OCZ´s latest brainchild is the Actuator, a device which tracks movement of your eyes, monitors brain waves and picks up facial muscle movements, it uses these recorded signals to link them to input commands on the computer, allowing you to play Tetris or even a first person shooter like UT2004. We visited the OCZ booth at Cebit where they had a live demo, (view)read our (video)report on this impressive technology which will change the way you interact with your PC!
The OCZ Actuator (full name NIA - Neural Impulse Actuator) is a very innovative device which is able to pick up neural activity through electrodes which are placed on the head of the user. The NIA separates three different areas of neural and myographic signals: electro oculographic, which tracks and responds to movement of the eye, electro encephalographic signals, which tracks brain waves (activity) and myographic signals, which tracks muscles movement.
These signals are decoded and combined to help link certain commands on the PC to inputs from the electrodes on the user's head. A fully functional brain can generate as much as 10 Watts of electrical power!
Of the three input areas the brain waves is most likely the hardest to control:
The demo of the NIA at the OCZ booth picked up Alpha and Beta brainwaves. The Alpha waves can be controlled by either relaxing your mind or reflecting/thinking. The Beta waves relate to an Alert/Working state, these waves are active when somebody is in a conversation or doing a lecture. There are two other brain waves not currently monitored by the device. The Theta brainwave state which is active when somebody starts to daydream, this can happen when you're driving on the freeway and can't remember what happened the last 5 miles because the repetitious nature of driving on the freeway. Driving in town/heavy traffic would be in Beta state. The final brainwave is Delta, which is active when you are in deep sleep.
Quote: When we go to bed and read for a few minutes before attempting sleep, we are likely to be in low beta. When we put the book down, turn off the lights and close our eyes, our brainwaves will descend from beta, to alpha, to theta and finally, when we fall asleep, to delta.
The electro oculographic signal tracking responded to eye movement and this could be linked to commands through the computer application. In the case of the NIA the left/right eye movement (only small movement was necessary here) could be linked to left/right strafe in game. On of the most famous users of the electro oculographic signal tracking is likely Stephen Hawking, who has been in contact with the developers of the OCZ Actuator to help tune and tweak the system.
Stephen Hawking: "Before the operation, my speech had been getting more slurred, so that only a few people who knew me well, could understand me. But at least I could communicate. I wrote scientific papers by dictating to a secretary, and I gave seminars through an interpreter, who repeated my words more clearly. However, the tracheotomy operation removed my ability to speak altogether. For a time, the only way I could communicate was to spell out words letter by letter, by raising my eyebrows when someone pointed to the right letter on a spelling card. It is pretty difficult to carry on a conversation like that, let alone write a scientific paper. However, a computer expert in California, called Walt Woltosz, heard of my plight. He sent me a computer program he had written, called Equalizer. This allowed me to select words from a series of menus on the screen, by pressing a switch in my hand. The program could also be controlled by a switch, operated by head or eye movement. When I have built up what I want to say, I can send it to a speech synthesizer."
The third input area comes from myographic signals, the electrode tracks the signals from face muscles, for instance if you close your yaw your brain would send a myographic signal to the yaw muscles to contract, this signal is picked up by the Actuator and can be linked to input commands. It's also not limited to just enable/disable, also the force/intensity of the muscle movement can be picked up and used. In the practical demo closing your yaw was linked to making the character run forward, putting more force on your yaw muscles (biting down) would result in the jump command being executed.
From the information above it's obvious that the origins of the technologies used for the OCZ Actuator are coming from the medical sector, to help disabled people communicate and perform functions able people take for granted. The price of this technology is high because not a lot of people are buying them, a low demand for a high tech equipment keeps the production costs over $2000. By bringing the technology to the consumer market OCZ hopes to decrease the price by shipping more unit and making the product available to the gamers and enthusiasts out there, the "do not quote me on this" price was an estimated $300.
The current test sample on the demo used a wired headband with 3 electrodes behind the OCZ logo, which need to touch the skin of the forehead. The plans are to make the electrodes pick up the requirements signals without having to touch skin, this would lead into making a design where the OCZ Actuator is integrated into a baseball cap. To completely remove the physical link with the machine a wireless transmitter can then be build into the cap, together with encryption technologies to make each cap work with the correct receiver unit, as to not create chaos at a large lan party.
While the theoretical side of the Actuator helps you understand how such a system might work, it's still not the same as actually seeing it work. We reviewers are a skeptical bunch and when we were shown the live demo where UT2004 was played by only using the mouse to look around in the game, and the OCZ Actuator to run, jump, strafe, shoot; we were thoroughly impressed, but still wondering if we were being fooled or tricked, maybe looking at a rolling demo? Our reviewer Piotke put on the head band and after a bit of practice (5-10 minutes tops) he was playing UT2004, granted that Piotke is not much of a gamer, but it was impressive seeing him rack up kills with OCZ Actuator faster than he ever could achieve with the keyb/mouse combo.
We made a small movie of the OCZ representative playing a death match session in Unreal Tournament 2004, with the Actuator strapped around his head. Do note that he is one of the developers of the device and has been showing of the functions for almost 2 days in a row:
Commentary by Tony "BigToe" Leach from OCZ.
With an estimated launch date of "end 2007" the final product is not that far away, and will open a wide array of possibilities to enthusiasts and gamers alike. While we saw tons of cool and interesting products at Cebit this year, none quite impressed as much as the OCZ Actuator. We can't wait to see and try the final product!