To Think or To Feel?

I know the holidays are over, but my Friday the 13th birthday is fast approaching and I didn’t ask for anything during the December madness. Except for work of course, but that’s a year-round concern. Since I’ve always been a little bit of a gadget whore, I was kind of operating under the assumption that I’d eventually just find something cool to serve as a combined Hanukah/birthday gift.

An independent pair of random occurrences in the past 24 hours have led me to two fascinating PC input devices and I’m having a hard time figuring out which way I’d like to turn, or if I should just hold steady and chalk both up as gimmicks for the time being.

First up you’ve got Novint’s Falcon controller, a sort of force feedback-enabled 3D mouse. Check it (image source: Joystiq):

Novint Falcon controller in action (image courtesy of Joystiq)

Housed within that globe-thing are motors which supported games use to give the experience a more tactile feel. The easiest example of this is gun recoil, but the device can also pass along sensations of weight (such as when lifting objects in Half-Life 2), resistance (from bumping into a wall or being pinned by a zombie in the soon-to-be-supported Left 4 Dead) and the like. There’s also this newly released (and bundled) Falcon pistol grip to consider:

Novint Falcon pistol grip

There are some definite downsides though. The Falcon itself supports very few mainstream games, and as far as I can tell there is (or will be) a cost attached to obtaining the profiles (which are treated as mods) for certain titles. Valve getting behind Novint means free updates for their games, but in-development support for titles such as Battlefield 2142 and NFS: ProStreet have a $30 price tag attached. Understandable perhaps, but a definite turn-off nonetheless.

There’s also my personal setup to consider, since I have my PC plugged into the living room TV. Meaning I can’t integrate the Falcon as a permanent fixture, since wires would have to run across the room. And since I’m guessing the thing needs an independent power supply, I fear that setting it up will too often discourage me from using it.

Option B is decidedly more fascinating, but carries greater baggage. OCZ’s Neural Impulse Actuator, or NIA, is the market’s first brainwave-reading PC input device. Using the seemingly straightforward configuration program, you’re able to “map” facial muscle movements to the keyboard command of your choosing. There’s a bit more to it than that, but the idea I’m trying to express here is mind-controlled games. See here:

OCZ Neural Impulse Actuator

Unlike the Falcon, the NIA is designed to support user-created profiles. If you can get the hang of taking control using a mixture of keyboard, mouse and thought-based commands, this baby will work with anything.

Unfortunately, the technology doesn’t seem to be all there yet. Many reports I’ve read suggest that the NIA’s functionality varies wildly from person to person. Of particular concern is how much trouble the device seems to have reading “glances,” which is no good for an FPS junkie like me.

The NIA also seems more like an entirely new and radically different (albeit cool) interface than it does a natural complement to a game’s immersiveness. The Falcon appears designed to enhance your “feel” of existing within the game-world while the NIA instead offers you a new way to interact with the system. The idea of clenching teeth to fire a weapon sounds intriguing, but I worry that the “mind controls” would end up feeling more like a gimmicky glimpse of the future than an enhancement of the experience.

All in, a pretty balanced set of costs/benefits between the two options. I may just skip both and watch them closely for awhile, see how things develop. If anyone out there has tried either or has an opinion to share, please do. Whichever one I end up with (if any), you can expect to find detailed observations on it here.

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