OCZ Neural Impulse Actuator (nia) - The Log Page: 1
Introduction
 
OCZ NIATwo months have passed since Overclock3D brought you news that OCZ's greatly anticipated Neural Impulse Actuator (nia) was ready for shipping. Our forums along, with many others, became rife with excitement at the prospect of this groundbreaking device actually being available for purchase from retailers. Did we speak too soon? Well yes, maybe, but as the saying goes, "a watched kettle never boils" and with so many people putting pressure on OCZ to deliver, the inevitable happened, and the release date slipped back...and back...and back.
 
However, just when members of our forum seemed to be giving up hope and comparing the nia to OCZ's Cryo-Z cooler *cough cough*, OCZ have pulled a rabbit out of their hat and caught us totally off guard with an early morning delivery from DHL. Yes, that's right....the nia is here at last!
 
For those of us who have absolutely no idea what the nia is, or why we're jumping around like school kids at the beginning of the summer holidays, the nia is most probably the most advanced device to make its way onto retailers' shelves in a LONG time. Capable of reading neuronal discharges in the brain, muscular signals and retinal movements, OCZ have marketed the device at gamers, claiming that the device can be used as a kind of brain-powered-joystick to compliment, and possibly even replace, the traditional keyboard or mouse during gaming. Not only this, but by cutting out a large portion of the time that the body would usually take to relay information from the eye down through the body to our hands and fingers, the nia is also reported to reduce reaction times by anything up to 60%.
 
OCZ NIAThe nia is also extremely unique in that, unlike most products reviewed on Overclock3D, it can't simply be picked up, tested and put down again. Our previous news post probably explains it best: "While the nia is clearly a breakthrough in technology, it's certainly not going to make anybody a professional gamer over night. In much the same way as it takes several years to learn how to touch-type without looking at the keyboard, the nia will similarly require significant 'brain training' before a user can competently navigate around a map in a game". Not only this, but while most products are pretty consistent between each user, the nia can almost be compared to voice recognition software in that its success varies between users.
 
So how exactly do you review a device that takes months to learn and produces varied results depending on the user? Well, the only way that we could think of was to get as many of the OC3D review team down to HQ nice and early on Saturday morning and hand the unit around. At the end of the day we'd each write a short report on what we thought, and then pass the unit on to the most active FPS gamer for a full month of testing with weekly updates.
 
So without further ado...let's get down to business...


OCZ Neural Impulse Actuator (nia) - The Log Page: 2
The Packaging & Device
 
Starting with the outer packaging, the nia is presented in a plain white box with a picture of the unit on the front. The lack of information at this point makes the unit seem quite mysterious with only the words "Advanced BioTechnology for Gaming" printed up the right-hand side.
 
OCZ NIA Box Front OCZ NIA Box Back
 
Flipping the box over reveals a picture of the headband along with five paragraphs about the unit. Within the first sentence, OCZ state that the nia is not a substitute for a mouse, but more of a companion. Hopefully this will prevent users from believing that they can use it to fully control a character in-game as soon as they get the device home.
 
OCZ NIA Box Open OCZ NIA Box Contents
 
Contained within the box are the bare necessities: a driver CD, USB cable and fairly basic instruction manual. Both the nia and the headband were securely contained within their own custom-moulded foam block.
 
OCZ NIA Small! OCZ NIA Side
 
OCZ NIA Front OCZ NIA Back
 
Much to our surprise, the nia is actually tiny in comparison to what OCZ's stock photos lead you to believe. This is also a significant down-size from the last time we got to see the nia in prototype form.
 
The build quality of the device is easy to see and feel from the offset, and the nia looks very stylish in its brushed aluminium casing on the desktop.
 
 OCZ NIA Headband OCZ NIA Headband Closeup
 
OCZ NIA Headband Closeup OCZ NIA Headband Closeup
 
The headband is constructed entirely of rubber with three diamond-shaped carbon nano-fibre-based sensors at the front. Also down the sides of the headband are two further sensors that pick up muscular signals such as the raising of your eyebrows.
 
While the moulded rubber construction does make the headband feel slightly cheap, it's also bound to be extremely robust and provides the flexibility required to fit all shapes and sizes of head.


OCZ Neural Impulse Actuator (nia) - The Log Page: 3
The Software
 
With the OCZ nia being such a revolutionary device, the pressure was obviously on OCZ to produce a comprehensive set of instructions that would allow users to get the most out of their purchase. Thankfully, after completing a fairly bog-standard "Click Next" installation of the nia software, the first screen you are presented with is a tutorial index.
 
