Two UC experts receive $849,000 in funding

04 November 2014

Two University of Canterbury experts have received $849,000 of Marsden funding over three years to develop better wearable computer systems.

Two University of Canterbury experts have received $849,000 of Marsden funding over three years to develop better wearable computer systems.

The university’s HIT Lab NZ director Professor Mark Billinghurst and psychology Professor Deak Helton have been working together since early 2014 researching how models of human cognition can be adapted for wearable computer interface design.

Researchers from the University of Canterbury received a total of $4.43 million in funding over three years in the latest Marsden round announced today. Other Canterbury experts to be funded, apart from Professors Billinghurst and Helton, were Professor Matthew Turnbull, Dr Catherine Theys, Dr Oliver Marsh, Associate Professor Jenni Adams, Professor Paul Kruger and Professor Emily Parker.

Professor Billinghurst says, when a person uses a desktop computer their main focus in on interacting with the system. However, wearable computers, like Google Glass, aim to enhance the user’s actions in the real world, so the user has to split their attention between the wearable display and their surroundings. Until now there has been very little research conducted on how to use models of human attention to create wearable interfaces that don’t distract the user. 

The University of Canterbury team aims to use cognitive psychology techniques to model the user and the wearable computer as a single system. This model can then be used to reduce the demand on the brain’s working memory while the user performs activities such as walking while searching through icons on the display. The overall outcome will be wearable applications that can be used without distracting the user from real world tasks.

They already have two postgraduate students experimenting on wearable computers by viewing information on the wearable display while engaged in activities such as rock climbing. The Marsden grant will enable them to significantly increase their efforts and recruit more students and postdoctoral researchers, Professor Billinghurst says.

"Deak and I have been researching areas such as wearable interfaces and cognitive load measurements throughout our careers. We now want to develop a theoretical model based on human attention and cognition that can be used both to predict user performance with wearable systems and to design better wearable interfaces.  

"We can use models of human attention to know when the wearable computer should be showing potentially distracting information, or use the wearable computer to enhance limited cognitive abilities, such as long term memory and information recall.

"We believe a hybrid model of cognition can be developed combining the advantages of wearables  - sensors, data storage and memory - with human processing to enable a better wearable interface design.

"This is an exciting project that joins psychology and engineering and it will be the first time that the combination of human and wearable computer is modelled as a single system from a cognitive processes perspective. 

"It will also provide some unique methods for experimentally measuring cognitive load and performance with wearable computer systems. Overall, the research will deepen the understanding of human processing and cognition when supported by wearable technology.

"There are a number of challenges that will need to be addressed by the research. One of the most difficult will be how to measure people’s cognitive load while engaged in real work tasks. The researchers will use a new technique called functional near infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) which uses light absorption by brain tissue to measure mental workload.

"This will be the first time that fNIRS has been used to measure cognitive load with wearable systems, so the research should provide significant outputs for the cognitive science and computer interface research communities. 

"We’re excited to be given the chance to do innovative research that should create a significant impact in the important emerging area of wearable devices, and we’re very grateful to the Marsden Fund Council for their support.,’’ Professor Billinghurst says.

For further information please contact:
Kip Brook
Media Consultant
Student Services and Communications 
University of Canterbury
Ph: (03) 364 3325
Mobile: 027 5030 168

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