Now I get the hype about the NIA.

29 August 2008

A couple of months back there was quite a bit of hype (which vanished rapidly as people forgot all about it when the next new thing came around) about the NIA brain-computer interface from OCZ Technology (which is also known for its build-your-own-laptop kits). Ostensibly, it's a consumer-grade, non-invasive EEG that you strap across your forehead and jack into a small interface unit which then plugs into a USB port on your computer. The unit comes with drivers that can map certain inputs from the dermatrodes (good call, Mr. Gibson) to keyboard and mouse events defined by the user.. the upshot of this means that you can, once you get good at it, use learned thought patterns to carry out tasks, such as moving around inside a spreadsheet or playing video games.

I must confess, I was highly skeptical of devices like this when I first heard about them. In undergrad I knew that there were a few people playing around with homebrew versions of this technology but they never really released any specific information so, without proof, I had to write them off as rumours. I also recall the Nintendo Powerglove, which wasn't a very good way to play games but was nifty to hack around with. Revolutionary devices for user-computer interface usually aren't, unfortunately.

Anyway, I'm getting sidetracked. I happened to be in the office yesterday, a rare occurrance due to the fact that I'm in the field quite a bit, and one of my cow-orkers (referred to as T- henceforth) mentioned to my geeky old self that the OCZ NIA he'd ordered had finally come in the mail, he had it in his office, and would I be interested in trying it?

Would I be interested in trying it... does Bugs Bunny like carrots?

The NIA is pretty small, actually - the electronics that do the heavy lifting are encased in a black metal box about half the size of a videocassette with a USB port on one side and a jack on the other to attach the leads from the dermatrode band. The 'band itself is a tube of soft, rubbery plastic that tapers at the ends so that the fit can be adjusted by a spring-loaded sliding dealie at the back (I never found out what those little suckers are called), and there are three diamond-shaped pickups affixed at the front which press against the skin of your forehead. Reading the website for the NIA, it says that the dermatrodes are made of carbon nanofibres to give the best possible electrical conductivity and frequency range without requiring conductive paste. A bit of research on that front showed that this particular detail is highly plausible.

Once you're hooked up you run some software supplied by OCZ (which you can download from their website) (32-bit Windows only, unfortunately -- now I've got a reason to learn how to write device drivers!). The software that T- ran has a basic EEG display which you're supposed to use to get used to working with the device, a couple of versions of Pong to train yourself to control things on the screen, and some functionality that lets you assign certain keyboard events to certain electrical patterns (which I didn't experiment with). The EEG display itself is pretty interesting because it shows more than brain activity; to calibrate the unit the software shows a graphic of a rotating gyroscope that you stare at. The purpose behind doing so seems to be that when you're looking at an interesting fixed point on the screen your facial muscles are relaxed and your eyes aren't moving much so the software can get a better idea of what your neuroelectrical activity looks like. The NIA also picks up the electrical signals driving the user's facial and ocular muscles, so not only can it read the electrical activity of your forebrain but it can also figure out where your eyes are looking. To help in doing so, the calibration function displays an ideal baseline and an aggregate of the electrical activity that it's picking up. Under ideal circumstances, the aggregate will match the baseline, which is just what it sounds like: a flat line. After the calibration cycle you'll be presented with a series of bar graphs, one for the activity of the ocular muscles, three for the alpha waves (one per pickup I'm guessing), three for the beta waves (ditto), and another aggregate for the activity driving your facial muscles.

To fully calibrate to me, the NIA software required less than ten seconds; for T- it took closer to thirty. I've got an unfair advantage over him, though: I've been meditating, practicing biofeedback, and using pranayama techniques since high school. While I'm far from being a master, I have a decent amount of control over my body's autononic systems as a result.

One thing I noticed about the EEG display is that it really seems responsive to the user's neuroelectrical activity and not a rigged demo. I should state up front that most of my musculature was kept relaxed, including my face, and my eyes stayed fixed on the start button of T-'s Windows desktop. My baseline was flat for most of the time I played with the NIA, the beta wave graphs were very low (one to two blocks, three when talking), and the alpha wave graphs hovered around one third to one half of maximum the whole time. I also experimented with a couple of directed meditation techniques to change the electrical activity that it was picking up, like "clicking forward", "clicking backward", and looping a couple of sorts of memories to see what would happen. The NIA's software picked up on all of those and reacted in different ways; it also returned to baseline when I did. I didn't have a chance to try any active methods while working with the NIA like the LBRP or the middle pillar exercise, though I hope to do so in the future.

T- and another cow-orker, B-, were surprised at was I was able to do with the NIA. I may have picked up a new nickname at work as a result: Flatline.

"Boy... I was day-ud!"

However, a couple of biofeedback and meditation tricks do not necessarily make it possible to kick anyone's ass at video games using the NIA. Neither, T-, B-, nor myself were any good at playing Pong, even when set to the simplest difficulty. I wasn't able to move the paddle at all; B- was able to get it to jiggle a bit, I'm told. T-'s told me that he's seen footage of people (who were probably experienced with the NIA) learn how to play video games pretty successfully with the NIA in conjunction with a mouse. He's told me that the individuals in question used the mouse for some aspects of gameplay in a first-person shooter (Unreal Tournament 3, I think) - aiming and firing weapons, probably. We're not talking about a device that can fully control software with a complex UI, like a first-person shooter, the NIA is at present an augmentation to existing interface devices.

Note to self: experiment with the electromyography functions of the NIA. A bit of research on the NIA shows that the Pong game is controlled by the facial muscles instead of brain activity - the more tense the muscles of the forehead and scalp are, the higher up the game field your paddle will move and vice-versa. As for other games and applications, I have no idea because I've not yet worked with the NIA in that capacity.

Its uses as a biofeedback and meditation assistance device make the NIA a worthwhile investment for anyone interested in such things, in my humble opinion, and I highly recommend it for such.