According to OCZ’s enthusiastic press releases, the future of human-computer interfaces is right around the corner. They’re releasing the Neural Impulse Actuator, a device that you wear on your forehead and use to control a computer with your thoughts. Yes, really. No, it’s not fake (that’s the first thing I thought too). It’s very real, and there are other reports on it from people who saw it at CES.
So, given that it’s real, my next question was “How well does it work?” The likely answer is, not very well. It won’t be able to handle complex, nuanced thoughts. But it can tell the difference between, say, concentrating really hard or relaxing. I imagine there’d be a bit of a learning curve as well; the more you use it, the better you become at generating the exact neural impulses that it’s looking for (which may or may not be the same as “thoughts” as we currently think of them). It’s hard to know what those might feel like (perhaps imagining raising one eyebrow), but when you have the device plugged into a computer giving you constant feedback, you should be able to figure out what it’s looking for.
I am concerned about the resolution that this device will offer. Let’s say you’re trying to move a cursor around in two dimensions, a very common task. How accurate is it? Is the only way to get good accuracy to reduce the speed of the cursor, so that it might take a full minute to move the cursor all the way across the screen? It doesn’t seem appropriate as a mouse replacement, though it could do well as a sort of hotkey-based interface. Say each command consists of a sequence of three neural impulses — with just five different thoughts, you have a possibility of 125 different combinations, and thus, 125 commands. Not too shabby.
I could continue speculating about this device, but that seems kind of fruitless. We simply don’t know nearly enough about its capabilities and how it actually works yet. For now, it’s all just marketing hype. I’m going to wait until the first shipment of these goes out and the first in-depth reviews are published. If they sound promising, I’ll buy one. Here’s why.
Have you ever dreamed of having a computer with you everywhere you go? I’m not talking about a laptop, or even a PDA. I’m talking about something much more convenient. You’d be able to use it while performing most activities (walking, holding things, pretending to pay attention to a meeting, etc.). This Neural Impulse Actuator very nearly makes my dream a reality. Just connect it to a pocket-sized computer with an LCD glasses display (imagine it as a Heads Up Display overlaid on your normal vision). And of course you’ll need a hat to cover up the silly-looking headband. Simply by thinking specific thoughts that the NIA knows to interpret as commands, you’d be able to control what was displayed on your HUD. Want directions? They’re there. Want to look something up? Bam. I wouldn’t get the whole kit together just yet, but being able to practice with the NIA on my desktop computer would prepare me for being able to leap into the arena of thought-powered wearable computers once they became commercially available.
I’ve been fascinated with human-computer interfaces ever since I took a class on it at University of Maryland. I’ve posited that virtual world user adoption rates are being held up by unsuitable user interfaces. This neural interface that OCZ is releasing may be exactly what makes virtual worlds successful. So color me optimistic. I can’t wait until the day when human-computer interaction is boiled down to the point of “Human thinks, computer does”, and if OCZ is successful, that may be within the next year.