OCZ preps neural headband controller for release

The folks at OCZ have been talking for a while about a device known as the Neural Impulse Actuator, which employs several sensors embedded in a headband to read certain electrical impulses from the wearer, theoretically acting as a PC input device. Our own Cyril Kowaliski even got to try out the device at Computex last year, affording us a priceless opportunity to publish a picture of him wearing a headband.

Last week at CES, I got an update on OCZ’s progress with the device, courtesy of Dr. Michael Schuette, OCZ’s VP of Technology Development. Dr. Schuette has teamed up with the inventor of the device to improve it and prepare it for release as a product.

The concept behind the device is, in its way, relatively simple. The headband has a trio of sensors across the front, and those sensors read electrical impulses in various frequency ranges, which equate to a number of different facial movements and—so it would seem, at least—patterns of thought. Dr. Schuette said the original interface for the headband was a simple RS-232 serial connection, and the software reading the inputs was single-threaded. OCZ has now converted the hardware to a USB connection and has developed a new, multithreaded software layer that uses DirectX to process inputs. The difference, Schuette claimed, is substantial. The DirectX input mechanism is much quicker, and the software can use multicore CPUs to handle the mathematical tasks like fast Fourier transforms needed to interpret the signals from the headband’s sensors.

He showed us the control panel for the device and walked us through the calibration process required for each individual wearer. The headband differentiates between a number of different actions, including the contraction of facial muscles (like jaw clenching and squinting), side to side eye movements, and alpha and beta brain wave fluctuations. OCZ’s software shows a real-time readout for each variable tracked, and one can see the values fluctuate in apparently meaningful ways as the wearer talks, moves, or responds to me making fun of how he looks wearing that funny headband.

One may then map the various variables types to traditional PC input commands, including keystrokes, via OCZ’s control panel.

Dr. Schuette showed us his setup for Unreal Tournament 3, in which he used the headband to control the basic movement and action controls: forward, back, left, right, jump and shoot. The software offers extensive control over how these inputs are registered, complete with input delays of specified time intervals to prevent one from, say, inadvertently registering a whole slew of jump commands in rapid succession. Schuette had developed a custom control profile for UT3 that worked well for him, and he noted that such profiles can be saved as a file and transported to another PC or shared with other users. Using his profile, Schuette was able to play a passable game of UT3. He still used the mouse as most players do in an FPS, for six-degrees-of-freedom camera/look control, but the headband did the rest. His control over motion obviously wasn’t perfect, and deathmatches do afford some room for imprecise movement, so long as one keeps moving. Still, the effect was very sci-fi. Schuette mapped the most basic controls to the facial muscle inputs, but the most impressive input had to be his “jump” key, which he mapped to one of the brain wave readings and activated via what he called his “Tourette’s impulse.” Basically, he’d think of an expletive, and his character would jump.

Having seen all of this, I wanted to try the thing out for myself, and the folks from OCZ obliged me. After the calibration process, during which I had to relax in order to establish a calm baseline, I started out with a simple game of “pong” built into the OCZ software. I was able to control the paddle’s up and down motion essentially by squinting—more is down, less is up. With that complete, Schuette promptly fired up UT3 and threw me to the wolves using one of his most complex control profiles. I struggled quite a bit a first, but was able to control forward/back motion and shooting before too long. Left/right movement was a struggle, but I still got a few kills.

Let’s get.. neural? Yours truly straps in and makes a fashion statement.

Photo courtesy of HotHardware.com

One of the things that surprised me about using the headband is how, well, cerebral it is to use. I expected to be contorting my facial muscles wildly in order to use it, but in reality, it’s best to relax and gently control things. On top of that, something about the experience of using it is difficult to articulate but intuitive to apprehend.

In other words: Freaky! It’s a brain control thingy!

We are still clearly in the very early stages of this technology’s development, if it is to become a broadly useful form of input and control. Even with an experienced user like Dr. Schuette, the directional controls appeared to work in a fairly rudimentary fashion. As a result, I’m skeptical about this device’s immediate utility as a gaming controller. The one big advantage it seems to have is reading one’s reflexive responses to surprises. Dr. Schuette claimed he could map such a response to the “fire” button, for instance, and wind up shooting someone who had just popped around a corner before he fully consciously registered what he was seeing. Such quick-response opportunities could be happily lethal in a deathmatch.

Beyond gaming, though, the Neural Impulse Actuator could hold quite a bit of promise as an input device for those with physical impairments like Parkinson’s disease. Dr. Schuette said the device’s creator is already working with a few individuals with such impairments, and the initial results are promising. Schuette believes we’re just reaching the point where consumer PC hardware offers the computational horsepower to make devices like the NIA feasible. He said quad-core processors are best used with games like UT3, and interestingly, he claimed he’d seen noticeably better responsiveness from AMD’s quad-core CPU’s than Intel’s, perhaps as a result of AMD’s monolithic quad-core architecture.

If I recall correctly, Schuette said OCZ hopes to bring the first version of the NIA to market in the next three to four months for between $300 and $400. We will be waiting impatiently for a chance to review the NIA once it’s ready to roll.

Comments closed
    • Heiwashin
    • 12 years ago

    I’ll be buying one of these. 400 is kindof steep for my uses, but it’d be nice to have even a few more easily accessible actions without having to stretch a finger. Personally i’m not worried about using just that to play a game, but it’d be nice to blink to perform an action that i do often, and keep keys free for other things.

    • d0g_p00p
    • 12 years ago

    In a previous life when I used to test games, I tried something like this. The device (I cannot remember what it was called) used a piece of hardware that attached to your index finger. You were to think about moving left, right,up and down to move the player in the game. The game was some type of skiing game.

