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RESEND: Canterbury University gets funding to develop user-friendly wearable computers

Two University of Canterbury researchers have received $870,000 in Marsden funding over three years to research how engineering and psychology could combine to make wearable computer systems easier to use.

HIT Lab NZ director Professor Mark Billinghurst and psychology Professor Deak Helton have been working since early this year on using cognitive psychology techniques to model the user and the wearable computer as a single system.

Until now there has been little research on how wearable applications can be used without distracting the user from the real world. Billinghurst cites the example of someone texting while walking who then falls into a hole in front of them on the footpath because they were distracted. Their research aims to produce an interface which has sensors, data storage and memory where the wearable computer would tell the user the hole was in front of them and how to avoid it while they were still texting.

One of the most difficult challenges of the research will be how to measure people's cognitive load while engaged in a real world task. The researchers will use a new technique - functional near infrared spectroscopy, which uses light absorption by brain tissue to measure mental workload.

"This will be the first time that FNIRS has been used to measure cognitive load with wearable systems, so the research should provide significant outputs for the cognitive science and computer interface research communities," Billinghurst said.

They already have two postgraduate students experimenting on wearable computers by viewing information on the wearable display while engaged in activities like rock climbing and the Marsden grant will enable them to recruit more students and postdoctoral researchers.

Billinghurst has already had some funding from Google and spent five months at its American headquarters to work on the Google Glass wearable computer. He says the current research is aimed at producing an interface that could work on all wearable computers rather than just one model though they may seek a commercial partner to take any prototypes to market towards the end of the three-year funding.

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