Fraunhofer’s »NeuroLab« has been built to study what happens in the brain when people use technical devices.

Brain Research meets industrial engineering

In the NeuroLab, Fraunhofer IAO develops emotion-sensitive human-computer technologies

© Fraunhofer IAO
Probandin beim Test eines Software-Prototypen
© Ludmilla Parsyak/Fraunhofer IAO
topographische Hirnmuster
© Ludmilla Parsyak/Fraunhofer IAO

With the opening of its NeuroLab, Fraunhofer IAO now has a test environment for researching neuro- ergonomical topics. It is a place where researchers are applying neuroscientific knowledge to issues of ergonomic workplace design. The focus is on assistance systems in vehicles, in human-robot collaboration, and in knowledge work. The laboratory opened on October 27, 2015, with a symposium.

What goes on in the human brain has fascinated neuroscientists for decades. By measuring brain activity, they draw conclusions about our health and how our minds work. In the new research field of neuro-ergonomics, these findings are used to develop working environments and technical devices which are more user-oriented. Fraunhofer IAO’s newly opened NeuroLab has been built specifically to study what happens in the brain when people use technical devices. Based on these insights, the scientists plan to develop human-computer technologies that recognize users’ mental and emotional states and adapt automatically to their individual needs.

Opening on October 27

October 27 saw the inauguration of the new “Laboratory for Neuro-ergonomics,” to give its full title. In his welcome address, Peter Hofelich, State Secretary in the Ministry of Finance and Economics Baden-Württemberg, highlighted the opportunities for future human-technology interaction: “The effects of digitalization on our economy and society are clear for all to see – we’re in the midst of a major transition to the connected and digital working world of tomorrow. Baden-Württemberg is ideally placed to become a leading provider and leading market for the manufacturing and mobility of the future. Human needs must be at the heart of the technological change, and Fraunhofer IAO’s NeuroLab is making a major contribution in this area.” Prof. Wilhelm Bauer, director of Fraunhofer IAO, emphasized the following aspect: “By building a bridge to neuroscience, we’re raising work research to a whole new level. New findings about people’s workplace experience, motivation, stresses and strains help us design working environments to be much more user-friendly and, in turn, to place the devices successfully on the market.”

Research roadmap for neuro-industrial engineering

Following short welcome addresses and a tour of the laboratory, there was an afternoon symposium where Fraunhofer IAO introduced the area of neuro-ergonomics together with its prospects, potential and fields of application. Neuroscience experts then discussed the future developments and potential applications of brain-computer interfaces. This resulted in a research roadmap for the field of neuro-ergonomics. “If we want to take brain-computer interfaces out of the medical context and introduce them into working environments, we have to put the focus on humans. Future research must be centered squarely on users,” urge Kathrin Pollmann and Dr. Mathias Vukelic, who are responsible for the research in the NeuroLab.

The first studies are already under way. Currently Pollmann and Vukelic are investigating what happens in the humans’ brain when they work with assistance systems. To do this, they are employing electroencephalography (EEG) and functional near-infrared spectroscopy (fNIRS). In addition to these neuroscientific methods, they also record muscle activity, i.e. in the face, which allows them to further identify the direction users are looking in or to detect when users screw up their eyes or smile. The scientists expect that one day, this research will lead to the development of an interface that recognizes certain brain states such as stress or pleasure and adapts the behavior of assistance systems accordingly.