More than a year has passed since I first tried OCZ’s Neural Impulse Actuator, and I’ve had the finished product in my possession for a good three weeks now, yet I’m still not sure how to tackle this review. Writing about something as peculiar and downright unique as the NIA is no easy task. To set the stage, I should probably discuss control systems in general.
For thousands of years now, man has used simple, relatively intuitive controls to make machines and animals do his biddingbe it squeezing his thighs to make a horse gallop faster, cranking a wheel and axle to draw water from a well, or flooring a car’s gas pedal to run a red light. Applying mechanical force to get something done is second nature to most folks, and video games are no different. We use joysticks, gamepads, mice, keyboards, and other controllers to translate finger or limb movements into actions on the screen. Want to move your character left? Push the analog stick to the side. Want to fire? Squeeze the trigger. Easy.
What OCZ has done with the NIA is throw most of that out the window. By incorporating an electro-myogram, electro-encephalogram, and electro-oculogram into a small headband and a little black box with a USB connector, the company has developed a control system that can translate eye movements, facial muscle movements, and brain waves into game input. As a result, the NIA is a strange contraption that requires some very unusual participation from the user.
Walking with your jaw
When was the last time you used your jaw to control a machine? Unless you’re Stephen Hawking or extremely lazy, you probably can’t remember. How about using your eyes or your alpha brain waves? Didn’t think so.
The NIA makes those things possible thanks to a headband with three diamond-shaped sensors positioned at the front. According to OCZ Technology Development Director Michael Schuette’s article on the subject, the sensors are made of a plastic injected with highly conductive nanofibers, which the NIA hardware uses to read electrical potentials from the user’s forehead. OCZ built the remainder of the headband out of soft rubber, with a lanyard at the back to allow for adjustment. A cable runs down the left side of the headband and plugs into the black NIA box, which includes two completely separate circuits: one hooked up to the headband and the other hooked up to the host PC’s USB port. The two circuits only talk to each other through an optical transceiver, ensuring that users won’t get electrical shocks if things go awry.
On the user’s PC, the NIA control software converts electrical potentials from the headband into usable input. Schuette explains that the software separates the different frequencies in these potentials using proprietary algorithms not unlike fast Fourier transforms. Running these algorithms on a continuously streaming flow of data can apparently hog some “serious CPU cycles,” although we didn’t see the control application eat up much more than 10-15% of our test rig’s Core 2 Duo E6400.
At this point, you might be wondering just how the NIA actually interfaces with games. OCZ’s solution to that problem is quite clever: when it enters the game mode, the NIA app simply translates inputs into keystrokes. You can hit CTRL-F12 to enable and disable the input system in order to avoid any accidental key presses in setup screens, but in theory, the NIA should work with almost any game. That’s quite convenient for such a novel device, even if Schuette says it could be done better:
Even though this still works with a certain amount of sluggishness, the concept is somewhat atrocious, since it takes an analog physical reaction that is then emulated into a manual keyboard input that is then translated into a command on the game level. A more elegant solution would encompass taking the biological response and streaming it directly into the game using the DirectX platform as vehicle.
The NIA software lists eight different inputs in total. The bulk of those inputs are made up by a “muscle” input that tracks facial muscle tension (largely from jaw and eyebrow muscles) and a “glance” control that tracks lateral eye movement. Six brain-wave inputsthree for alpha waves and three for beta wavesfill out the neural control aspect of the NIA. This post by Dr. Schuette suggests alpha waves correspond to aggression and that beta waves can correspond to pain management. For instance, one can trigger the Alpha 2 meter by thinking of an expletive. Schuette told us he successfully used this method to get his character to jump in a game, but I could never get this to work myself.
In addition to a handful of pre-configured game profiles, OCZ’s software offers an intimidating number of options, allowing users to set up multiple virtual “joysticks” and “switches” to translate input into game actions on the fly. The NIA manual provides an example of a three-joystick scheme where different levels of facial muscle tension make the in-game character run straight, run while zigzagging, jump forward, jump still, and jump backward. I had enough trouble playing with a three-level jaw tension joystick, so I never gave that particular config a try, but it’s there for users who feel comfortable enough with the device. Those users can also export their custom schemes, either for backup purposes or to share them with other NIA owners.
One thing the NIA won’t let you do is control mouse movements; the software only supports binding inputs to keystrokes. Since the “glance” meter only tracks the X axis to begin with, I doubt the NIA would be a useful mouse replacement even if OCZ implemented such a feature. You’ll still have to use a good old mouse to look around in first-person shooters.
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.
I’m still not sure how I feel about the NIA. On one hand, the device has undeniable potential, and I could see it becoming popular if OCZ refined the concept and improved usability. I can certainly understand the appeal, even if I don’t particularly feel like practicing for weeks and spending hours fashioning complicated control schemesSchuette even suggests making separate schemes for different maps in the same game.
On the flip side, the current implementation didn’t really woo me, and it raises all kinds of questions about whether more exotic control schemes are really the best direction for PC gaming. Unless you’re Fatal1ty, you probably don’t care too much about shaving 100 ms off your reaction times, and you probably have plenty of fun with your mouse and keyboard, gamepad, or Wii-mote already. If it ain’t broke, why fix it?
Well, I suppose that kind of thinking doesn’t really foster innovation, and I do commend OCZ for at least trying something new instead of looking for more ways to dress up a conventional mouse. The NIA needs a good amount of extra polish before I can recommend it to everyone, though.