MAY 30, 2018 6:20 AM PDT

Racing To Improve Focus

There's a lot of buzz about video games and children. Concerns range from the violence to the flashing screens and focus and attentional issues that can result from long-term play. Addiction is a concern too, so much so that the World Health Organization is proposing that Internet Gaming Disorder should be recognized as a global health concern.

Nintendo's Mario Kart is a staple in the video game world. It was released 26 years ago, which in gaming is practically prehistoric, but it remains popular. Mario and friends race around in go-karts, and the object is to accumulate points by hitting or not hitting objects. While it's fast-paced, some engineering students at Villanova are using the game as a way to help children with ADHD slow down and focus better.

Four engineering students—Nathan Cheong, Dan Tagliaferro, Stephanie Jones and Scott Miller— used the game as part of a senior project on focus and brainwaves. Brainwaves will vary from when a person is at rest to when they are performing specific tasks. Working with faculty advisor Jupina, Ph.D. who is an assistant professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Villanova, the students designed a system to measure brainwaves during games of Mario Kart. They took these measurements and integrated them into the game to increase focus. Primarily when the system detects intense focus, their Kart can speed up. If attention or focus wanders, the Kart slows down.

Players in the game are required to wear a pair of glasses made by a company called Narbis. Narbis engineers and sells a variety of "smart glasses" that the makers say will improve focus. In the Villanova project, the students wore neurofeedback glasses which have sensors that pick up and track electrical activity in the brain. The glasses are connected to a device called the "Makey Makey" which is an invention kit that can turn almost anything into a touchpad that can be connected to the Internet. The brain signals are then sent to a small computer, a Raspberry Pi that runs in the background of the game. Software designed by the team makes the Karts slow down when the signals from the Raspberry Pi indicated that focus is waning and speed up with concentration improves.

The maker gadgets the students came up with don't end there. Using a 3D printer, the students created a box to hold the Raspberry Pi and installed a light display so the players and the researchers could see fluctuations in focus. The fall 2017 semester was spent designing the system and getting it complete enough to demonstrate. They hope to improve it by adding PlayStation controllers and updating the software to allow for multiple players. Currently, the system works with a keyboard, but most gamers use a controller for more natural play. The goal is to have the system available for therapists and educators who work with children. Being able to monitor concentration in real time would be a boon to those working with children who have ADHD and other problems with focus. Check out the video below to hear from the Villanova students about their project.

Sources: Villanova College of Engineering, Mashable, Narbis

About the Author
  • I'm a writer living in the Boston area. My interests include cancer research, cardiology and neuroscience. I want to be part of using the Internet and social media to educate professionals and patients in a collaborative environment.
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