Dec 11 2012

Science – There’s An App For That

A large fraction of the population is walking around with a powerful computer in their pocket or on their hip. Cell phones, and specifically smart phones, are gaining popularity – a Pew poll in February 2012 found that 46% of Americans own smart phones. Smart phones are becoming almost extensions of our personal identities – our digital selves. This offers new possibilities for information gathering that simply did not exist before.  Scientists are just starting to dip their toes into this pool by exploring ways to use smart phone apps to gather useful data.

For example, I recently interviewed Richard Wiseman on my podcast, the SGU, and he discussed his dream research using an iPhone app, Dream:On. The app detect when you are dreaming by monitoring your movements. During REM sleep your body is paralyzed, and the accelerometer in the iPhone can detect this lack of movement. The app will then play a sound chosen by you with the intent on influencing the content of your dream. After the dream is over the app will wake you so you can record your dream in the app. Richard has gathered millions of recorded dreams this way. There are, of course, issues with gathering data in this way. Richard acknowledges that this is just an experiment – a “let’s see what happens” kind of exploratory experiment.  Anything, however, that can allow a scientist to gather millions of data points is intriguing.

Incidentally (this is a bit of a long tangent from my intended topic this morning) – while looking up Richard’s app I accidentally came across the DreamCatcher app. The app is “coming soon” and promises:

This remarkable application is the culmination of 30 years research in oneirology by a team of leading scientists. The iPhone screen allows us to replicate and record your brains electric pulses (dreams). The “movie” of your dream is saved on your iPhone for you to watch later.

Our team of research scientists have been working towards visualising dreams for over 30 years. The team includes scientists from Russia, China and Holland. The delicate nature of this project means we must respect the privacy of our team.

It seems iPhone apps can be used for pseudoscience as well as science. Other than the use of scare quotes around “movie” the website claims that it can record your dreams for later play back. The app apparently “visualizes” your dreams based upon your brain waves. This, of course, is utter nonsense. We are nowhere near able to translate brainwaves into a “movie” of what you are experiencing. The bit about the “delicate nature” of the research requiring privacy for the scientists is also nonsense. This is not the Manhattan project.

I also have to add that the picture shows two leads being attached to a user’s forehead – 2 leads. That would provide very little brain wave information. A typical diagnostic EEG uses 24 leads (placed in precise locations by a trained technician), and even this cannot read your dreams.

But back to my main topic – I came across another intriguing example of using smart phones to record useful scientific information – using the accelerometer to measure earthquakes. Imagine – millions of people spread out throughout an earthquake region, each with a portable device to measure the vibrations from the earthquake and send that data back to a central location for analysis.  This would create detailed real-time data of an earthquake as it was happening, providing a bit of warning perhaps to some, but also allowing scientists to quickly determine which areas are hardest hit.

Scientists at the Berkeley Seismic Laboratory (who don’t need to be anonymous) are developing such an app.  It is still in development, but they claim at present they can detect earthquakes of magnitude 5.0 or greater. Improved accelerometers in future smart phone will allow for more sensitive detection, however.

One big challenge for the app was developing algorithms that can detect normal human activity, the background noise of movement, and filter that out. They apparently have working algorithms that can do this. They plan on giving the test app to thousands of people in the San Francisco area next year.

I suspect that the floodgates of these kinds of apps are about to open as scientists begin to ask themselves how smart phone apps can be used to gather lots of data in real time.

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