Car tracks drivers’ vital signs

Having a conversation could soon be among the list of available features for a new car.

USC researchers showcased Nigel, the driver-tracking Mini Cooper equipped with 230 sensors and an iPhone app that documents the driver’s habits in its vehicle log, at the sixth annual Body Computing Conference on Friday.

Created in 2010, Nigel emerged from a partnership between automobile company BMW and the USC School of Cinematic Arts to create a car with “character” and personality through ambience storytelling that also monitors the health of the driver.

“We are using the data generated by the car and the driver, looking at driver habits, combination of sensors we know that the drivers are using, and creating an experience around that data,” said Jen Stein, an SCA researcher who oversaw Nigel’s development. “We’ve developed a character that has emerged out of that data. There’s an I-drive display in the center of the car, and once you plug your iPhone in and launch the Lifelog app, we can collect all the data.”

Though still in its early stages, the concept of “health” car will build on the foundation of storytelling already developed with Nigel.

The elements of interaction go beyond GPS directions and reminders to visit the gas station.

“Nigel observes your driving behavior, responses — it can actually count the number of times you triggered the sensors and develop different milestones that you’ve reached with the car like hitting x number of miles or x number of right turns,” Stein explained.

Instead of listing the results as dry statistics, the car turns into a character.

“It’s like a friend, a driving companion to keep out the loneliness,” Stein said. “We try to make it more playful so that it feels like you actually have a companion you’re sharing an experience with. The way you talk to it is through your driving.”

Dr. Leslie Saxon, chief of cardiology at Keck and the executive director of the Center for Body Computing, believes innovative cars like Nigel can be used to draw attention to unhealthy habits and call for change.

“What we’re trying to do with Nigel is to give him an awareness of his health, and make health fun and engaging for him, so he learns himself and helps us learn ourselves,” Saxon said. “What better thing to integrate into driving? It’s a matter of if you’ve got the technology and if you can do the match-ups and hook it into an existing sensors system, why not make people more aware?”

The project will feature MEMS-enabled devices and ultrasound-enabled sensors. One example of this type of device is the EKG-enabled iPad at the conference that measured attendees’ heart rates just by placing their hands on its cover.

Saxon said she hopes Nigel is only the beginning of what researchers can do with this technology.

“Hopefully, we’ll get everything in there, blood pressure, figure out what the air pollution is, content, all factors of health,” Saxon said. “There are already tons of sensors in there. A lot of them will be wireless. It may just be the way you touch the steering wheel, or the way you lay back in your seat.”

Avimaan Syam, a second-year graduate student at SCA’s Department of Interactive Media who has worked on Nigel since last year, said that although this kind of technology can seem unusual, projects like this will become more commonplace in the future.

“Whenever we first start to explain Lifelog to people, I think they get nervous that it’s a company recording your history — that Big Brother is watching — but that’s not the purpose at all,” he said. “The way we interact with the car and our expectations for a car when we’re driving is going to change a lot in the next few years. What we’re going to want out of our car is going to change in a way that the general public cannot imagine right now.”

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