OCZ NIA Tutorial OCZ NIA Tutorial
 
OCZ have used an animated female CGI character to talk you through some of the basics, including an overview of what the device is and how the headband should be positioned on your head. At this point, we'd also like to mention that the side sensors on the headband do not appear to work very well through hair, so those of us with long hair may have quite a job getting the headband on without it getting trapped. This was clearly evident when we tested the nia on a female in the office who needed one person to hold her hair while she positioned the headband in accordance with the tutorial.
 
The tutorial index itself is made up of 18 individual sections, some of which only have text-based information. Unfortunately, we couldn't help but feel that the various stages of the tutorial should have really been integrated into the "Calibration" and "Practice" sections as more of a walk-through while configuring the device, rather than a separate area that you often find yourself referring to.
 
OCZ NIA Calibration OCZ NIA Calibration
 
Calibration of the nia for muscle signals is fairly easy and consists of concentrating on a gyroscope in the middle of the screen for several seconds while the software measures your muscle activity. The spikes in the line graph shown above-right represent instances where we purposely tensed our facial muscles.
 
OCZ NIA BrainFingers
 
The next section, entitled "BrainFingers", gives an overview of each of the nia's sensors and their current activity in bar graph format. In all honesty, this section was quite baffling as both the Alpha and Beta signals danced up and down in fairly random patterns, while the "Glance" bar didn't budge even slightly no matter how much any of us moved our eyes or glanced at different areas of the screen.
 
OCZ NIA Reaction Times
 
OCZ NIA Pong OCZ NIA Pong
 
To test the configuration of the nia, OCZ have also provided three "Practice" programs. The first, named "Reaction Time", allows you to test the configuration of the Muscle signal by providing a target that flashes up on screen which you need to click on using only muscle signals/movements.
 
The second is a good old fashioned game of "Pong", in which you need to move the paddle up and down the screen to return the ball. This was probably the most fun part of the entire configuration process and you can watch the videos of our progress over on the next page.
 
Finally, "Glance Practice" tests your ability to control the glance aspect of the nia by flashing targets up on the left and right of the screen. By moving your eyes to the left and right (depending on the position of the target) the target disappears for several seconds displaying the time taken to react to each one of the targets.
 
OCZ NIA Key Bindings OCZ NIA Key Bindings
 
OCZ NIA Key Bindings OCZ NIA Key Bindings
 
Once you've got to grips with each of the nia's sensors, profiles can be created for each of the games you use. Some are already pre-configured, but in all honesty we found it best to start again with a brand new profile and assign the muscle, glance and brain activities you are currently able to perform on the nia to keys for use within the game.
 
While we were only able to get one activity assigned to an in-game key during the first day of testing, we can imagine that over time you will undoubtedly assign more and more keys to activities as you gain experience with the device.


OCZ Neural Impulse Actuator (nia) - The Log Page: 4
Day 1 - The Gathering
 
Arriving at OC3D HQ at about mid-day, members of the OC3D staff wasted no time in gathering around the new toy. Sitting alongside a bench rig, consisting of a Q6600, 9800 GX2 and an Asus Rampage Formula, the biggest decision of the day was probably who got to try the unit first!
 
OC3D HQ - Bench Setup OCZ NIA Setup
 
OCZ NIA Configuration OCZ NIA Configuration
 
After getting the initial configuration out of the way, Llwyd was first up in the hot seat and started with a game of Pong:
 
 
Seeing Llwyd control the paddle in "Pong" using only his mind and small muscular movements was totally surreal and left us all completely gobsmacked. Obviously this was only the most basic of games, but to sit there watching someone perform any kind of task on a computer with no hands on the mouse or keyboard was unlike anything we'd ever seen before. Here's what Llwyd had to say about the device:
 
Llwyd Johnson

My first use of the nia was the Calibration panel. Here the aim is to keep your activity readout at the baseline level. During the calibration, a gyroscope is displayed for you to focus on, allowing the software to gauge your idle activity. At first, the activity readout was extremely erratic and did not correspond to any of my deliberate inputs (be it mental or muscular). After some tweaking and practice however, I was able to carefully and accurately control the readout with the use of facial muscles. While this might sound like an unattractive prospect, pulling faces to provide simple inputs, after some practice I was able to manipulate the readout with very little facial movement at all. Instead, just thinking about moving facial muscles seemed to work just as well.

