Imagine moving an object using only your mind. Software company Unique Logic’s Time on Task exercise makes that possible, at least on a computer screen. The game is one of the company’s Play Attention educational line, and is designed to teach people how to sustain their attention in order to complete tasks. It involves getting a forklift operator to transport a stack of crates from the ground onto the back of a truck. Instead of using a remote control to dictate the action, you use your concentration — measured by sensors that detect patterns of brainwave activity — to induce the operator to complete the job.
The inspiration for this attention-training game began with NASA Langley Research Center scientist Alan Pope’s research in the late 1980s on pilots and automated flight systems. Pope wanted to evaluate what degree of automation on flight decks was most beneficial. “Automation tends to free a person up to become bored and disengaged,” he said. “Our purpose was to figure out when automation goes too far, based on brainwave activity.”
Pope had pilots operate flight simulators installed on desktop computers. As they worked the controls, electrodes placed on their scalps gathered electroencephalographic (EEG) measurements derived from electrical currents caused by neurons firing in the brain. The desktop simulator was programmed to react to the readings so that when a pilot was engaged, the degree of automation increased; a less-engaged pilot prompted the simulator to increase manual controls.
At about the same time, Peter Freer was teaching math and science. He found that some kids, no matter the degree of stimulation, had a hard time staying focused. Whenever he would notice a student daydreaming, he’d ask him or her what was going on in class. They could tell him about what the bird was doing outside the window on a tree limb, or point out the cobwebs in the corner of the room, but could only mention a little bit about the day’s lesson.
This led Freer to the conclusion that people, on the whole, didn’t have a lack of attention; rather, their attention was simply diffused or scattered. Then he started reading about Pope’s research and thought that if EEG measurements could help pilots operate at what he calls their “peak attentive state,” then there wasn’t any reason he couldn’t develop similar software to help students learn more effectively. After five years of research and development, he founded Unique Logic and Technology (Fletcher, NC), and released his Play Attention software series.
In the Time on Task forklift game, the forklift driver won’t do his job unless the user is at peak attention. The software gets the student accustomed to how the games work, and then provides games on how to hone a variety of skills, including social interactions, memory, or visual tracking skills. For example, with the memory game, a student has to tap the arrow keys on a keyboard in the same sequence as a series of lights and tones that appear on the screen. But the game only advances when he or she is at a peak attentive state.
In the 20 years since Unique Logic’s founding, Freer has continued to expand upon the ways that EEGs can be used to improve people’s lives. He has since founded Freer Logic, which offers software products — utilizing a variety of algorithms he has developed — that help with monitoring drowsiness, improving workplace and sports performance, and encouraging relaxation.
And the best thing is that you no longer have to wear those electrodeequipped helmets to monitor your EEGs anymore. His patented BodyWave technology uses a compact, armband-like device to do the same job. If you’re using an application in public, no one will know it.
As of 2013, Freer’s companies have grown to employ 38 people, and include customers such as NASA, the nuclear power industry, US Olympic sports teams, and NASCAR.