College of Science, Engineering & Technology

Man meets machine…machine reads man!

Unisa’s School of Computing (SoC) has proven once again that it is at the cutting edge of technology and research by acquiring equipment that measures a wide range of physiological indicators.

Psychophysiology is an area of psychology that measures an individual’s bodily responses to reveal something about their mental state and behaviour. By measuring markers such as brainwaves, galvanic skin response, skin temperature, reaction times, and blood pressure, we can gain insight into a subject’s psychological state. The data collected in this way is not only useful to researchers, but will also help to unlock and possibly circumvent any potential barriers and distractions facing learners who are preparing for or writing exams, for instance.

According to Prof Mac van der Merwe, the plan is to position SoC’s Human-Computer Interface (HCI) laboratory as an epicentre of innovation. One particularly interesting application is to pair psychophysiological data with eye-tracking data. “User experience (UX) researchers are always looking to collect objective data, and eye tracking provides objective data based on participant behaviour. Eye-tracking measurements allow us to gain deeper insight into how users perform usability tasks. For example, are they having a hard time using the navigation menu of a website, or are they engaged with the content of a particular page?”

Students who merely scan online text often miss important information. The question is: Are they unmotivated or just bored? Is something wrong with the way the information is structured? Will it help if we add more colour? Should we change the font size, or the line length? Van der Merwe’s primary goal is to see Unisa become the first university to innovatively combine and apply eye tracking and psychophysiology to e-learning, to resolve these and other issues. The data collected in this way will provide more usability information than ever before.

Van der Merwe explained that even the very young can benefit from this technology: “Taking the eye-tracking measurements of a child reading a mathematics test paper will tell us which part of the paper or question she is fixating on (for instance, a question may be poorly constructed or too difficult to comprehend), but it does not tell us if the child is experiencing stress while reading the question. This combination of measurements not only allows us to mimic and determine real-world experiences, but also to break through the subject’s cognitive bias where, for example, they state that something was easy when they really struggled.”

A more advanced application is in the area of physiological computing. Imagine if you could transform bioelectrical signals from your nervous system into real-time computer input, to enhance and enrich your interactive experience. The computer would automatically change the difficulty level of a computer game, based on input received without you even being aware of it!

Technology is advancing so rapidly, Van der Merwe warned, we should not be surprised if the laptops of the not-too-distant future use a built-in camera to track our eye movement, or if the keyboard, joystick, or mouse records our blood pressure or the amount of perspiration we leave behind when we interact with these devices. “It is thus imperative that the current knowledge base is expanded,” he emphasised.

Van der Merwe urged postgraduate students doing related research or projects to get involved by making use of the available instruments. Any Unisa departments interested in collaborative research, or wishing to make use of the equipment and facilities, are just as welcome to contact the HCI.

A section of the laboratory has since been set aside for research focusing on the applications of 3D scanning and printing, which opens up a whole new and exciting world of possibilities.

*By Percy Mthombeni

This article first appeared in the 2017 Issue 1 of YOUNISA.

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