Engineering Attention

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Iowa Engineer magazine, 2007 Number 1

John Lee has something in common with successful poker players and carpet salesmen: They all know that when people are excited about something, it shows in their dilated eyes. Card players and sales people leverage this information to measure their opponents and customers. As an engineer, however, Lee is more interested in studying dilated eyes and other expressive physiological phenomena to help determine how new technology mediates our relationship with the world.

In particular, the professor of mechanical and industrial engineering and director of the Cognitive Systems Laboratory (CSL) explores the intersection of technology and human behavior in the context of vehicle design. Does using “hands-free” phones really distract drivers less than using hand-held phones? How can engineers design warning systems to effectively alert drivers who fall asleep at the wheel? Once technological systems such as adaptive cruise control and automatic braking systems are incorporated into vehicles, will drivers use them appropriately?

New technologies such as satellite radio, DVD players, and global positioning systems enhance the driving experience, but they also can distract drivers and undermine safety. Safety also can be compromised by inappropriate use of technologies designed to help drivers recognize and avoid danger, including automatic braking systems that can avoid spinouts on ice and adaptive cruise control that can sense obstacles ahead and adjust vehicle speed accordingly.

“Good driving means more than just automatic braking and steering,” Lee says. “It also requires a driver to manage and use these new technologies appropriately.”

For instance, when carmakers began outfitting new cars with automatic braking systems about ten years ago, many drivers continued to pump their brakes when in an icy skid—just as their driver’s ed teachers had taught them. But to be effective, the new technology required that the driver do just the opposite and press down firmly and steadily on the brakes. With old driving behaviors so ingrained in most drivers, braking hard in an icy skid had become almost counterintuitive.

“In the Cognitive Systems Lab, we are looking at two basic kinds of questions,” Lee says. “First, how can engineers design less distracting driving technology, and, second, how can we design technology to monitor drivers, identify distractions, and help mitigate those distractions?”

The process of monitoring might include trying to determine when a driver becomes interested or excited about something, a cognitive phenomenon whose physiological manifestations—dilated eyes, for instance—may indicate distraction from the driving task at hand. To help determine when and how a driver gets distracted, Lee and his staff use instrumented vehicles on the road to monitor where drivers look as they drive and to scan their eyes to see when they dilate. In related research, Joshua Hoffman, one of five graduate students in Lee’s lab, is applying thermal imaging to measure blood flow to the face—another potential indicator of a driver’s cognitive state.

In addition to using several instrumented vehicles, Lee and his team also conduct their research on any of Iowa’s five driving simulators—one in the Engineering Research Facility, three housed at the National Advanced Driving Simulator, and one in the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics. They gather data, feed it to algorithms, then develop cognitive models about driver distraction that can arise from many sources, including technology.

“Of course, we will never eliminate all distractions,” Lee says. “After all, for many drivers, that would mean eliminating the children in the back seat. But we can identify ways to mitigate those distractions and enhance driving safety.”
Lee notes that future research may focus on human control of unmanned vehicles, including farm tractors and harvesters. He also envisions a time when his cognitive systems team could collaborate with other CCAD researchers to provide a cognitive side to the virtual soldier, Santos™.

“Avatars like Santos™ could provide the physical component to better understand cognitive abilities like memory and learning,” Lee says.
In the meantime, Lee will continue to study real humans in instrumented vehicles and simulated settings—work that doesn’t merely light up his eyes, but dilates them too.