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Neural implants have always been a cyberpunk fiction staple. They either grant the user special abilities or turn them into near cyborgs. We’re not there yet, but for what is worth OCZ is trying to make that future a little less distant (and fictional) with the Neural Impulse Actuator, or NIA for short. It’s a control system that interprets your brain waves and tracks facial muscle tensions into game input, making it possible to control by thought the actions of a virtual gunman during a game of Counterstrike, for instance. The idea behind the concept is to increase reaction time up to 60% by eliminating the time it takes the command from your brain to reach the hand over the mouse. We are about to see if it delivers, but first let’s take a look onto the device itself.
The NIA is actually two devices: a black box of brushed aluminum and a headband that captures the user’s brain waves and facial motions and sends those signals to the box, where they’ll be interpreted and sent to the PC by a USB cable. The adjustable headband is made from soft rubber and has three diamond-shaped sensors to be placed above the brow line.
[nextpage title=”Instaling and Calibrating the NIA”]
Putting the NIA to work is very simple: just plug it into a spare USB 2.0 port and adjust the headband over your forehead. But the NIA is not a plug-and-play device. The “play” part is some time away from the moment you install it. Simplicity is not on the peripheral’s dictionary. First you need to calibrate the NIA using the OCZ software that you have to install. That allows the neural actuator to understand eight types of different inputs – some concerning your facial and eye movements, and some inputs coming from your brainwaves (three for alpha waves and three for beta waves). From that moment you have to associate those readings to game commands. But do not be think that the NIA reads thoughts like “run” or “shoot” and makes that happen on the game – it actually interprets the electrical signals behind the physical reactions to those thoughts, like making your character jump when you squint, for instance.
Everything is done by following a video tutorial that guides the user with the help of a virtual assistant. The complex software is very comprehensive and can be mindboggling to the uninitiated or very frustrating to those who like to get their hands on right from the start. The first step you must take is to calibrate the unit – and it must be done every time you use the NIA – to make sure it’s getting a good signal from the headband. Just relax your face and keep looking to the image of a gyroscope for a minute.
Once the NIA is calibrated, it’s time to master the concept of “brainfingers” – a metaphor for the control to be exerted by the alpha and beta waves coming from your brain, like fingers to a puppet. The Brainfingers screen measures the brain activity. After that you can exert your mental prowess over a game of Pong.
After mastering the NIA control, the user must link several events (like left clicking the mouse button or hitting the space bar) to attitudes like relaxing your face to make your character on screen walk backwards or grinding your teeth to shoot. It’s the facial joystick concept. Although we abbreviate the whole experience, the process is very complex and not quite well documented by the NIA manual. So we made it through with a little more than brains and brawn, by trial and error, or just selecting one of the games pre-profiled by OCZ (there’s options like Half-Life 2, Gears of Wars and a generic WASD profile). After all, you can’t use a brainwave device suffering from a massive headache after trying to configure and master it…
[nextpage title=”Playing with the NIA”]
With the headband firm over our foreheads, we felt like Professor Xavier operating the Cerebro, his personal telepathic amplifier. But what came first to our mind was the sage advice from master Yoda: “you must unlearn what you have learned.” The guidance given by the old Jedi to Luke Skywalker on the swamp world of Dagobah was never that appropriate. The first sensation using the NIA is one of complete awkwardness and, at the same time, astonishment at the ability to control a game with your head. There’s a steep learning curve of several days and despite we having had played Team Fortress 2 with the NIA for two weeks, we feel we haven’t mastered all its potential yet.
It’s hard to explain the whole experience. It’s really bizarre to shoot your virtual gun by making faces at the screen or guiding your gunslinger by either relaxing your thoughts or getting “angry.” How about to dodge an incoming missile by looking to the side? You really feel in the game – the immersion is way bigger than the conventional keyboard and mouse experience. An observation is in order: OCZ states that the NIA doesn’t replace the keyboard and mouse, but in fact it adds to the game play enjoyment. As a matter of fact, we did test the device alongside our trustworthy friends, but we kept their usage to a minimum to better appreciate the novelty.
During the test some mistaken reactions made us frustrated, like falling from a platform due to the NIA misreading our intentions (or due to a wrong muscle twitch from our part). And there’s also a problem that apparently OCZ never though about: since speaking involves moving the face, there’s no way to use a headset to speak with your teammates, just like eating and drinking wh
ile playing is also out of the question.
The OCZ Neural Impulse Actuator main specifications are:
- USB 2.0 connection
- Soft rubber adjustable headset
- Black brushed aluminum box
- Approximate size: 4.1" x 3.1" x 1.2" (10.5 x 8 cm x 3 cm) (D x L x H)
- More information: https://www.ocztechnology.com
- Average price in the US*: USD 126.00
* Researched at https://www.shopping.com on the day we published this review.
Younger players will remember an awkward-looking virtual heads-up display released during the Doom heyday. It allowed to see the game and to move the player with your head. The device was heralded as the future of gaming, but in truth it was more like a (valid) science fair experiment than the dawning of a new era. Call us old-fashioned, but no matter how many e-book readers the market throws at us, the good old book – yeah, the analog one, printed on paper – is still around and a terrific concept. The same goes for the duo mouse-keyboard for gaming.
Of course OCZ deserves kudos for developing the NIA. That is no small scientific and engineering feat. It’s a great and revolutionary product that will amass some die-hard fans despite not being able to conquer the market due to its price and complexity. It feels like if one day we will truly control a videogame with our minds, the device will be heralded by its maiden achievement with due respect. But, unfortunately, the NIA isn’t the neural implant the Neuromancer novel, the Matrix film and several other cyberpunk works had had promised us.
- Comfortable headband
- No need of an exterior power source
- Increases immersion during game play
- Laudable engineering achievement
- Steep learning curve
- Hard to master
- Incompatible with drinking/eating/team speaking during game play
- Prototype technology of things to come