Make the shrooms go boom with your destruct-o-vision! Also, improve your attention!
“What I was doing before wasn’t nearly as cool,” says Jeff Coleman, CEO of BrainLeap Technologies, the company he co-founded with his wife, UCSD researcher Leanne Chukoskie and her colleague, UCSD professor Jeanne Townsend. “This is something that is going to change the trajectory of millions of kids’ lives.” “This” is The Attention Arcade, a suite of video games designed to help kids pay attention.
When I think of video games, I think of my boys shooting at things onscreen as chaos surrounds them: maps, charts, inventories, terrain — and oh yes, people shooting back at them. The panoply of sight and sound dizzies me. But they have no trouble processing the flood of visual data, even as they carry on conversations with friends. So BrainLeap’s model makes a certain amount of intuitive sense to me, even as I instinctively push back against another opportunity for screen time. “Some of those first-person shooter games actually benefit attention,” affirms Coleman. “But while those games are designed to entertain, ours are designed to train. The eye tracker makes a world of difference.”
The tobii eye-tracker that makes everything possible.
The eye tracker, a narrow bar that sits below your computer screen and does just what it says in the title, is what made The Attention Arcade possible. “Eye movement is tied to attention,” explains Coleman. “We’re leveraging that, strengthening the connections between the different parts of the brain that you need to attend to things better” — parts involving, say, self-control, working memory, and cognitive flexibility. “We’ve likened it to doing a cartwheel. Once you ‘get’ how to do it, it’s not a lot of effort, because your body is working and moving all together.” Train someone to control and direct their eye movements, and you train them to control and direct their attention. “Some of the kids in the initial study were of driving age, and afterwards, they said they could ‘see better’ when they were driving. It’s not that their vision was better, it’s that they were able to attend to more things.” In a more academic setting, that might mean being able to keep the mathematical order of operations in mind even as you focus on a particular problem.
The Arcade trains eye movements by using the eye tracker to turn your gaze into your game controller. “One child said it was like having superpowers,” says Coleman, and it’s not hard to see why. Consider Shroomdigger. All you have to do is spot the mushrooms scattered about a crowded landscape and stare at them steadily. As you stare, they shrink and eventually disappear. Focus improves. Distractibility decreases. And you’re making things disappear with just your eyes. (Of course, it’s not quite a superpower; for one thing, you have to train. “At the outset, kids may get tired in 10 minutes,” notes Coleman.)
“The initial research was funded by the National Institutes of Health,” concludes Coleman. “Fully 23 of the 23 kids who finished the study saw benefits. That’s very unusual in a human study, and that’s what motivated my co-founders.”