Once I had the hang of this particular input, I was able to use the Reaction Time and Pong practice games. My experience with Pong was similar to that of the calibration. At first, I struggled to have any control over the paddle, but after some practice and settings adjustments I slowly gained far more accurate control. The reaction time tests used the same input but also allowed mouse input for comparison. At first, the times were around the same but as I slowly overcame the powerful urge to click with my hand rather than my face, the times started to come down to the 0.16s mark. Unfortunately the third practice, Glance Practice, was quite an uphill struggle, both for myself and others present. After calibration, it was clear the sensor was able to detect eye movement, but responded completely without regard to glance direction, making its utilization in-game nearly impossible.

From my brief encounter with the nia, I think it is clear to see how much potential this hardware has. It was an extremely surreal experience causing the slightest influence on input with my hands sitting on my lap. In the few hours I was using the nia, it did feel like I was hitting a 'brain training' wall. I found it impossible to control any of Beta or Alpha inputs while in-game and, as I said, Glance was a non-starter, which has left me feeling a little bit disappointed, despite it probably being totally down to me.

Heading down to HQ, I knew the device would have limitations, but the little kid in me was imagining it granting me near-psychic powers. Unfortunately, after several hours of trying and still only being able to control one input, those limitations look to be greater than I thought. That being said though, I have every confidence that had I played with settings and kept the thing on my head for a few hours a day, I would learn to master more of the inputs and utilize them during gameplay. So if you are looking at buying the nia, I urge you to realize that you are buying a heavily scaled-down version of what you have envisaged. It won’t enable you to sit typing an essay for school while eating dinner and it won’t yet be giving you that edge in your online FPS games. It is a wonderfully useful and clever piece of tech, but I really feel that the technology (as a PC input device) is at stage 1 of its development.
 
Next up it was Graham's turn, and once again after spending a short time configuring the nia, he headed straight in for a game of Pong:
 
 
Unlike Llwyd, Graham needed to perform much more prominent muscle actions in order to get the paddle to move. This also resulted in Graham having little control over the paddle meaning it was either in an an up or down position, and hardly ever in the middle. Here's what Graham had to say:
 
Graham Newton

First impressions of the nia for me were a mixture of awe factor, with a little inkling of 'Is that it?' As you've seen and heard from the last few pages, there isn't much to the device itself. A simple rubber headband, a box and some wires, but what more do you need? After looking on through the installation, we arrived at the main menu. Here we were introduced to the friendly animatronic-voiced woman that told us how to begin the tutorial. The software, from my point of view at least, was a well-thought out introduction to the device. The mostly text-based tutorials took the user through using the device. Calibration was a simple affair and the BrainFingers and practice modes gave the first idea of what using the device was like. All in all, it was comprehensive enough to give a feel for the nia.
After some time with the nia software, it became apparent that a lot of tweaking was needed to adjust the device to suit the individual; changing between staff member's calibrations wasn’t helping too much either. The real challenge came with using the device. It quickly became apparent that it didn't read your mind, as it could be perceived. However, the press blurb explains it all well, and as a result I concluded controlling the device properly would take a fairly hefty amount of time.

With the fact that perfecting it in the time we had wasn't going to happen, I set about testing it in games. The first game I tried out was Unreal Tournament 3. For this, I used the Game Play feature in the nia's software to create a custom profile that, on receiving a signal from the muscle sensors, simulated a left-mouse click. I then dived in at the deep-end, blasting bots with the power of my mind alone (sort of...).

The same principal was then applied to Bioshock, where by I used the nia to simulate a 'W' key stroke, of course allowing me to move forward. Playing these games, I felt that the nia wasn't quite reaching its potential with a single function. But after attempting to assign more than one event, I couldn't differentiate how to activate the two individually.

Overall, after one day with using the device I can certainly see the potential is there. However, as we've said previously, this isn't going to replace the mouse/keyboard overnight. Therefore, I would suggest that those of us with a short attention span have a long hard-think (no pun intended) about whether they are willing to devote the necessary time to perfect the nia. Otherwise, it will quickly find its way into the cupboard, never to be used again.

Finally it was my turn, and after one last trip to the configuration pages and a quick game of Pong (which I was terrible at, and didn't warrant recording), I jumped straight in for a game of Unreal Tournament 3:
 
 
While it seems a bit strange to be quoting myself, here's the impressions that I noted down during the day:
 
James Napier

Being the kind of person who normally throws instruction manuals straight in the bin and tends to play things by ear, the nia had the better of me within about 5 minutes. After installing the software, I chose to skip straight past the install guides straight to the configuration and found myself totally taken back with the sheer amount of configuration options that the device provides. Those of us who have been hoping that the nia is a plug-and-play affair with a sensitivity bar and some keyboard bindings are going to be extremely shocked.

