We have a shining vision of the gaming future.
It involves genuinely 3D graphics that are indiscernible from real life, tactile force feedback suits that simulate pressure and temperature and, very importantly, the removal of clunky manual control in favour of the power of thought alone.
After a few minor-yet-irksome delays, we've finally got our hands on a retail unit of a device that brings us a little closer to this gaming utopia, OCZ's Neural Impulse Actuator.
This USB headband translates 'biopotentials', that's tiny electrical changes on the surface of the skin, and translates them to inputs along various control axes, minimising the need for game controllers.
While we previewed the NIA a few months back, it's important to reiterate exactly what the device can and can't do. For a start, the NIA isn't going to translate thoughts, such as 'shoot' or 'run forward', into corresponding inputs, the technology simply isn't that sophisticated yet (plus you'd probably have to drill holes in your skull for that sort of thing).
Instead, most of the input comes from muscular movements, such as frowns, expression changes and eye movements, instead of brain waves.
Not a mind reader
What it does do is measure the strength of the electrical signal it's receiving, so if you're clenching your jaw hard, for example, that will top out the Muscle axis, where as less strained movements will have it wavering somewhere in the middle.
While it's not strictly mind control, when you accidentally shoot an enemy, before you've even registered them, because of some subconscious facial twitch, it'll certainly feel that way - there's a noticeable and impressive drop in reaction times, particularly when it comes to firing in a fast-paced first person shooter.
It's also worth noting that most games you'll use this with will be too complex to use the NIA alone, normally requiring additional mouse control as a bare minimum. Unfortunately this means you'll still be tied to the familiar hunched-over-the-desk posture.
The two burning questions though are; does the device fulfil this remit effectively and, crucially, are players interested in 'mind' control in light of the caveats above?
As far as the former is concerned, the kit is suitably sensitive, though we had some bizarre problems with signal noise that could only be solved by holding the brushed aluminium chassis while we used it, but that appeared to be a fault with our particular unit alone.
A major problem with the hardware is the level of calibration required each time you use the device - the changing state of your fickle body means this is by no means plug-and-play.
You'll also be required to put in a few solid hours of initial practice and then be prepared to reacquaint yourself with the kit each time you play - not really conducive to a quick blast on a first person shooter.
Then there's the fiddly business of creating and tweaking profiles to map different signal strengths to keystrokes your games can understand - arguably a small price to pay for such comprehensive compatibility, but still something of a chore.
The profiles are so small, though, that swapping game setups online through the OCZ website will be a doddle.
A new gaming experience
While there are defaults on offer out of the box, they are more geared toward people who have successfully mastered the Glance axis, which we found nearly impossible to control even after several hours.
A little more depth in the tutorial section would work wonders for getting users up to speed and into their games. Still, once it is all configured and you're shooting people with a mere raised eyebrow, it's undoubtedly a uniquely exhilarating experience.
Even the simplistic Pong mini game, designed for practice, is enormously amusing simply because it requires no manual control whatsoever. No doubt there are flashier commercial games that require similarly minor input from the player, Virtua Tennis perhaps?
And they'll be the ones you tweak a profile for and fire up when you proudly display this magical technology at your next dinner party.
Our primary concern is that the NIA's limitations, whether they're the result of a technology that's still in its youth or not, mean that, realistically, few people will continue to use the device after a few novelty outings. The odd clan player might use it to supplement his mouse reaction times, but would never rely on the NIA's level of accuracy for movement.
It's also unlikely to take a huge foothold among professional gamers, as the device will no doubt be excluded from the list of allowed hardware at the big money competitions.
Equally, you might find players choosing a more thematic approach to the device, for example using it for magic spells in MMORPGs (with more mechanical attacks controlled by the hands), but ultimately with the hassle of setting up the device every time, gamers are likely to lose interest quickly.
In addition, the fact that most people will struggle to control anything other than the muscle axis means that effectively they'll be limited to around four different keystrokes in total.
The future of gaming
What the NIA is aching for is a more streamlined route between donning the headset and actually having fun in a game.
An automatic background calibration routine, a selection of games designed specifically for the device and detailed tutorials on techniques for controlling the various signals would make this a far more consumer-friendly device.
There's enormous potential here, and certainly a great degree of player interest in the ultimate goal of mind-controlled games, but in its current state the NIA requires more refinement.
Tantalisingly, this refinement could well be possible through mere software updates alone, but until that happens the Neural Impulse Actuator will continue to fall short of greatness. Certainly one to keep your mind's eye on, though.
If a look wearing the NIA could actually kill, then Bath would be free of traffic wardens...
- Brain required (Not pictured, but a mandatory requirement).
- Carbon nanofibre contact diamonds are the point of contact between all the fizzing biopotentials and the NIA's snazzy brushed aluminium signal decoder. There's no need to monkey around with experimental drilling here. However, it often takes a minute or so for full contact to be established. The headband has to be worn with the cable running from your left temple, which ensures that the glance inputs are the right way around.
- One of the NIA's axes is the Glance axis, which claims to be able to differentiate between left and right glances. Unfortunately, in practice we found this extremely difficult to master, even with pronounced glances left and right. There's a practice game involving looking at targets on the screen, but we were unanimously terrible at it.
- We found that one of the easiest and the most consistently accurate ways of modulating the signal was through clenching the jaw at different strengths. It will depend on the vagaries of your own facial control, but, again, you may just find other methods are more effective.