Tufts Researchers Develop Mind-Reading Headband

Download Audio
Tufts researchers working with the headband. (Courtesy Tufts Human-Computer Interaction Lab)
Tufts researchers working with the headband. (Courtesy Tufts Human-Computer Interaction Lab)

Take a moment to think about your relationship with computers. There's a good chance you're tethered to one right now — hands on a keyboard, smart phone in a back pocket.

In one way or another, most of us are connected to these machines a lot of the time.

Now, researchers at Tufts University are working on a new technology that will make that connection even closer and more intimate.

That's what Anthony found recently when he visited Tufts' Human-Computer Interaction Lab.

Rob Jacob, a computer science professor at Tufts, describes what he's designing as a "computer that could adapt itself to you."

"Anything where you're fairly busy," says Jacob. "It would know more about your mental state and it could adapt."

Jacob is talking about computers that adapt to you — not by reading your browser history or by asking you to fill out a survey — but by reading your brain. All you have to do is put on a headband. No gels, no needles. Just a headband.

It keeps a few electronic probes pressed against your forehead. In a sense, it allows the computer to read your mind. Or, at least, to understand how hard your brain is working.

"What we've been best at measuring so far is mental workload or cognitive workload," says Jacob. "If we find out that your workload is going up or going down, we could tweak the computer a little bit to suit your current state."

The headband can tell the computer whether you're stressed and overworked, or relaxed and ready to take on more tasks. Here's Sergio Fantini, a professor of bio medical engineering here at Tufts.

"It's actually measuring a combination of blood volume, how much blood there is in the brain," says Sergio Fantini, a professor of bio medical engineering at Tufts. "Also, blood flow, how fast blood is flowing through the brain. And blood oxygenation."

The Human-Computer Relationship

Fantini and Jacob have been putting the headband — and the technology behind it — through a bunch of experiments that could seriously change the way we interact with our computers.

Take, for example, your social media traffic. Emails, tweets, G-chats and Facebook posts can clutter your screen — and your mind — when you're trying to get something done. Here's Evan Peck, a Ph.D candidate at the human-computer interaction lab.

"If we interrupt you when you're very busy, it's really disruptive and people have shown that your stress levels go up," says Evan Peck, a Ph.D candidate at the Human-Computer Interaction Lab. "You get more anxious, in addition to you actually doing worse at whatever you're doing."

But put on the headband — which tells the computer how hard your brain is working — and it can actually pick the best time to interrupt you with an email or a phone call.

"If we can actually tell how hard your brain is working, we might be able to figure out the right moment to interrupt you," says Peck.

In other words, if someone's trying to call you on my cell phone, you won't actually be alerted unless you're in a state to receive it.

"It also depends on who's calling you," says Peck." "My wife calling me is very different from..." Your girlfriend, for example.

Testing The Headband

Beyond the social implications, this technology could be used in certain professions. For example, if an air traffic controller is being overworked, a computer could detect that and scale back the workload. That's what happened to Anthony when he put on the headband and began an air traffic simulation exercise.

"Your goal is to fly a bunch of UAVs to a series of targets while avoiding obstacles," says Dan Afergan, a Ph.D candidate in the lab. "You'll see a whole bunch, you can click and create wave points. And the obstacles are going to be moving."

Anthony uses a cursor to keep a growing number of UAVs, or drones, on the computer screen on course — so they don't crash into a series of obstacles.

First, there are just a couple of them and it's easy.

"In the last couple seconds it actually noticed that your workload was very low," says Afergan. "You were very relaxed, and you can see now UAV 6 has entered the simulation."

More UAVs appear on the screen, making the job more challenging. The computer sees that the brain is working harder. In fact, it gives provides a number that quantifies the workload. As Anthony struggles to keep as many as 10 drones on course, that brain workload number goes up.

But he can also make it go down by relaxing. As he takes deep breaths, the number drops from about 41 down to 30. And as he speaks, the number goes up. When he does mental multiplication the number shoots up to 73.

Rob Jacob says this technology could be useful in many fields where mental concentration is crucial — from air traffic control to driving trucks, buses and trains.

Privacy Concerns

But with growing concern about privacy — federal authorities can already read our emails and texts and tap our phones — now comes technology that could allow them — and employers — to monitor our state of mind.

So, what about privacy concerns? You don't necessarily want your supervisor know what's going on inside your brain.

"If this is your personal system and it's working better for you because it knows about you and it keeps all its data and doesn't tell anyone, this is great," says Jacob. "If this is connected to your boss, maybe it's not so great. But it's the same technology. It can, like any technology, be used for good or ill."

Another question — is this technology about to jump out into the marketplace?

"We can definitely see a path where you won't need this very expensive elaborate instrument," says Jacob. "All it does is shine light into your head and measure the light coming back out. You could do that with a much more compact cheaper thing someday. We're working on a way to integrate this with Google Glass or a baseball hat or something."

Rob Jacob and his team are running a number of experiments with this technology. Among their ideas — to generate movie recommendations based on how peoples' brains respond to other films. Or, it could help a piano player develop improvisation skills — with the brain signaling when it's ready to take on more complex harmonies.

It's all part of a future when we'll be communicating with our computers without even knowing it.


Robert Jacob, professor of computer science at Tufts University.

Sergio Fantini, professor in the Tufts University bio medical engineering department.

Evan Peck, Ph.D candidate in computer science at Tufts University.

Dan Afergan, Ph.D candidate in computer science at Tufts University. He tweets at @danafergan.


The Boston Globe: Headband Could Help Brain Communicate With Computers

  • "Technology in development at Tufts University’s Human-Computer Interaction Lab could do just that. Computer scientist Robert Jacob and biomedical engineer Sergio Fantini are working on a headband to read brain activity, enabling a computer to determine whether the wearer is bored, fatigued, or sharp."

This segment aired on May 16, 2014.


More from Radio Boston

Listen Live