However, after taking a few steps back and setting aside some time to read over the instruction manual along with the on-screen guides, things started falling in to place. Returning then to the configuration and going through the various steps, I was amazed at how I was able to cause spikes in the softwares graphic readout with simple facial movements. Moving through the rest of the configuration took me to the practice pages where I dove straight in for a game of Pong to see how I compared to Llwyd. Unfortunately my ability to control the paddle seemed quite "digital" with my muscle signals either being in an "on" or "off" state. Graham was also experiencing similar problems, but on a lesser scale.

Out of the three of us, I was the only person able to cause any change to the "Glance" bar graph, and this ability was further reinforced during the "Glance Practice" where I was able to "hit" the targets in generally under 1 second. However, even after reducing the sensitivity of the glance configuration, the left and right movements of the slider at the bottom of the calibration pages was still quite erratic causing several false movement readings.

Given that the day was coming to a close, I took the abilities I had acquired thus far and applied them to a game of Unreal Tournament 3. To keep things simple I bound all muscle signals to to the left mouse button so that it could be used in place of the fire button. While this was great fun at first, the novelty soon wore off as the muscle movements I was making didn't always seem to register on the nia resulting in me often being killed.

To say that it's "early days" would be an underestimate. After just one day, I don't think I've even begun to grasp the basics of the device. Possibly a few months down the line I can see myself gaining the ability to assign a lot more key functions, but I guess we're just going to see what happens with the lucky reviewer who gets to take the nia home.
 
So now at the end of day one, we still aren't really any wiser. Yes we've been able to control various elements of several games using muscle signals and the "Glance" aspect of the nia has been grasped to a degree. However, it's still not any clearer on how we can possibly control the Alpha/Beta waves, and the software doesn't really give any clues as to what we should be doing to hone in on these skills.
 
As mentioned at the start of the review, the nia has now been passed over to our Gaming/Software reviewer - Chris Buer for a full month of testing with weekly updates. These updates will be posted as additional pages in this review, so be sure to check back on a weekly basis or register over on our forums for an automatic update on when new content is added to the review.


OCZ Neural Impulse Actuator (nia) - The Log Page: 5
Day 12 - The First Week
Author: Chris Buer
 
Ok, well maybe it's a little over a week since our first installment of the nia log, but as many of us who have been following the news surrounding the nia will know - OCZ released some new and improved software for it just a couple of days ago. This, combined with a call from Dr. Michael Schuette (OCZ VP of Technology) to give me some pointers on how to get the most from the new drivers pretty much put my experiences with the device back to day one. However, there is good news - the new drivers have really tightened up the calibration of the device allowing the user to fine tune the settings much further with less effort.

With the new configuration screen, relaxation is the key to setting the nia up correctly. Once suitably relaxed, the readout displaying your output drops to the desired baseline and the end result is a much more accurate set up than previously encountered with the old software version. Again you are required to concentrate on a gyroscope but this time around it appears the computer is really thinking about the signals it’s receiving from you. This was backed up by the fact that I could now move the glance function, albeit a little shaky, but this was an improvement over the previous drivers.

So, once configured I decided to jump into my favourite FPS shooter, Counter Strike Source. Luckily, the nia software has a set of pre-loaded profiles with Halflife2 being one of them! The first test was on the map Dust2. Now I must point out at this stage that I had not used the nia before in a game and I jumped straight into a game cold. Sometimes this is the best approach as you’re not clouded by information overload, something that can easily occur when trying to understand a product like this.

The nia was set up to allow me to control the movement of my player and also fire my weapons. The muscle feature was one a bind to mouse1 which allowed me to shoot by clenching my teeth or raising my eyebrows. Movement (WASD) was bound to my glance and alpha / beta waves.

Trying to explain the experience is quite difficult, but sufficed to say that I did have fairly good control after a short space of time. By relaxing my mind, the character would run forward and by tensing my mind, he would slow and then run backwards, dependant on my tension level. The only problem I encountered was trying to stop the character from moving because trying to balance my inputs to hold in a stationary position was fairly difficult. But it’s still early days and there is a learning curve here.

The best way I can describe the movement experience is like balancing on a see-saw. Depending on how much pressure you exert from one leg to the other will determine the weight shift and thus the direction in which your body will move (left or right). It’s a similar practice with the nia but instead of moving your muscles, you use your mind. A relaxed mind allows the character to move forward and a tensed mind slows, stops and reverses him. Clever stuff I’m sure you’ll agree!

The “glance” function was interesting to say the least and probably the only function that continues to elude me when in game. At times I felt as if I had control over it, by flicking my eyes left or right, the character would move in that direction. However other times I struggled to control this. Maybe I need more practice!

