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Monday, November 17, 2003

Put on your memory glasses

The first MIThril 1000 (the soon-to-be-published design) displayed on a mannequin with accompanying diagram. Note that this system is ordinary packaged in a black button-down-the-front shirt which completely conceals the equipment, making the wearable all but invisible except for the head-mounted display and Twiddler. 

IF you are too busy or too old to remember, new devices called memory glasses - that subtly transmit data to wearers through heads-up displays - might help, reports UPI.

"Just about anyone could benefit from this system, particularly busy persons who need a huge amount of specialised information at their fingertips, but can’t afford to be distracted by conventional memory aids," Rich DeVaul, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston said.

"If all goes well, I expect you could see a product based on this idea in the market within a year or two," DeVaul said.

DeVaul and colleagues specialise in creating wearable computers. The key to developing such devices is determining the best possible user interface— in this case, spectacles embedded with computer screens. The task was straightforward but not easy. The researchers quickly realised wearable computers that present their data in a distracting manner could prove a hindrance or even a danger to, for example, a wearer driving a vehicle or a soldier engaged in combat.

So the MIT team hit upon the idea of flashing information at wearers subliminally — so fast it cannot be perceived consciously. "The notion of a subliminal user interface started as a joke, but the more I researched it, the more plausible it became. The only question was: could we make it work?" DeVaul said.

The memory glasses use tiny, clip-on computer screens that flash messages visible for only 1/180th of a second. Such data are meant to serve as reminders that jog memory. The glasses are connected to a computer worn in a vest.

"The research prototype we are using has about the same computing power and memory as a modern (personal data assistant), with similar power consumption," DeVaul said. To test the glasses, the researchers chose volunteers seated at desktop computers.

First, the computers displayed 21 name-face pairs that volunteers had two minutes to memorise. Then they had to match names with faces correctly while the memory glasses they wore periodically flashed data at them. The glasses flashed three kinds of messages — blank screens, the wrong names for faces or the right names.

Volunteers cued with the right names did better by 50 per cent or more than others given no cues, according to findings the researchers presented at the Future of Health Technology Summit at MIT in October. "Memory support is a personal issue for me, since I’ve spent a lot of my life forgetting things," DeVaul joked.

He discovered even providing incorrect names through subliminal visual cues did not appear to mislead users. It was surprising, but such miscues might have even led to memory improvement. This is important, DeVaul said, because any device could make mistakes occasionally and supply wrong, potentially misleading information.

"That’s an unexpected find, and in science, any unexpected find is worth its weight in gold," said wearables pioneer Thad Starner, an assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s college of computing in Atlanta. Starner called DeVaul and his colleagues’ work on memory augmentation "one of the key killer applications for wearable computers in future". Subliminal cues seem best at alerting or preparing people, not triggering or influencing behaviour, and subliminal cues might even be safer than overt, conscious perception, "since we can’t distract or confuse you," DeVaul said. The researchers also hope the glasses can help people suffering from amnesia or prosopagnosia—a disorder in which one cannot recognise faces. IANS