Students Develop Products to Keep People Healthier and Safer

Posted: June 14, 2010 at 1:03 am, Last Updated: June 11, 2010 at 11:45 am

By Tara Laskowski

Drive more safely when it’s snowing. Sleep better when you keep track of your habits. Graduate students in Mason’s psychology program, Human Factors and Applied Cognition (HFAC), are using the techniques they learn in the classroom to create products to improve people’s health and well-being.

Students and faculty in HFAC conduct research in attention, audition, biological motion, eye movements, imagery, memory and visual perception. They then apply this research to areas such as automation, aviation, driving, robotics and human-computer interaction. In other words, they try to look at the way the design of a device or product affects the way a person uses and interacts with it.

Driving in SLIC Conditions

Student David Kidd describes how the SLIC system works.

Most people know what speed to drive when the weather is sunny and clear, but when rain, snow or loose gravel roads get thrown into the mix, things get more complicated.

That’s why several HFAC graduate students designed the Speed Limit for Inclement Conditions (SLIC) system, an augmented speedometer that could be incorporated into automobile dashboards and activates when road conditions worsen due to bad weather.

“People base their driving speed on their experience, the posted speed limit and traffic flow,” says David Kidd, one of the students who developed the speedometer. “But when things get nasty outside, what are you supposed to base your speed on? Our device helps to provide a more objective speed limit for drivers when conditions are bad.”

This safety technology uses a suite of vehicle-based sensors to determine when poor roadway conditions necessitate that drivers adopt a speed below the posted speed limit. The SLIC device was one of three North American finalists at a design competition sponsored by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration at the 21st International Technical Conference on the Enhanced Safety of Vehicles.

The students — Kidd, David Cades, Jane Barrow, Erik Nelson and Dan Roberts, along with faculty advisor Christopher Monk — concentrated on the device’s design, which they tested to make sure was as user-friendly as possible.

“We needed a simple design that wouldn’t overwhelm people,” says Cades. “There are so many bells and whistles in cars that our design needed to be minimal but effective.”

The students submitted their idea for the SLIC to Mason’s Intellectual Property Office, and the office filed a patent application on their behalf.

A Reason Not to Turn Your Cell Phone Off at Night

Daniel Gartenberg developed the Proactive Sleep Alarm Clock. Photo by Nicolas Tan

But beyond keeping people safe on the road, Mason students are also looking at ways to keep people happier and healthier. Daniel Gartenberg recently developed a smart phone application called the Proactive Sleep Alarm Clock that helps you track the ZZZs you do get and develop a healthier and more productive sleep pattern.

The alarm clock features a settable sleep goal and a sleep diary, which you can use to track the hours you’ve slept or the dreams you’ve had. It also allows you to record personal factors — such as mood, alcohol and medication intake, exercise habits, diet and productivity.

“The behaviors we’ve chosen to include in this application are those most commonly recommended by sleep professionals as the ones you should monitor for healthy and restful sleep,” says Gartenberg. “We’ve already had numerous sleep clinics and sleep professionals express an interest in the application.”

There is also a simple game, inspired by sleep research, called the Vigilance Task that allows you to test how groggy you are upon waking.

“If you play the game as soon as you wake up, you get more points than if it takes you awhile to wake up. Also, the faster you do the task, the faster the target moves on the screen. This makes your score more sensitive so you can see how getting a poor night of sleep may affect your performance.”

The Proactive Sleep Alarm Clock can be downloaded for a small fee for both iPhone and Google Android.

The application has been featured on the CBS “Early Show,” “Discoveries and Breakthroughs inside Science,” and by the National Sleep Foundation, among others. It won the 2009 Schoofs Prize for Creativity, an annual competition at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that rewards innovative and marketable ideas.

Gartenberg believes that developing tools such as these for new technologies is the way to go. “As smart phone technology becomes increasingly ingrained in our everyday lives, we can use these devices as tools for science.”

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