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.

A new pair of smart glasses uses a technique invented at NASA to measure users’ brainwaves and tell them how well they’re paying attention. The technique is based on neurofeedback — detecting brainwaves and showing users a readout of their own brain activity. With practice, they can then learn to control it.

In the 1990s, a scientist working on pilot training at NASA’s Langley Research Center came up with a way to translate brainwave output to characterize attention levels. More and more of a pilot’s job was being done by automated programs and researchers were becoming concerned that pilots, being less engaged, would have trouble maintaining focus. Langley researcher Alan Pope invented an engagement index that generated a number from one through six to indicate the level of engagement. Subjects who were shown their engagement level while performing a task were able to learn to control their concentration and outperformed control groups while reporting a lower perceived workload.

Concerned that increasing automation in the cockpit would cause pilots to lose focus, researchers at Langley Research Center came up with a way to measure focus and train them to maintain attention. (Credit: NASA)

Clinical psychologist Domenic Greco worked with biofeedback therapy since the early 1980s. Around 2000, he and his son Devon exclusively licensed aspects of NASA’s system, including the engagement index, and founded CyberLearning Technologies, which uses video games to help users improve control over their concentration. The SMART BrainGames system, released in 2003, made it harder to control the play as the user’s attention wandered.

In 2013, the team applied the same neurofeedback technology to smart glasses that users could wear while performing any task. The glasses would darken as the user became distracted, providing a realtime incentive to stay focused. Devon Greco started Narbis (Ambler, PA) to work on the smart glasses.

While several companies have tried different twists on neurofeedback, Pope said this one is different because “there’s an incentive involved — you’re motivated to make the lenses clear, so it uses reinforcement.” Greco clarified that the glasses never go dark enough to interrupt activity but just enough to alert the user of distraction. Students can use the glasses while studying or doing school-work, helping them stay focused on the task and training them to control their attention.

The first prototypes went out to clinics in 2014 and iterations of the glasses have been in testing ever since.

The final product became available for preorder in late 2019 and started shipping in August 2020. It includes the glasses, three sensors that fit on the head, a Bluetooth amplifier, and a tablet that runs the software. The Narbis system uses NASA’s engagement index and the accompanying algorithms as well as the dynamic thresholding of the original technology — that is, the way the level of difficulty varies with the user’s performance.

Similar technology has drawn interest from professional athletes and musicians to enhance performance. Members of the Italian soccer team that won the World Cup in 2006 credited their win to neurofeedback and other biofeedback training. But the core customer base will be home users who struggle with attention disorders or just want to improve their concentration. More than 10 million children in the United States have been diagnosed with forms of attention deficit disorder, with a fifth of their parents looking for solutions other than medication.

Go to NASA.gov  to learn more about this application, and read about other NASA Spinoffs.


Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the February, 2021 issue of Tech Briefs Magazine.

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