- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 10, 2003

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — When Richard W. DeVaul sits down at his computer, he sometimes forgets to eat for hours at a time. Names slip his mind at cocktail parties and, to his embarrassment, he mixes up the faces of people he knows well.

A string on the finger might have been a solution in the past, but the Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate student is testing a more modern lifeline for people who fumble for names, leave the stove on, or forget to call Mom on her birthday.

Mr. DeVaul’s “memory glasses” are a tiny computer display clipped onto eyeglass frames and wired to a lightweight computer that can flash reminders to the wearer, without, he hopes, distraction or interference with day-to-day activities.

“The things that I want help with are, in a sense, very simple,” Mr. DeVaul said. “Basic things. If I’ve been sitting in front of my computer for six hours, and haven’t gotten up to eat, a little thing would remind me, ‘Rich, go take a break.’”

Chandra Narayanaswami, manager of the wearable computing group at IBM Corp.’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center and the organizer of a recent conference where Mr. DeVaul presented his work, considers the memory glasses intriguing, if unproven.

“It’s not some intrusive mechanism like an alarm going off,” he said. “It looks like a promising idea. Of course, more testing would have to be done.”

The glasses are part of a computer system developed by researchers in MIT’s “Borglab” who are tackling “wearable computing”: devices worn in clothes and engineered to solve day-to-day problems.

The computer project — nicknamed MIThril, a reference to the light armor Frodo Baggins wears in “Lord of the Rings” — is actually three computers wired together inside a vest that resembles fake fleece clothing available in stores.

A smaller version of MIThril is powered by an off-the-shelf, handheld computer made by Sharp, but that version can’t support the head display. Both versions run on Linux, the open-source operating system.

The tiny head-mounted display, which juts out from the side of the eyeglass frames, is wired into a video board that Mr. DeVaul has built.

Mr. DeVaul, 32, hopes to program the wearable computer to cue the user with subliminal messages or images that would flash on the screen. The prompts would be too quick for the wearer to notice, but the brain would still recognize them and respond.

The systems would be “context aware,” using a Global Positioning System receiver and sensors to know where users are, and cueing them only when information is needed.

The computer could be programmed, for example, to remind the wearer of topics to discuss when he bumps into someone with whom he has unfinished business. Or to remind a doctor of medical procedures at the operating table. Or flash a list of desired movies upon entering a video store.

Subliminal messages would be safer than overt, pop-up messages, because the latter could distract someone in the middle of, say, crossing the street or driving a car, Mr. DeVaul said.

Mr. DeVaul conducted a study with 28 persons in which he says subliminal cueing substantially increased the ability to recall names associated with faces. His peer-reviewed findings were presented last month at the International Symposium on Wearable Computers in White Plains, N.Y., which Mr. Narayanaswami helped organize.

The memory glasses are largely hypothetical at this point. The technology depends on MIThril’s becoming practical to wear outside the lab, creating software that would cue the user at the right time with the right information, and establishing that subliminal cueing actually works.

Daniel L. Schacter, chairman of Harvard’s psychology department and author of “The Seven Sins of Memory,” said he’s intrigued by the idea of the memory glasses. But he added that he knows of no scientific evidence showing that subliminal cueing works.

“I’d have to be convinced on the subliminal aspect of it,” he said. “I’d consider trying it out. I’d have to see how disruptive it was, how reliable it was, what advantages it would have over standard methods of reminding.”

Mr. Schacter is right to be skeptical, Mr. DeVaul said. But Mr. DeVaul is confident in his research and notes that subliminal cueing differs from subliminal advertising, which exhorts viewers to do something they would not ordinarily do. Cueing only works as a reminder of something already known, Mr. DeVaul said.

Though the memory glasses are still only in lab tests, Mr. DeVaul has set up a company, AWare, to begin commercializing the technology, perhaps within a year. He estimates that adding the clip-on monitor and software eventually would increase the cost of an off-the-shelf digital assistant by no more than $50 or $100.

The biggest test may have nothing to do with the technology. Mr. DeVaul once wore the head display when he flew to a conference. Someone at the Rochester, N.Y., airport called police, who summoned a SWAT team.

He jokes about the incident, and predicts that people eventually will come to accept such video technology as they have cellphone headsets.

“It used to be if you saw someone walking down the street talking to themselves, you’d think they were crazy,” he said, referring to the headsets.


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