|Researchers at the University of Washington have taken a novel tack on the study of mental processes, by creating an extremely low-cost Fibre-optic device designed to enhance fMRI scans of brain processes. It is a combination neurological device and augmented reality device. Or perhaps an augmented reality device designed to augment neurological study would be a better way of putting it.
The pen consists of cheap, and readily available materials, to increase the availability of its use. The hardware basically amounts to a standard biro that has been hollowed out and two optic fibres placed within, two lengths of fibre optic cabling, a clipboard to rest on and sheets of plain paper, plus a light-tight box at the other end of the fibres that records the pens movements based on how the light transmitted up the fibres changes based on angle and movement of the pen across the uniform white of the paper.
The functioning of the box itself is sheer simplicity. Inside it, there are two compartments, sealed off from one another to prevent light spillage. The fibres split with each going into a different section. In one a high intensity LED is coupled into the fibre, whilst in the other a colour sensor is likewise attached. Light from the LED flows down the fibre to the pen tip where it illuminates a tiny point on the page. The other fibre detects the light and transmits it back to the sensor in the box, which analyses the fine colour variations received, which are triggered by the pen's angle to the pad, and distance from it. These are compared to a lookup table of the colours and what they mean, to save processing time and provide near-instant analysis.
The goal was to create a device that opens up the study of brain processes in ways that have never been tried before, that costs less than $100 usd, so as to allow its common use in studies.
It is basically an augmented reality device designed to track and record exactly what the user is doing – tracking their handwriting and sketches in real-time, at the same time as an fMRI scan of their brain is determining what areas of their brain are active. In other words, tying brain activation to activity at a level of detail that has not been possible prior.
Frederick Reitz, one of the three researchers who created the system confirmed that other such writing systems have been attempted in the past, but their cost was prohibitive to their widespread use. The main advantage of this system is it's absolute rock-bottom cheapness without sacrificing accuracy. The system records every aspect of the handwriting, from stroke order to speed, hesitations and liftoffs.
In the study the prototype pen was used for, the researchers were studying children between 11 and 14 years old with either dyslexia or dysgraphia, a handwriting and letter-processing disorder, as well as children without learning disabilities. Subjects looked at printed directions on a screen while their heads were inside the fMRI scanner. The pen and pad were on a foam pad on their laps.
Subjects were given four-minute blocks of reading and writing tasks. Then they were asked to simply think about writing an essay they would write later on. Just thinking about writing caused many of the same brain responses as actual writing would.
“If you picture yourself writing a letter, there’s a part of the brain that lights up as if you’re writing the letter,” said Todd Richards, professor of radiology and principal investigator of the UW Integrated Brain Imaging Center. “When you imagine yourself writing, it’s almost as if you’re actually writing, minus the motion problems.”
36 children were used in the initial study itself, and the data has already thrown some of our understanding of how the brain processes writing tasks for a loop. Further studies are under way, increasing the sample size to confirm the results – all using the same type of fibre-optic pens.
There's no reason the pens would have to be limited to studying children's minds, or just studying dyslexia or dysgraphia either. Any activity involving writing or drawing can be studied in the exact same way, and the complete process from brain area activation and communication to muscle commands and the precise positioning and movement of the pen (or pencil, or brush) on the page is captured ready to analyse.
It is, quite literally, an augmented reality device designed to help reverse engineer the brain.
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