Imagine a Google-Glass type ‘smart’ eyewear that can integrate augmented reality with your own and feed you live information about your surroundings. A new portable system developed by researchers may make this possible.
Wearable displays also have the potential to enhance cognitive ergonomics, or more simply, make it less mentally taxing to complete certain tasks, researchers said. But before technologies like Google Glass become a part of daily life, engineers need a way to monitor exactly how they affect the brain in everyday situations, they said.
Researchers from Drexel University in the US developed a portable system that can do just that. The system uses functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to measure a person’s brain activity. The system can integrate augmented reality with your own, feed you live information about your surroundings and even be used in the operating room, researchers said. The applications for fNIRS are seemingly endless – from training air traffic controllers and drone operators, to studying how students with disabilities learn best, they said.
“This is a new trend called neuroergonomics. It is the study of the brain at work – cognitive neuroscience plus human factors,” said Hasan Ayaz from Drexel University. Until now, most studies involving fNIRS took place indoors. Though participants wearing the system could move around freely while being monitored, they were still observed within laboratory confines. Now, researchers have brought their portable fNIRS system “into the wild”. They successfully measured the brain activity of participants navigating a college campus outdoors.
Researchers wanted to compare one group of participants navigating the campus with Google Glass to another group using Google Maps on a smartphone. Their goal was to measure mental workload (how hard the brain is working) and situation awareness (the perception of environmental elements), in order to see which device was less mentally taxing. They found that overall, users using Google Glass had a higher situation awareness and lower mental workload than their peers navigating with a smartphone.
However, researchers also found that users wearing Google Glass fell victim to “cognitive tunneling,” meaning they focused so much more of their attention to the display itself, that they easily ignored other aspects of their surroundings. “What we were able to see were the strengths and weaknesses of both. Now that we know we are able to capture that, we can now improve their design,” said Ayaz.
“This opens up all new areas of applications. We will be able to analyse how the brain is functioning during all of these natural activities that you cannot replicate in artificial lab settings,” he said. The findings were published in the journal Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.