Most sleepy college students faced with yet another marathon cram session either down a latte or chug a Red Bull. But a once-tired team of University of Pennsylvania School of Engineering graduates accustomed to pulling all-nighters are fighting fatigue in a more technological way.
Drew Karabinos, Jason Gui and Jonathan Kern developed Vigo, a self-described "personal energy gauge" that monitors the body for drowsiness and sends weary wearers "wake-up" alerts.
The device, a Bluetooth headset worn on the ear that reaches out to the corner of your eye, can be programmed through an accompanying Android app to alert drowsy users with an LED "warning light," a vibration in the ear or a customized "pump up" song.
The idea: Sometimes your brain can trick you into thinking you're awake when you're not, according to Gui. By measuring minute physical changes, Vigo can let you know when your body is starting to show signs of sleepiness before your mind even realizes it.
"There's a state called microsleep where we feel we're awake but we're really not," Gui said. "Say you're driving. Your hands on are on the steering wheel and you're still steering that car but your mind shuts down for a second or two. It can be very dangerous because that's when your reflexes are almost gone. You can't react fast enough. What we pick up are signs of microsleep. It's a way to let you know you're not in the best state now, that, 'hey, you shouldn't be driving or working and maybe should take a nap.'"
The group first came up with the idea a little over a year ago working on their senior engineering project.
"Engineering lectures are not usually most the exciting things, so we all experienced dozing off in class a lot," Gui said. "That was when we decided, 'oh, why don't we come up with something to help us stay in the zone while in class and study better?'"
Nine months later, the trio had their first functional prototype, equipped with an infrared sensor, accelerometer and gyroscope to track tiny ticks in the body.
"It picks up signs of drowsiness your eyes are showing off," Gui said. "An example of that would be looking at your blinks. Your eye changes when you're drowsy can include a change in blink rate, a change in blink duration or a change in the closing time to opening time ratio - things like that."
Vigo tracks more than 20 parameters related to blinks and combines the data with measurements of the user's activity level and head motions to create a sophisticated algorithm that alerts them to their lethargy.
The first Vigo model came in the form of what Gui described as "two huge boxes of animatronic stuff we had attached to a pair of glasses." Despite the awkward aesthetics, Gui, Karabinos and Kern decided to stick with the project through their May 2013 graduation. But, absent the resources provided by Penn, the group quickly realized they'd need some help.
Enter HAXLR8R, a hardware incubator that twice a year selects startups for a 15-week mentorship program teaching them how to turn prototypes into marketable products. Vigo joined the ranks in July, traveling to the tech manufacturing mecca of Shenzhen, China.
After several months in Shenzhen, the Vigo developers emerged with a much sleeker prototype.
The app also tracks and visually plots users' drowsiness patterns.
"It's a way to help understand yourself better and plan the day better," Gui said. "For example, if you wear Vigo for an extended period of time, you can see what are the times of day you tend to get drowsy. Maybe you should be doing a daily meeting in the morning if, every day after lunch, that's when you're kind of dozing off."