Some say video games are more than just fun—they can improve memory and motor skills. Others argue that they increase aggression. IEEE Member Roozbeh Jafari is among those who believe games can be used to improve people’s lives. He is developing one to enhance the brain and motor functions of injured U.S. military personnel.
Jafari, a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Texas at Dallas, is researching wearable computers and body sensor networks for medical monitoring. As part of his research, he is codesigning a video game to help rehabilitate soldiers with brain injuries, as well as improve reaction times and hand-eye coordination.
The game is a joint effort between the university’s Embedded Systems and Signal Processing Laboratory and its Center for Brain Health. The project began in August as part of a yearlong pilot program funded by the U.S. Defense Department. The program focuses on electroencephalogram (EEG) sensors and haptic devices for assessing human physical and mental performance. A 2008 study by the research and analysis company Rand Corp. estimated that some 20 percent of American troops injured in Iraq and Afghanistan suffer from traumatic brain injuries.
“We developed a system that can measure and enhance human performance,” Jafari says. “The immediate applications are to rehabilitate soldiers suffering from mild traumatic brain injury [like a concussion] or determine the effectiveness of medication they’re taking. But we’re also looking into what is required for soldiers to make decisions and then make them faster. It’s just a hypothesis, but we think we can train people to react more quickly to stimuli like enemy attacks and gunfire.”
Subjects play Jafari’s game by first donning 3-D glasses and caps embedded with sensors that are linked to an EEG machine, which monitors electrical activity in the brain. Next, the participants manipulate a stylus to tap virtual green boxes as fast as possible when they appear on-screen. The stylus is programmed to assign different tactile characteristics to the boxes, such as weight and stickiness. Those sensations, although virtual, cause unexpected effects that can be measured in brain-wave changes.
“Every time a person experiences a surprise or recognition of an object—in this case, a green box suddenly appearing on-screen—the amplitude of brain waves in the frontal cortex jumps slightly, 300 milliseconds later, which the electrodes pick up,” he says.
Jafari and his collaborators are interested in two aspects of that phenomenon. The first is the response time between the brain perceiving the green box and the electrical signal in the brain that commands the subject to tap it. The second is what occurs in the brain when the response times are longer or shorter than normal, something that can occur after a brain injury. The program is studying 25 people with normal brain activity to establish a baseline of normal reaction times.
Jafari’s other research, which began in January as part of a two-year US $360 000 grant from the National Institutes of Health, involves developing a watch-size system for preventing the elderly from falling. The device monitors the upper torso’s natural horizontal sway during walking and vibrates when the sway exceeds enough degrees to throw a person off balance. The vibration alerts patients to their imbalance to train them to walk properly again. It also keeps a record of sway for review by the patient’s doctor.
At the conclusion of each research project, Jafari plans to publish his findings in an IEEE Transactions publication.
Growing up in Iran, Jafari anticipated following some kind of engineering career. “I’ve always been fascinated by engineering and physics,” he says. “Electrical engineering is a good combination of applied physics and math. Embedded medical devices ultimately appealed to me the most because of the technological challenges involved in their design and development and their broader impact on society.”
Embedded devices are trickier to develop than other electronic gadgets because they must be small enough to be wearable. “They’re also highly constrained in computational resources—for example, 128 bytes of RAM versus gigabytes on personal computers—so developing the signal processing for these devices becomes extremely challenging,” Jafari says. “And they require tiny batteries, so power optimization is very important.”
Jafari earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 2000 from Sharif University of Technology, in Tehran. He earned a master’s in electrical engineering from the State University of New York at Buffalo in 2002, as well as a master’s in computer science in 2004 and a Ph.D. in computer science in 2006, both from the University of California at Los Angeles. He spent the next year earning a postdoctoral degree in electrical engineering and computer science from the University of California at Berkeley before landing his academic position in Dallas in 2007.
Jafari imagines far-reaching uses for his research. The gaming device has already attracted inquiries from the professional sports industry, which could use it to enhance athletic performance. He also sees applications in education and for children suffering from attention-deficit disorders.
“Ubiquitous health monitoring can revolutionize the way the health-care industry functions, in both preventive and curative medicine,” he says. “Damage caused by disease and other events can be minimized—even prevented—if detected, diagnosed, and treated early enough.”