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MIT Better World

By Stephanie M. McPherson

Chat notifications turn off. Pings from the never-ending news cycle are silenced. Your mind is gently nudged to focus on the one task that demands your full attention.

This is what happens when you slip on AttentivU, a pair of smart glasses designed by Nataliya Kos’myna and Pattie Maes, both of the Fluid Interfaces group within the MIT Media Lab. Supported by a grant from the MIT Integrated Learning Initiative (MITili), the AttentivU project is designed to help students improve their ability to focus on a given task, such as homework.

“These glasses pick up brain wave activity and eye movements that can be used to recognize whether a person is engaged or not,” says Maes, professor of media technology in MIT’s Program in Media Arts and Sciences and head of the Fluid Interfaces group.

The glasses are kitted out with sensors: electroencephalogram (EEG) around the ear to detect brain waves and electrooculography (EOG) on the nose bridge to track eye movement and the rate of blinking. EEG works by detecting the electrical signals in our brains. EOG sensors detect the difference in voltage between the cornea and retina, which changes as the eye moves. The system, which is camera-free and microphone-free to ensure privacy, is calibrated before each use with a series of preprogrammed tasks to account for any individual and day-to-day variations.

“We then start the users on their assignment and look at brain oscillations,” says Kos’myna, an MIT research scientist and project lead on AttentivU. “We interpret the different combinations of oscillations and combine that with data from the EOG to get detailed information about attention.”

These data are fed into an app and processed using machine-learning algorithms, which provides users with real-time information on their state of attention. The system can then provide auditory or haptic feedback to nudge the user back on track when attention wanes or silence social media apps to allow the person to keep going when they are very engaged.

The science of learning

MITili, a division of MIT Open Learning that supports research on the science of learning and learning effectiveness, has funded the AttentivU collaboration since 2020. The system has been in development since 2016, with more than 10 peer-reviewed publications to date. Studies have examined the system’s effectiveness in homework-type situations, classroom-based projects, and in addressing drowsiness while driving.

The glasses are noninvasive and portable, especially when compared to the probes and helmets typical of brain-sensing research, opening neuroscientific research up to new questions that can be studied in situ. The system is already being used to study and help populations with limited speech ability. For example, it is being used by people with advanced amyotrophic lateral sclerosis to communicate their needs to caregivers.

Maes and Kos’myna hope that AttentivU will eventually be commercially available as a short-duration-use tool for boosting focus. “No one should wear the glasses each day, all day. It’s not healthy or even possible to be focused for that long,” says Kos’myna. “Rather, you’d only use them for a while when you need to be focused.”

MITili has been able to sponsor projects like AttentivU thanks in part to support raised through the MIT Campaign for a Better World.

“We really resonate with the theme of that campaign,” says Maes. “Most of what the Media Lab does is develop new technologies that help provide more self-sufficiency to people and communities. It really motivates the students and the faculty to work on something they know will make a difference in someone’s life.”