Updated: Monday, December 30, 2013, 12:02 PM
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."
The accumulated information is supplemented with suggestions about when the wearer should get up and stretch, take a coffee break or sneak a quick nap.
The Vigo team is now in the second stage of the HAXLR8R incubation program, which has taken them to the San Francisco Bay Area in search of seed funding. They've created a Kickstarter project for the same purpose. Launched Dec. 16, the campaign has garnered 427 backers who have pledged a total of $31,596 - meaning Vigo has realized over 63 percent of its funding goal with a little over a month left to go.
The Penn grads further realized the market for the device extends far beyond college students. "Since going on Kickstarter, we've received a lot of responses from people in other fields about potentially using Vigo for their needs," Gui said. "One example is emergency services workers. One person reached out to us saying, 'I have a whole crew that works throughout the night and nothing happens usually but they have to be alert in case a phone call comes in or someone in the emergency room needs help." Gui said they've also received interest from security guards, construction and trucking companies, machinery operators, mine workers and taxi and bus drivers.
And they've found Vigo could be useful not only to sleep-deprived shift workers in need of a nudge, but also to employers, who could benefit from analyzing the metrics the app accrues. "For example, if it was a trucking company, they might be interested in getting some real time data about their drivers, statistics about how many hours can they can drive before drowsiness settles in and how frequently they should have rest breaks - stuff like that," Gui said. "These are all really interesting business applications."
For now, the group plans to first release Vigo directly to the public as they continue to amass user data, gather feedback and tailor the product's features. Gui said the device will likely be priced between $80 and $100 and initially sold through Vigo's website.
"We're expecting everything to happen within the next year," he said. "Vigo will be officially on sale in 2014, right after we deliver to the Kickstarter backers, and we're excited. We're students from Penn but this product has helped us take our dreams around the world."