"Just about anyone could benefit from this system, particularly busy people who have too much to remember, older people who are having some additional memory difficulties, and people who work in specialized professions such as ER doctors or firefighters who need a huge amount of specialized information at their fingertips, but can't afford to be distracted by conventional memory aids," Rich DeVaul, a researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston, told United Press International.
"If all goes well, I expect you could see a product based on this idea in the market within a year or two," DeVaul said.
DeVaul and colleagues specialize in creating wearable computers. The key to developing such devices is determining the best possible user interface -- in this case, spectacles embedded with computer screens.
The task was straightforward but not easy. The researchers quickly realized wearable computers that present their data in a distracting manner could prove a hindrance or even a danger to, for example, a wearer driving a vehicle or a soldier engaged in combat. So the MIT team hit on the idea of flashing information at wearers subliminally -- so fast it cannot be perceived consciously.
"The notion of a subliminal user interface started as a joke, but the more I researched it, the more plausible it became. The only question was, could we make it work?" DeVaul said.
The memory glasses use tiny, clip-on computer screens that flash messages visible for only 1/180th of a second. Such data are meant to serve as reminders that jog memory. The glasses are connected to a computer worn in a vest.
"The research prototype we are using has about the same computing power and memory as a modern (personal data assistant), with similar power consumption," DeVaul said.
To test the glasses, the researchers chose volunteers seated at desktop computers. First, the computers displayed 21 name-face pairs that volunteers had two minutes to memorize. Then they had to match names with faces correctly while the memory glasses they wore periodically flashed data at them. The glasses flashed three kinds of messages -- blank screens, the wrong names for faces or the right names.
Volunteers cued with the right names did better by 50 percent or more than others given no cues, according to findings the researchers presented at the Future of Health Technology Summit at MIT in October.
"Memory support is a personal issue for me, since I've spent a lot of my life forgetting things," DeVaul joked.
He discovered even providing incorrect names through subliminal visual cues did not appear to mislead users. It was surprising, but such miscues might have even led to memory improvement. This is important, DeVaul said, because any device could make mistakes occasionally and supply wrong, potentially misleading information.
"That's an unexpected find, and in science, any unexpected find is worth its weight in gold," wearables pioneer Thad Starner, an assistant professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology's college of computing in Atlanta, told UPI.
The researchers theorize the apparent memory boost from misleading cues resulted because although the wrong names were chosen, they originated from the list the volunteers had to memorize. Thus, even incorrect names were associated with a list containing the right ones.
Starner called DeVaul and colleagues' work on memory augmentation "one of the key killer applications for wearable computers in future." He noted subliminal cues also could find use not only with wearable computers, but also on desktops as well, helping users with tools in various programs.
Both Starner and DeVaul noted memory glasses probably will have to deal with the stigma associated with subliminal messages.
"The very notion of it being subliminal may seem sneaky and this certainly raises valid trust questions," DeVaul said. "After all, the only exposure many people have had to subliminal perception is the media controversy and junk science surrounding subliminal advertising in the '70s and '80s, and bogus subliminal self-help tapes."
He added: "As far as we know, we can't make you buy more popcorn or help you stop smoking using subliminal stimuli."
Subliminal cues seem best at alerting or preparing people, not triggering or influencing behavior, and subliminal cues might even be safer than overt, conscious perception, "since we can't distract or confuse you," DeVaul said.
The researchers also hope the glasses can help people suffering from amnesia or prosopagnosia -- a disorder in which one cannot recognize faces.
Charles Choi is UPI's science correspondent in New York. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.