The final feature I had bound was the muscle function to mouse1 (for firing my weapons). I found this extremely easy to master and just by raising my eyebrows or clenching your teeth, I could fire off rounds very quickly. One word of warning though, if you bind the shoot to the muscle function and like chewing gum or eating whilst gaming, be careful! After chewing some gum and trying to explain to my teammates the reason I gunned half of them down at the start of a round was slightly difficult. However having said that, it’s still early days in terms of my progress.

After I’d finished my game, I tested my reactions within the nia’s software. The interesting point here is that according to the tests, I am still quicker clicking the mouse than using the nia’s muscle function. However, I’m sure with a bit more practice this will change and enable me to enjoy this very immersive experience even further.
 
While you will have to accept my apologies for the first installment of this log being rather bland, there really is not much more to see at this point. However, be sure to join me again next week (19/06) where I hope to have made much more progress with the device using the new software and the video's will actually be worth watching! But for now, why not visit our forums an feel free to ask me any questions.


OCZ Neural Impulse Actuator (nia) - The Log Page: 6
Day 24
Author: Chris Buer
 
Ok, as many of you may know I am working hard on getting used to the nia, and to assist with the process  I have decided to stick with my game of choice, Counter-Strike Source. Some may ask why I have chosen this game and the reason is that in one form or another, I have played Counter-Strike since early 2000, so you could say that I know the game pretty well.
 
A lot of the NIA reviews I have read show gamers playing Unreal Tournament 3 and whereas this is undoubtedly a great game, I felt that it was important not to replicate the work of other sites. I therefore decided to test out the nia on something different, hence another reason why I have continued to test with Counter-Strike Source.
 
By playing this game with the nia, I could really put it to the test and see if this device could really help me improve on my eight years of Counter-Strike experience. The bottom line is that if the nia can make me a better player at Counter-Strike, after eight years, then it really would be a great addition to any gamer’s collection.
 
To make this log update a little better this time around, I have included some FRAPS videos of game play with the nia. The first video shows the nia in action against medium skill level bots and the second video shows the same but using a conventional keyboard and mouse. When using the nia I am only using my mouse to aim and the nia to control all movement and shooting. Although my movement looks OK in the nia video, I did struggle to make a fluid movement through the doors at bombsite B, however shooting is fine.
 
I’m into my third week with the nia and things have progressed slowly. As you will see from these videos, controlling the movement around the map is still quite difficult. The biggest problems I faced came from trying to stop the player moving around the screen. In games such as UT3 you tend to move around the majority of the time. However in Counter-Strike Source, there is a balance of running, walking and holding. The question I asked myself at the start of this test was “can the nia cope with these inputs”. You will see from the video that getting this balance is a little tricky, but I am sure that it just comes down to practice.
 
-With nia -
 
I found that walking around the screen has proven to be the most difficult, so the possible use of a key bind should resolve the issue. Firing the gun is still not as quick as using the mouse and I am consistently returning more kills and fewer deaths by using a conventional mouse and keyboard set up.
 
-With Mouse/Keyboard- 

My time with the nia has provided mixed feelings. The device is certainly a revelation as there is simply nothing else out there on the market that can compare. However I do wonder if the device is better suited to faster paced games where the action is non-stop. I wonder how the nia will cope with other popular online games such as Call of Duty and World of Warcraft where the end user will need the ability to balance the pace of their inputs. Games such as the Quake and Unreal Tournament series do lend themselves to a faster paced game and the fine balance of control, (e.g. being able to move a player slower) is less of a concern.

The one comment I can pass on the nia is that it is definitely not a device that will be mastered quickly. However as they say, practice makes perfect and that’s exactly what I’ll continue to do.
 
 
Other sites of interest
 
While talking to OCZ recently about the nia, they drew my attention to some very promising video's over at game-tv.com. These video's show OCZ's VP of Technology - Michael Schuette using the nia in a 1-on-1 Unreal Tournament 3 battle against Klaus frag^m Wiedemann, avid Unreal gamer and winner of EuroCup XII. The outcome is interesting to say the least.
 
Intro Showmatch & Interview with Michael Schuette:
http://www.game-tv.com/videos/mode/4/chID/2/vID/3628/Shooter/NIA-Test.html

Showmatch Part 1:
http://www.game-tv.com/videos/mode/4/chID/2/vID/3629/Shooter/NIA-Showmatch-1/3.html

Showmatch Part2:
http://www.game-tv.com/videos/mode/4/chID/2/vID/3630/Shooter/NIA-Showmatch-2/3.html

Showmatch Part3:
http://www.game-tv.com/videos/mode/4/chID/2/vID/3631/Shooter/NIA-Showmatch-3/3.html