    It never worked and the “game” and related hardware died off. I have a feeling the same fate awaits this thing.

      • ludi
      • 12 years ago

      Meh…I can see the price being a stumbling point but the concept here is at least sound. The concept of thoughts translating into specific cranial electrical activity and facial movements is not new, it’s just the first time someone has made a serious effort to translate them into a control interface for the mainstream market. Also, control systems hardware and software continues to develop at a very fast pace, so rapid refinements, if needed, ought to be possible.

      Also worth noting that the “Dr.” in Dr. Scheutte is not an academic Ph.D., but an actual MD. He was a neurological researcher in a previous life.

    • Ruiner
    • 12 years ago

    When are they releasing the 2″ diameter version?

    • ssidbroadcast
    • 12 years ago

    Actually I see this as an even lazier/better way of navigating Opera.

    Old and Busted: Mouse Gestures. New Hotness: /[

    • wingless
    • 12 years ago

    FINALLY! WE MADE IT TO THE FUTURE! 2007 was ok but 2008 gives us the MIND CONTROL CONTROLLER! Its futuristic, regardless if its a crappy product. Unfortunately we won’t see flying cars until Shell Oil and Exxon Mobil disappear (flying cars probably won’t run on gasoline, more like electricity) which won’t happen for another century at least.

    Its gimmicky now but if you remember how PC Joysticks looked back in 1987 you know that progress will be made in the next 20 years. From 1987 to 2007 joysticks changed a lot. In 2028 this neural interface will be a helluva lot better and may be our primary interface by then.

      • albundy
      • 12 years ago

      “Thats futuristic, regardless if its a crappy product.”
      What, the Skyline GTR? I totally agree.

        • Sikthskies
        • 12 years ago

        Whaaaaat. Take that back!

    • gerbilspy
    • 12 years ago

    Scott, your picture should be on the front page, not Zephren Cochran’s!

      • Krogoth
      • 12 years ago

      ROFL, You are not the only one that thought about that. XD

    • albundy
    • 12 years ago

    yeah, he just don’t look as nice as the girl. and speaking of girls, can this work both ways with pr0n sites? LOL! simulate to stimulate, I always say.

    • Sargent Duck
    • 12 years ago

    How about just general desktop surfing? I often find my arm/hand gets tired very quickly (due to not very good ergonomics, heh, I’m at school) when I’m just surfing in general, and something like this would be great I’m thinking.

    That being said, Scott, I think that’s the first time I’ve ever seen you. I was beginning to think you were a little camera shy…

    • BenBasson
    • 12 years ago

    This would be very interesting when combined with eye tracking kits, which are already passable as mouse replacements after some training. The cost of these is somewhere between thousands of dollars and lunacy, though.

    • ludi
    • 12 years ago

    For those who still don’t know, Michael Schuette (shoe-tee) is the MS of LostCircuits. He is a hoot and a half to work with in person, once you learn to translate his soft-spoken German accent.

    • Fighterpilot
    • 12 years ago

    “Remember Major Gant…you must think in Russian”.

      • Gerbil Jedidiah
      • 12 years ago

      ooo, oooo, Firefox!

    • liquidsquid
    • 12 years ago

    The way I play UT, I would be jumping a heck of a lot, as some members here know. I was in a clan for a while for entertainment value. I would certainly be entertaining! No relaxing for me, my character would be going nuts and shooting all over the place.

    It would be fun to see.

    -LS

    • UberGerbil
    • 12 years ago

    That ONJ headshot reminds me legwarmers are due for a return. Oh, wait, you could wire them and use them as FlashDance Dance Revolution controllers…. (the water drop at the end might play havok with the electronics, however)

    • Meadows
    • 12 years ago

    Well… as long as it’s better than the power glove.
    §[<http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MYDuy7wM8Gk<]§

      • krazyredboy
      • 12 years ago

      Just the look on that guy’s face when he actually landed the plane was hilarious!

        • Meadows
        • 12 years ago

        You should see his video where he tried Top Gun (the game) for the first time.
        §[<http://cinemassacre.com/AVGN/Nes_Nerd_videos.html<]§ And shame on you for not knowing the angry videogame nerd!

        • ssidbroadcast
        • 12 years ago

        Yeah that’s actually my favorite nerd moment. I had watched that vid coincidentally after laughing really hard from the Top Gun video. But after seeing the successful landing I was crying from laughter.

      • FireGryphon
      • 12 years ago

      This is the funniest thing I’ve seen in a long time! LOL!

    • DASQ
    • 12 years ago

    Apparently it turns you into a stoner.

    • blitzy
    • 12 years ago

    i like the prospect of it helping people with disabilities

      • doobtribe
      • 12 years ago

      Theres a company i don’t know if its the same as in this article that are developing and testing it together with Stephen Hawkings to replace the current controls and speech synth of his chair.

    • lyc
    • 12 years ago

    it would be *so* cool if this thing got a bit more resolution so that we could “swear differently” to get some real directional control, left and right clicking…

    i have seen the future, and it involves a lot of thinking nasty words at your pc.

    • UberGerbil
    • 12 years ago

    g[

      • lyc
      • 12 years ago

      it would actually do the world a whole load of good to develop better impulse control, even if it’s only so they can do better in fps games 😉

      • krazyredboy
      • 12 years ago

      I was picturing that in my mind while I was reading your comment. Then I laughed so hard that everyone around me, at work, stopped and stared for a few moments…it was awesome.

    • JokerCPoC
    • 12 years ago

    That headband looks like something a Hippie would wear back in the 60’s and not too much more effective than the one l[

    • UberGerbil
    • 12 years ago

    Does it produce these facial expressions in every person who wears it?

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