Gauging Alertness – There’s an App for That

Capture.PNGSome of my best work is done when I am alert. No, really – early mornings are my most productive time, when I am fresh from a full night’s sleep. No doubt, the large cup of coffee helps. But when I am alert, I can plow through tasks, no matter how mundane, and feel fully engaged with the project.

But then, afternoon hits. About 2:00 pm, I start to feel my attention wander and my productivity decline. Sure, I could grab some sugar or caffeine, but those measures bring along with them some undesirable side effects.

What if I could be “alerted” to this gradual decline in focus, so that I could identify my patterns (other than recognizing that 2:00 is a tough time for me) and proactively schedule my work in ways that maximize my focus and efficiencies? Traditional alertness devices and measuring methods are fairly cumbersome, obtrusive and time-consuming – what if I could employ tracking in a way that is unobtrusive and passive and part of my regular regime?

Vincent W.-S. Tseng, Saeed Abdullah, Jean Costa, Tanzeem Choudhury, researchers at Cornell University, think they may have found a “healthier” answer to this potential problem. A smartphone app, appropriately named “AlertnessScanner”, Android only, can measure your alertness by taking photographic bursts using the front facing camera of your pupils when you look at your smartphone. In this manner, alertness can be measured continuously and in a way that does not meaningfully interfere with your regularly scheduled activities.

Why look at the eyes? The Cornell researchers note that the pupils of alert people are more dilated to increase information intake, compliments of the sympathetic nervous system. Conversely, when people are drowsy, the parasympathetic nervous system causes pupils to contract. The app, developed for research purposes only at this point, measures pupil dilation through its imaging and analysis tools. Images are taken upon sleep/unlock or at a user’s prompting. The app analysis employs a “pupil to iris” ratio in order to account for different focal distance each time a person looks at their phone. The app also allows the user to view the images and confirm the image is of sufficient quality before saving. The app also offers a “sleep journal” to record passive data on duration of the previous night’s sleep.

When you can track your alertness on the go, you can implement breaks or schedule work according to difficulty or focus-needs. I can see this being really important for some jobs – surgeons and heavy machine operators come to mind. But even lawyers can benefit from knowing when to schedule the drafting of a Supreme Court brief and when to schedule reviewing the news alerts.

While the results of the study look promising, the app is not yet in development. The researchers did identify some potential shortcomings, such as issues with controlling ambient light and the necessary resolution for the front facing camera to record usable results. However, early experimentation looks promising. The idea of better body analytics is a popular one right now – perhaps the next iteration of the Apple Watch can incorporate pupil dilation along with other metrics to zap you when you need it most.



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