Smart eyeware for learning is no longer science fiction

by L&D11 Aug 2016
Wearable eyeware displays have a lot of potential for professionals and can make it less 'mentally taxing' to complete tasks.

These devices can integrate augmented reality with your own, tell you live information about your surroundings and even be used in the operating room.

It was also recently reported that members of Boeing's research and technology division have used the original Google Glass to construct aircraft wire harnesses.

Now, researchers at Drexel University have developed a portable system that can monitor exactly how this technology can affect the brain in everyday circumstances.

The system uses functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) to measure a person's brain activity. fNIRS is a way to measure oxygenation levels in the prefrontal cortex - the part of the brain responsible for complex behaviors (such as decision making, cognitive expression and personality development).

Greater activity in this area of the brain signals that a person is new to a task, and consequently must work harder. After a person masters a skill, the processing of information moves toward the back regions of the brain.

The huge potential of fNIRS includes training air traffic controllers and drone operators, not to mention studying how people with disabilities are best able to learn.

"This is a new trend called neuroergonomics. It's the study of the brain at work -- cognitive neuroscience plus human factors," said Hasan Ayaz, PhD, associate research professor in the School of Biomedical Engineering, Science and Health Systems.

Most studies so far involving fNIRS have taken place indoors. Though participants wearing the system could move around freely while being monitored, they were still observed inside a laboratory.

However, a group of Drexel biomedical engineers, in collaboration with researchers at George Mason University, have now brought their portable fNIRS system outdoors.

The researchers successfully measured the brain activity of participants navigating a college campus. Moreover, the researchers wanted to compare one group of participants navigating with Google Glass to another group using Google Maps on an iPhone.

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 an iPhone.

On the downside, the researchers found that users wearing Google Glass experienced "cognitive tunneling," meaning they focused so much more of their attention to the display itself, that they easily ignored other aspects of their surroundings.

The study will be published in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience.

Picture credit: Drexel University - The fNIR sensor, which is placed around the forehead like a headband, uses LEDs that shine near-infrared light to sample from 16 brain areas.

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