SYDNEY: A nifty piece of software can now monitor workers and pick up on subtle cues about when they are not coping.
The BrainGauge software, announced by Australian scientists at the CeBIT information and technology conference in Sydney, detects stress levels from vocal tones, and may improve worker retention rates in intense work environments such as air-traffic control, emergency services and call centres.
“When you’re thinking and working, as we add more tasks and load you up, you start running out of ‘working memory’. One of the effects is that your muscle control falters, ever so slightly. We can detect that change in your muscle control from your speech,” said Bruce Whitby, managing director of the BrainGauge group at National Information and Communications Technology Australia (NICTA).
Loading up your working memory
Our ability to multitask is based on our working memory, a temporary scratchpad for the brain that stores information relevant to our current task. Putting our working memory under stress can impair performance on certain tasks – for example, subjects asked to remember a visually presented list of words while simultaneously listening to irrelevant speech over headphones have difficulty recalling the visually presented words.
Using recordings from call centres, emergency services and IT departments, the NICTA group asked experts to classify sections of the recording as low, medium and high-stress.
They then trained the BrainGauge software to identify vocal cues that changed in high-stress situations – some of these easily identifiable to human listeners, such as changes in the rhythm and intonation of a speaker, and some cues that can only be pulled out by sophisticated mathematical modelling.
Math model good proxy for mental load
The NICTA group have found that this is an effective proxy for mental ‘load’. “Worst case, we see an 85% match [between BrainGauge and] the appraisal of the expert,” said Fang Chen, a researcher in human-machine interactions at NICTA, who managed the research behind BrainGauge.
According to NICTA researchers, the major benefit of BrainGauge is it is simple to implement – requiring only a microphone to record voice data, and a computer to run the voice analysis software, and their first target for rolling out BrainGauge is in call centres.
Other potential applications include real-time analysis of stress levels of pilots undergoing training, for emergency workers, and even for online learning.
“If a program can tailor the presentation of material according to your cognitive load levels, then you can achieve the best efficiency of learning,” said Chen. Future applications of the BrainGauge software might also include clinical conditions that affect speech patterns, such as Alzheimer’s and dementia, Whitby said.
BrainGauge page with NICTA