The first time I opened the NIA software, I faced a real-time line graph that charted input from the headband. After waiting several long minutes for the signal to stabilize, I used the software's built-in tool to calibrate the headband and then hit the "Test Calibration" button. The app then greeted me with a handful of little sliders and meters that seemed to be moving randomly. A few seconds later, I realized their movements weren't so random: the software was tracking my jaw tension, and looking around the screen made the "glance" slider respond.
I gave the Pong practice game a shot, using my jaw to move a paddle to hit the bouncing ball. Everything seemed to be going well, so I went to the software's Game Play dialog, loaded up the "easy" Unreal Tournament 3 profile, and opened the UT3 demo.
My initial attempt was hopeless, with my character jumping randomly and all attempts to use the glance controls failing. After a few more tries (and a loosening of the headband lanyard), I was able to use a partially relaxed jaw position to walk, a slightly clenched jaw position to jump, and a fully clenched jaw position to fire. Glancing left and right made my character strafe jump, albeit with varying efficacy. To get the glance controls to translate into proper strafing motions, I had to dig into the software and create a custom profile that made glance movements "stick" and respond more sensitively to my input.
I also gave Codemasters' shiny racing game Race Driver: GRID a go. The default "Race" control scheme didn't seem to work with this game, so I had to create my own, binding the "glance" sensor to steering and the "muscle" sensor to acceleration and braking. My first attempt was equally hopeless, but I failed to get better over time in this case. I think the culprit was the glance sensor, which seemed a little too slow and flaky for tight turns. The awkwardness of having to look away from the road to steer probably didn't help, either. Frustrated and making no real progress, I gave up about an hour later and ended up focusing my efforts on UT3.
After a few days of familiarizing myself with the NIA in Epic's multiplayer shooter, the only phrase I can think of to define the experience is "almost great." I've been playing first-person shooters since I was 9 or 10, and I've become reasonably good at themgood enough that I can end up at the top of the scoreboard in Team Fortress 2 or Counter-Strike: Source if I try hard enough. After so many years, the keyboard and mouse almost feel like a second set of limbs. Like I said earlier, though, the NIA throws that out the window.
You may know a given map, and you may have a deep-seated knowledge of strategies required to control it. But trying to glance left to strafe while a rocket rushes toward you is much, much harder than it sounds. The same goes for something as simple as navigating a map. Circle-strafing with the NIA can feel quite clunky, and you may find yourself jumping by accident when using the default UT3 control scheme.
OCZ states plainly at the end of the NIA manual, "The user needs to forget some of the learned habits and to acquire a different set of skills. . . It is also necessary to be aware that the capabilities of the NIA are different from those of a keyboard, and consequently, the strategies in game play will have to be adjusted." The firm later claims players must adjust because the NIA provides shorter reaction times and higher immersion, but my experience showed quite the oppositeeven after more than a week of practice, I had to coax the NIA to behave as I intended.
When you're trying to get used to a control scheme as unusual as the NIA, you really want a consistent response from the device. Making a certain eye motion or moving your jaw in a certain way should always have the same result; otherwise, you have to re-learn the control scheme each time you play. Unfortunately, the NIA just didn't seem to behave consistently for me. Depending on how I positioned the headband or how I tightened the straps, I'd get slightly different readings. I also ran into a few bugs, like the muscle sensor registering the maximum value no matter what I did, or the glance sensor spazzing out until I took the headband off for a minute.
The result is as I describedalmost great. Sometimes, the NIA behaves exactly as I intend, allowing me to strafe my way smoothly along a bridge or to effortlessly vanquish a foe while dodging (most of) his shots. Other times, it feels more like a hindrance, pulling me the wrong way or making me jump to my death for no apparent reason. Would practicing with the NIA for a month or two help me get around those problems? Maybe. OCZ mentions in the NIA manual that, "Just like there is conventional memory and muscle memory, the user will also develop NIA memory and within a short period of time, the body will remember the reactions it underwent to achieve the desired actions on the computer."
Still, even mastering the NIA control scheme wouldn't remove some of the device's inherent limitations. For instance, many team-based multiplayer games have a voice chat system, and you can forget about using that if your jaw position controls movement. How about eating or drinking during a game? You'd probably have to pause it. Turning around to talk to someone next to you? No way.
And this is the main problem with the NIA, in my view. OCZ has an undoubtedly impressive technological achievement here, yet I can't help but feel they've somehow gone about this the wrong way. I play games to have fun and unwind, and as far as I can see, the amount of fun I have is inversely proportional to how difficult the game is to play. That's part of why the Nintendo Wii is so popular: you don't need to practice for a week to get the hang of Wii Tennis; you just pick up the remote and swing. I won't argue that the standard mouse-and-keyboard FPS control scheme is quite as straightforward, but most PC gamers are used to it. Take away that familiar control scheme and replace it with something more difficult to use, and I'm not going to have as much fun.
That's not to say I don't see a point to the NIA. I imagine some hard-core or professional gamers will be willing to sacrifice a month or two of practice for a potential responsiveness edge over their peers. The NIA could also work well as a complementary controller for titles like World of Warcraft or flight sims, and the advantages are obvious for paraplegics or people who've lost the use of one hand. Make no mistake, however: learning to use the NIA is a little like learning to drive a car, and those not willing to invest the required time and effort will end up with a $150 hair band and matching paperweight.
To make things trickier, the hardware and software don't seem quite ready for prime time. The current NIA drivers only work on 32-bit versions of Windows Vista and Windows XP, and Dr. Schuette told me not to expect an x64 driver for another month and a half. The hardware also seems very sensitive to grounding and interference, and I occasionally had to wait up to 10 minutes for the signal to stabilize. Putting my hand on the NIA box seemed to help, but I often had to spend some time making adjustments before getting into a gamesomething that can ruin those spur-of-the-moment impulses.
Finally, I should mention that OCZ's documentation is quite terse and very technicaland trust me, you will want to read the manual and the online help a few times before getting started. In this respect, the NIA is almost like a desktop Linux distribution. You can figure out some things on your own, and the included documentation helps, but you'll ultimately want to browse the official forums and maybe drop OCZ's tech support department a line to get everything figured out. I really wish OCZ had explained brain wave inputs more thoroughly and gone into a little more detail about exactly what users can do with the NIA, too. The 17-page illustrated manual included with the NIA feels a little too light for such a unique controller.
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