Fraggers are accustomed to all-night firefights using the mouse and keyboard, but OCZ Technology hopes to add a new dimension to the control scheme with its Neural Impulse Actuator (nia), the first commercially available brain-computer interface device designed for PC gamers. Available for $129, the nia converts electroencephalograph signals (brain waves) into keyboard strokes or mouse movements that allow Windows XP and Vista users to play games using--yes--their brain.
Sharp Design ... Literally
The OCZ Technology nia is a surprisingly small (4.1 x 3.1 x 1.2 inches) brushed-metal box with "nia" emblazoned across its top. At one end is a USB port that plugs into a notebook and another port that hooks up to a sensor-laden rubber headband, which picks up neural activity. We suggest being very careful handling the box, as its corners are extremely sharp; we pricked ourselves on more than one occasion. The nia weighs less than a pound, which is quite impressive considering what it allowed us to do.
Naturally, we were skeptical of the nia's ability to convert electrical impulses generated from our brains (as well as eyes and muscles) to allow us to control aspects of a game without using our hands. But before diving in, you must first install the software, plug the device into a notebook's USB jack and don the adjustable Cerebro-like headpiece. We then used a brief calibration tool (in which we had to focus on a gyroscope to control the movements of an on-screen line), and we were soon getting schooled by the computer in a lively game of Pong, which comes as part of the software package. Our ineptitude with the game was definitely due to our own inexperience rather than the nia, as we were able to smoothly and accurately control our paddle after about five minutes of practice.
How It Works
Warning: If you're the type of person who frequently tosses instruction manuals to the side, you will not get very far with the nia; it features myriad ways to map out control schemes. By default when playing Far Cry 2, the Muscle control option was mapped to the space bar, which enabled us to jump by twitching our brow or clenching our teeth; Glance control was bound to the WASD keys and let us move left or right by quickly darting our eyes in those directions. We quickly mastered the former maneuver, but the latter required far more subtle stimulus, and concentration, to work. In our experience, a relaxed mind produced the best results when glancing to move left or right, but even after we thought we'd mastered it, we'd get stuck in a corner and have to use the keyboard to extricate ourselves.
Over time, these physical actions became less pronounced, to the point where others who were observing our gameplay sessions couldn't detect any facial movements. The closest analogy that we could come up with is that learning to move with the nia is similar to learning to walk as a toddler--it's sloppy and uneven at first, but improves over time.
Gaming with the nia
Although Pong was a suitable game to flex our gray matter, we wanted to see how the nia would fare in a more complex, modern title--so we popped in Far Cry 2. After downloading a profile patch from OCZ Technology's site that provides predefined game controls, we were able to jump by slightly tensing our brow muscles instead of hitting the space key. Initially, we didn't realize that we were the ones executing the move (at first we thought it was some kind of glitch), but after a minute of two of intense focusing, we slowly gained control over our character's movements and began to take down a few enemies with our weaponry (which were fired using a mouse).
After 20 minutes of fragging, we needed to take a mental break; while the headset was comfortable to wear, the focus needed to move accurately about in the game was draining. Besides Far Cry 2, OCZ Technology also provides profiles for Crysis, Harry Potter Quidditch, and Unreal Tournament 3, but you can use the nia with any game that uses a keyboard and mouse.
OCZ Technology has created a breakthrough gaming accessory in the nia, but it's one that will require time to master--you most certainly will not be able to jump in and begin blowing away your enemies within minutes, or even hours, of donning the headset. Even after several hours of gameplay under our belts with the nia, we still feel like we have a ways to go before totally mastering the controls.
We couldn't imagine the most hardcore gamers adopting this technology for use in LAN sessions (OCZ Technology even states that it's not meant to replace the mouse), as a great keyboard-and-mouse combination can offer dead-on control. However, casual players, or those who simply must have the most cutting-edge gadgetry, will find the nia quite fun.