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Using brain imaging to measure mental workload: Applications for virtual presence?

Image courtesy of nifty.com
I have been doing some reading today on Functional Near-Infrared Spectroscopy (fNIRS). This is a technique for measuring brain activity that involves shining near-infrared light into the head (usually at the forehead) and measuring the light that emerges. The light paths are affected by the amount of blood flow in the brain, so fNIRS can be used to measure blood flow, and hence, brain activity (since flow patterns are related to activity). Traditionally, this has been during using Function Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI), but fNIRS is cheaper and portable.

I have long been interested in virtual presence, which is the illusion of presence created by artificial devices such as immersive displays. One of the long-standing issues in this area is how you measure this illusion, and the most common methods have used unreliable self-reports. I wonder if fMRI would be useful for measuring the illusion of presence in virtual environments?

Technology Could Enable Computers To ‘Read The Minds’ Of Users

New evaluation techniques that monitor user experiences while working with computers are increasingly necessary,” said Robert Jacob, computer science professor and researcher. “One moment a user may be bored, and the next moment, the same user may be overwhelmed. Measuring mental workload, frustration and distraction is typically limited to qualitatively observing computer users or to administering surveys after completion of a task, potentially missing valuable insight into the users’ changing experiences.” Sergio Fantini, biomedical engineering professor, in conjunction with Jacob’s human-computer interaction (HCI) group, is studying functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS) technology that uses light to monitor brain blood flow as a proxy for workload stress a user may experience when performing an increasingly difficult task.

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