Drowsiness Detector Could Keep You Safely Between the White Lines

David Pogue
Yahoo Tech
January 21, 2014

Crowdsourcing sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo let inventors appeal directly to the public for funds. They’ve made a lot of entrepreneurial dreams come true.

If you’re inspired by the inventor’s pitch video, you send some money. It’s not an investment; you’re not rewarded if the invention becomes a hit. But you do get some memento — a T-shirt or a discounted version of the invention once it’s manufactured — and the rosy glow of knowing that you helped bring a cool idea to life.

Until now, there’s been only one problem: You had no way to know if the invention was actually any good. You had to trust the inventor’s video.

That’s the beauty of our Kickstarter reviews. We actually test the prototype, find out how much promise it has and help you decide if the thing is worth funding or buying.

Today’s invention: Vigo, a Bluetooth earpiece that detects when you’re getting drowsy and sounds an alarm to wake you.

The claim: The earpiece’s arm is just long enough that an infrared sensor on its tip can “see” your eyes. By measuring your blinking rate, the duration of your blinks, and the ratio of the time your eyes are open and closed, the Vigo can detect when you’re starting to drift off. An accelerometer (tilt sensor) enhances that data with information about the nodding of your head.

If the Vigo decides that you’re getting sleeeeeeepy, it alerts you — by playing an alarm, playing a song from your phone and blinking a light at its tip.

The goal is to wake people who fall asleep while driving, of course, but there are many other categories of people who might benefit: security guards, narcoleptics, employees in boring meetings, students in class and so on.

Price: $80.

Goal: This Kickstarter project seeks $50,000 in backing. With just under two weeks to go before its deadline, it’s raised $41,000, so it’s looking good.

(Fun fact: The Vigo began as a senior project at Penn by the current team. Originally, it was a pair of glasses, not a Bluetooth earpiece.)

(Another fun fact: The original name was Invigo. Then one of the team members Googled that name — and discovered that it was taken. By a “natural male sexual stimulant.” Oh, well.)

Status: The creators — three recent Penn graduates — spent four months at a “hardware accelerator” program in Shenzhen, China, the electronics-manufacturing capital of the world. The Vigo hardware itself — now in prototypes whose bodies were created with a 3-D printer — is in its final shape and size.

But all the software isn’t cooked yet. The hard part is, at least: The device can transmit data to a mobile device, and using test software I could see a real-time graph of my blinking and head-tipping. It looked something like the spikes on a lie-detector graph, communicated wirelessly from the earpiece.

You’ll never see this software. What you will see is a slick phone app that isn’t quite ready. The team has finished designing the look of this app but hasn’t yet hooked it up to the blink-detecting/tip-detecting graphing module. In other words, the brains and the beauty have yet to meet.

 What I tested: I met with inventor Jason Gui, who showed me all three of the latest prototypes. They’re delicate and still on the road to refinement, but they do work.

I wasn’t able to try the Vigo in actual real-world driving conditions, though. (Even if I’d been able to take one with me for a couple of weeks, I’m not sure how I’d have tested it on the road without risking my life!)

What I learned: My first thought was that a drowsiness detector has a somewhat limited appeal. Who’d really spend $80 for a gadget — who’d really wear a gadget — just to detect sleepiness?

In truth, though, the market exists. I’ve gotten sleepy behind the wheel. A certain unnamed member of my family has drifted off many times. According to drowsydriving.org, 60 percent of adult drivers say that they’ve driven while drowsy in the past year; 37 percent actually admit to having fallen asleep at the wheel. 11 million of them say they’ve crashed as a result.

Some people might be required to wear a Vigo-like device: truckers, cab drivers and train operators. Normal drivers, however, might not bother — if it weren’t for the fact that the Vigo is also a traditional Bluetooth earpiece that lets you make phone calls hands-free (I didn’t test that aspect of it). That feature improves the odds that drivers really will wear the thing whenever they drive.

Vigo’s core team of 23-year-olds isn’t the only group trying to solve the drowsy-driving problem. VolvoLexus and Mercedes offer optional systems that use cameras, steering monitors and other technologies. Various over-the-ear gadgets contain an accelerometer to detect your head nodding; so does an upcoming app for Google Glass called DriveSafe.

But built-in car systems can cost thousands of dollars, and gadgets that simply beep when your head tips generate a lot of frustrating false alarms, since there are many reasons why you might glance down even when you’re not drowsy. Worse, once you’re actually nodding, it’s too late: You’re already out of control of your car.

The Vigo’s promise is that its blink detection is far more accurate a predictor, and it can detect sleepiness far earlier than nodding detectors. (The only better system, Gui said, is EEG, which measures your brain waves in real time. Neither the car companies nor the Vigo team think, however, that drivers will be willing to wear a mesh cap full of EEG sensors each time they get into the car.)

The Vigo team has big plans for its technology. The guts fit on a tiny circuit board the size of your thumbnail, so it could be adapted to all kinds of things. Maybe Vigo could be built into glasses or available as a snap-on for existing glasses.

Someday, you might not need any hardware at all. Jason pointed out to me that there’s actually a tiny camera on the inner surface of Google Glass — pointing at your eye (circled below). Right now, all it does is permit you to take a photo by winking (as though Google Glass needs even more ways to make you seem creepy). But if there’s a camera pointed right at your eye, well, maybe someday Vigo’s software could be built right in.

The bottom line: I’m a believer in the team, the gadget and its cause.

I saw firsthand that the Vigo technology really works; I have no doubts that the final step — getting the detection software hooked up to the attractive phone app — will go well. (I’m not sure if it’s doable by summer, as the team hopes, though.)

The Vigo earpiece is obviously just a start. But the technology is sound, the prototype works and $80 is a good price. The team already has a network of contacts in Shenzhen, China, who can help them get the thing manufactured, so the prospects are bright.

I say: Fund this.

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