OCZ NIA Brain-Computer Interface

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Usage Experience




As previously mentioned, one of the NIA's characteristics is a steep learning curve, due to the way it works. Another characteristic is high variability in results from one user to another relative to traditional input methods. Some users will simply have an easier time with the NIA. These characteristics make reviewing the usage experience of the NIA quite difficult. We have had our review sample for about a month and we feel that this is sufficient time to form an opinion on the NIA and what it has to offer. However, we would like to note that at the time of writing, we still had not mastered all the nuances of the device.


Ease of Use

As previously mentioned, the NIA should be calibrated each and every time it is used. While we found that calibration wasn't always strictly necessary, it was best to follow the instructions and calibrate before each session. Calibration is quick and painless for the most part, but occasionally we didn't receive desirable results on the first few attempts. This is partly due to the sensitivity of the equipment. We also found that we could reduce our signal baseline by grounding ourselves either directly to the NIA control pod's aluminum case or to the computer. However, the trick only works as long as you are still grounded so unless you plan on using the NIA with one hand on the unit, it's not too practical.

The headband is comfortable and we felt it was no worse than a pair of comfortable headphones. The rubber material the headband is made of naturally wants to straighten but is held into a circle by the adjustable locking nut. This means the headband doesn't put any pressure on your head at all, unlike headphones which generally 'clamp' onto your head. The headband is also extremely light so weight was not an issue. Lastly, we found the headband to be compatible with glasses and headphones, which could both be worn along with the NIA without ill effects, other than perhaps looking a bit silly.

The three sensors on the headband seemed to produce the best results when placed about an inch above the eyebrows. It is very important that all three sensors make good contact with the skin. Something as simple and small as hair or even sweat can significantly reduce the headband's sensitivity. This results in a very noticeable lack of control in games, that felt something like trying to use an optical mouse on a surface that tracks poorly.

Overall, the NIA is no where near as convenient as traditional input methods. Often, a significant amount of preparation is required before using the NIA, although setup never took more than 2-5 minutes. We didn't feel the extra preparation was unbearable, but it does become a bit annoying when all you want to do is frag some people with your mind (and face and eyes).


Learning Curve

Since we received our review sample several weeks ago, we have attempted to spend about 30 minutes gaming with it each day in Unreal Tournament 3 for practice. On the first day, the only thing we were able to do was control the muscle sensor. However, this was enough to allow us to configure the NIA with basic commands and play a few rounds of UT3. Over the first week, we quickly became very proficient with muscle sensor control and gained a limited level of use of the glance sensor. However, Alpha and Beta control still alluded us.

Despite being limited to muscle and glance control, we were able to play UT3 quite proficiently by the end of the first week. Using the default UT3 profile which ships with the NIA, the NIA was used for movement and shooting while the mouse was used for steering. We were able to careen around the maps at a decent pace and we were generally able to get where we wanted in quick order. However, control accuracy was lacking, but that was largely due to a lack of control on our part.


By the end of the second week, we had progressed enough in skill to be able to consistently and easily defeat the UT3 AI at the first four difficulty levels in a free-for-all match using the basic default UT3 NIA profile. We also played a match of Counter-Strike: Source. We whipped up a custom profile in a few short minutes but instead of relying on the NIA for the majority of our movement control, we decided to use the NIA in a support role. The keyboard and mouse were used as usual, but the trigger was set as a NIA switch event. The jump, duck and walk commands were also taken over by a NIA joystick. With this profile, we effectively used the NIA to augment our normal playing and to great effect. The NIA provided superior trigger response time and the difference was quite noticeable and immediate. A reflexive clench of the jaw was all that was necessary to squeeze out a precise burst of fire.

While it may take weeks to master the NIA's basic functions and maybe longer for the Brainfingers, you will be able to enjoy the benefits nearly immediately, all thanks to custom profiles. Even if you only have very rough control of the muscle sensor, you can still set it to a switch event that controls the trigger. The difference in reaction time between a finger twitch and a twitch of an eyebrow is great enough that unless you are already a very high level twitch-FPS player, you will probably see an immediate improvement in reaction time using the NIA over a mouse for the trigger.

We also felt that the NIA was quite tiring to use, especially at the beginning. When just starting, we had to make large exaggerated movements to trigger the NIA's sensors. This quickly tired us out and we felt fatigued after only 20 minutes of gameplay. However, with a few days of practice, we were able to easily handle longer stints with the NIA. With some practice we didn't need to make such large movements and after a week a casual observer was no longer able to tell we were moving at all. The muscles in our face were also getting a workout and like all muscles, they became stronger and more resilient over time from use.


Brainfingers

At the time of writing, we have learned to control several Brainfingers, however it is difficult to pin-point when we learned how to use them. We initially started trying to learn Brainfingers in the configuration utility by observing the real-time graph of the Brainfinger sensors. We found that we could make the Brainfingers all drop together by relaxing, breathing deeply and clearing our minds. This was easy to do consistently in the configuration utility but unfortunately you can't exactly count on it in a tense multiplayer deathmatch. We also found that working ourselves from a relaxed state to an excited state raised the Brainfingers, also quite consistently.

Using these observations, we modified the UT3 profile we had been using for daily practice with the addition of the Beta 2 Brainfinger. We chose it because it seemed to move with the most consistency and we set it to simply switch to the next weapon. This proved quite chaotic for this first day or two since a sudden tense moment in the game would cause the weapon to change unexpectedly. Over time, we eventually got a hang on controlling the Beta 2 Brainfinger. We were able to change weapons in the game at will, with only a slight bit of effort and concentration. Unfortunately we found that we were not actually just controlling Beta 2, but also Beta 3 and 4. We eventually learned how to separate Beta 2 from Beta 3 although Beta 4 still alludes us.

The NIA doesn't come with any documentation on how to learn to use the Brainfngers and we think we know why. There is simply no way to explain how it is done, you must simply learn it from experience. Overall, the best advice we have for learning how to use Brainfingers is to simply play with them in a game.


Versatility

Throughout our lengthy testing period, the NIA's configuration proved more than sufficient to meet all of our needs. While it took some trail and error to figure out exactly what everything did, we eventually found it a breeze to use. It was easy to setup the NIA for use in any game using any control configuration our ability would allow.

While the NIA is aimed at gamers and gaming applications, it can be used in any program. If you really felt like never pressing "shift" and "enter" in a word processor ever again, you can assign those to the NIA. The possibilities are really limited only by your imagination.

Unfortunately, you only have so many sensors and "Brainfingers" available before you run out. This means you won't be able to commit the whole keyboard to the NIA, or even half the keyboard for that matter. Practiced touch typists will be able to type faster than the NIA will ever allow anyway. The NIA is probably best used as an assistant for 'abnormal' but common keystrokes in various applications, possibly to activate hotkeys for instance.
 

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