Technology that responds sensitively to people

Matias Vukelich prepares for an EEG measurement and uses a gel to improve the conductivity of the electrodes. Credit: AUDI AG

How does work affect our daily lives and how does it affect our mental and physical health? How do technical solutions change people and how can devices be made more human-centric? A five-person team at the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering IAO is investigating these issues. At NeuroLab, a neuroergonomics laboratory, scientists explore concepts and methods for developing intelligent interfaces between technology and people.

The NeuroLab is a testbed for neuroergonomics questions founded at Fraunhofer IAO seven years ago. From October 2021, Dr. Matthias Vukelich leads the Applied Neurocognitive Systems research group there. Together with his colleagues, the neuroscientist and behavioral scientist combine knowledge and methods from cognitive neuroscience and positive psychology with machine learning to create intelligent and adaptive technologies that promote subjective well-being, including needs and individual skills at work and in everyday life. “Technology should be based on the needs and abilities of the individual; must be based on aid. We always put people at the center of our projects. With this in mind, we are committed to shaping a better future using smart technology. Technology should not be a burden or an inconvenience to people; ideally, it should help them make better decisions and offer them an opportunity for personal development,” says the researcher, explaining the team’s vision. The team’s main research topic is neuroadaptive technologies – adaptive technical systems that detect users’ mental states using neurophysiological sensors (measurement of cerebral and vital parameters), interpret these signals through signal processing and machine learning, and are then able to respond intelligently to detected user states (system behavior adaptations). “We want to improve engineering disciplines by solving technical problems with neuroscientific and psychological expertise.”

Sensitive technology

The first step in this direction is to gain a better understanding of cognitive processes and affective responses in different scenarios. To this end, researchers measure parameters in human-machine interactions, such as the level of stress, attention or even cognitive load of people, in order to be able to infer cognitive processes and emotional experiences from the measured cerebral and physiological responses and thus develop systems , which use the full range of human potential to promote subjective well-being, thereby creating a sustainable workday. “We can measure brain signals using neurophysiological measurement methods such as electroencephalography. These neurophysiological signals provide information about mental stress, performance of attention and concentration, and even emotional responses while using technology or during teaching and learning processes. Using a sophisticated combination of signal processing and advanced machine learning methods, we can extract and interpret this information from the signals – for example, whether a person is currently feeling overwhelmed or whether they are motivated by learning success. Therefore, AI and signal processing are major areas of focus in our research work,” the expert explains.

Currently, experiments involving test subjects are still conducted in a controlled laboratory environment with extensive measurement methods and sensors (see the NeuroLab Facilities and Equipment box). Vukelich and his team are currently developing new experiments that will allow them to leave the low-stimulus environment and establish realistic scenarios.

Promoting professional inclusion with the use of virtual reality

The team is currently involved in the UFO project, which is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). In this project, virtual reality (VR) is used to help autistic people with vocational inclusion. People with autism have difficulty understanding their own feelings, as well as those of others, and deciphering emotions.

Vukelich and his team are working to help people with autism understand emotions in a roundabout way. Heart and brain activity, breathing and other physiological processes occurring in connection with emotions are measured and made perceptible through tactile impulses emitted by a special bracelet. The idea is that people with these special needs can learn the tactile patterns produced by the wrist, thereby allowing them to tap into their own feelings. This can be learned in a virtual space for training and experience, but the technology can also be applied in reality. “The next step is to make it possible to experience the emotions of our fellow humans in this way,” says Vukelic.

Neuroscientific and psychological methods for healthier work environments

The researcher and his team also want to share their new approaches to neuroscience, psychology, data science and machine learning with companies and inform them about how mental health and well-being can be implemented more sustainably through technology. The Sustainable Work and Life event will introduce neuroscientific and psychological methods, personalized digital technology approaches and new forms of data processing to drive change. The event will be held at the Fraunhofer Institute for Industrial Engineering IAO on November 9, 2022.

Carousel of Emotions: Exploring Emotions with Virtual Reality

Courtesy of Fraunhofer-Gesellschaft

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