that second generation will bring improvements such as negating the need for mouse and start exploring letter recognition support.
OCZ is positioning this device in the gaming segment, next to its line of gaming mice and keyboards. If I have to judge this device as a gaming controller alone, it can offer unique gaming experience, but it will take some time to adjust.
But if you look into this device as an “enabler” or 3D worlds to elderly and disabled people, that’s a whole another ballgame. There is tremendous number of people that were physically stopped from enjoying 3D worlds through their respective disability. NIA enables those people to start playing games and improve their life. And that is something that is not just commendable, but is truly inspiring. OCZ did a brilliant job with this one, and I hope that the company will continue to develop this concept into the future.
There is no Editor’s Choice or 10/10 award for this device. I can only say that you should try it. If you find 100 or so bucks in your budget, don’t think about $90 SideWinder or G9 mouse, or a $100 “gaming” keyboard. This might give you a whole lot more than those peripherals.