Spinoff is NASA's annual publication featuring successfully commercialized NASA technology. This commercialization has contributed to the development of products and services in the fields of health and medicine, consumer goods, transportation, public safety, computer technology, and environmental resources.

Steadying an undulating putting green or a wandering computer cursor with your mind alone might sound far-fetched but NASA has had this technology for years. Now, a company is applying these capabilities to virtual reality military training and soon to sports training and more.

NASA has always monitored how its astronauts and pilots react to their environment, whether keeping track of vital signs during a spacewalk or watching for physical signs of stress during training. In the late 1990s, researchers at Langley Research Center, concerned with pilots’ distractibility during flight, came up with a new index for measuring engagement by observing different brainwave outputs. Then they let subjects see their own attention index and try to control it. Subjects who were shown their engagement level, as determined by brainwave output from moment to moment while performing a task, were able to learn to control it, never becoming too stressed or losing focus. They were responding to what's known as a biofeedback loop. The biofeedback-trained subjects outperformed peers on the same tasks weeks later, even in the absence of feedback.

NASA had some unique ideas that could be spun off into inventions based on biofeedback. First came a mechanical putting green that stayed still only when the putter's mind was still. Based on the premise that golfers putt best with a quiet, empty mind, the course physically undulated, with the hole dilating and closing and the sighting laser swinging back and forth until electrodes on the golfer's forehead indicated strong alpha brainwave output, which is associated with an idling mind and meditation. The golfer had to mentally still the course, then putt.

J&F Alliance's virtual reality weapons training uses biofeedback to teach the user to maintain the optimal mental state and breathing pattern. (Image courtesy of the U.S. Army)

A video game was meant to induce a different state of mind. In a configuration developed for the Nintendo Wii, Langley researchers worked out a way to compromise the signal from the remote control until the player's brainwave output indicated alertness and engagement. A camera on the remote used lights from an LED array under the screen as points of reference to orient itself — and thus the cursor — in space. The lights would twinkle on and off in a pattern that caused the cursor to circle whatever target the control was pointed at until the player's neural output showed dominant levels of high-frequency beta waves and suppression of lower-frequency alpha and theta waves. Then the lights and the cursor would stay still, letting the user line up a shot. The group called the video game MindShift and the putting green Zeroing Out Negative Effects (ZONE).

J&F Alliance Group of Hampton, VA, which provides logistics and information technology consulting and services, is breaking into the business of virtual and mixed reality technology for training and other applications. When the company saw Langley's biofeedback technology in late 2016, it seemed like a possible way to enrich its emerging digital reality products. J&F licensed the ZONE and MindShift technologies in 2017 with an intent to commercialize both.

The Department of Defense has put out a call for virtual reality training programs, calling this one of the joint military command's highest priorities. In 2018, J&F focused on developing first-person, shooter-style, virtual reality training based on Langley biofeedback research. The system would incorporate several off-the-shelf components — a virtual reality headset, a brainwave-reading headband, a chest-strap heart rate monitor, and an Airsoft pistol that shoots with a realistic feel. Like MindShift, the system would train the user to enter a state of heightened engagement and calmness by making targets easier to hit in response to higher outputs of beta waves and suppression of lower-frequency brainwaves. It would also favor proper breathing patterns, as established by Navy SEAL guidelines.

The company also plans to repurpose the trainer, which it calls the Biocyber Physical System, or BioPhyS, for use by law enforcement and security firms. And J&F still plans to commercialize the ZONE putting green and pursue other sports training applications. Further possibilities lay in healthcare and education where biofeedback loops have shown success in the past but now can potentially be enhanced with inexpensive virtual reality technologies.

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Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the February, 2020 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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