It looks like a giant 80s-style head sweatband, but a new wearable system called "Brainput" monitors your brain activity to figure out when multi-tasking is causing stress overload. Then the whole thing automatically adjusts your computer to ease the strain.

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Brainput was designed by a team of brain-computer interaction researchers from MIT, Indiana University and Tufts led by MIT postdoc Erin Treacy Solovey. Their goal was to create a system that could read brain signals and automatically help users get better at multi-tasking. Their findings (PDF) were presented recently at the Computer Human Interaction Conference in Austin.

The system involves using portable brain monitoring tech called functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) that can read some brain signals. A computer connected to the fNIRS headset analyzes those signals, and when certain stressful patterns emerged it sent help.


For demonstration purposes, volunteers wearing the Brainput tried to guide virtual robots onscreen through a maze to get to a strong Wi-Fi signal. Each volunteer guided two robots simultaneously. To increase the stress, the volunteers were told they couldn't let the robots bump into walls. On top of that, the robots didn't always respond to commands.

When Brainput detected certain signals, the system prompted the robots to do more of their own navigation autonomously. Technology Review's Kate Greene reported that when the robots' autonomous mode kicked in, the overall performance of the human-robot team improved.

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The Brainput system does have drawbacks. For one, this kind of surface signal reading can only detect so much in terms of brain activity. It's also more involved than systems that log keystroke errors or monitor facial expressions to determine stress overload.

Solovey has suggested that her system could be used to help drivers, pilots, and unmanned aerial vehicle controllers — in other words, people sitting fairly still and staring straight ahead for a while. Turn Brainput into a simple wireless hat and I might be sold.

Photo: Erin Treacy Solovey demonstrates the Brainput. Credit: Erin Treacy Solovey, MIT