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New input devices, radically different from the mouse and keyboard, emerge from time to time. Voice input was discussed widely once and everyone thought then that computers would soon learn to recognize not only individual commands but even coherent speech and we would give up our keyboards and begin to irritate our colleagues by mumbling incessantly.

But years have passed and voice-based control has not become a mass or even notable tool as it encountered a technical obstacle: a powerful artificial intelligence is necessary to decipher human speech in real time considering the lack of pauses between words, the difference in pronunciation and intonation, the changing tempo and other peculiarities.

If even this has proved to be impossible, the idea of controlling the computer with the power of thought seems to belong with sci-fi novels or, at least, with very specific research laboratories. The phrase “mind-based control” is likely to provoke the image of a helmet stuck with electrodes and connected to the computer with a thick bunch of cables.

Therefore the quick and ubiquitous introduction of the NIA device from OCZ has been a real surprise. NIA stands for Neural Impulse Actuator. Neural impulses are the electric signals of our nervous system that facilitate the processing of information in the brain and transfer commands to the various muscles of the body. Thus, the NIA is supposed to register such impulses and translate them into computer-controlling commands.

And there are no helmets, no cables. Just a neat headset. Its system requirements are limited to one free USB port.

I want to say it right away that the NIA can’t read your thoughts in a literal sense. The human brain is so sophisticated that the electrical noise it produces at work cannot be fully decoded with current technologies. Even the standard method of recording an electroencephalogram that gives but a basic notion of what’s going on in the brain requires as many as 19 electrodes to be placed around the patient’s head. Perspective innovations that are intended to help paralyzed people to truly control a computer with their mind are often based on chips and electrodes implanted into the brain and gathering information about activity of its parts.

So what can the NIA read if it has only three sensors and does not need an experienced neurosurgeon to work? Alas, the name of the article may be somewhat misguiding. It is not thoughts and even not images. The main source of signals for the NIA is the neural impulses of mimic and eye muscles. Besides, the device can sense the alpha and beta rhythms of the brain that provide a general notion of its activity. Alpha rhythms dominate a relaxed state with the eyes closed whereas beta rhythms dominate during active mental activity.

 
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