SciTechBlog
April 13, 2010

Learn to play the piano without trying

Posted: 11:13 AM ET

Atlanta, Georgia - Thad Starner, a pony-tailed Georgia Tech professor, started a talk at an emerging technology conference here with a question for the audience:

"How many of you want to play a musical instrument but don't because it takes too much time to practice?"

Several people raised their hands.

"Yep, I'm the same way."

His solution? A yellow and black glove, stylish enough for Michael Jackson, and fitted with buzzers just above the knuckles.

The glove is designed to teach people to play uber-simple piano licks while they're doing other tasks - or, in other words, while they're not trying to learn.

To this point, Starner wore the glove during his lecture. The buzzers in the glove vibrated his fingers one at a time, teaching him the piano fingering for Beethoven's "Ode to Joy." He wore an earbud that played the simple melody in one of his ears, in synch with the finger stimulations.

In trials, Starner said this kind of background learning works rather well. In the most recent test, subjects completed reading comprehension tests while wearing the glove. Nine of 16 of them were able to play the melody perfectly.

Starner said he'd never done this sort of while-giving-a-presentation test of the piano glove before. At the end of his talk, he played Beethoven's simple song without trouble.

After the presentation, Starner said the true value of his project may not be in learning the piano but in rehabbing patients with brain and spinal cord injuries. He said he worked with a quadriplegic man, in his 70s, whose hands were so clawed up that he couldn't button his shirt.

The finger-stimulating glove helped him get that ability back, he said.

And he learned a little piano in the process.

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Filed under: computers • multi-tasking • Music


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March 31, 2010

The few, the proud, the "supertaskers"

Posted: 01:16 PM ET

Many studies say people cannot drive as safely while they talk on a mobile phone.

A recent report from the University of Utah doesn't dispute that, but it does suggest that a very small portion of the population - about 2.5 percent of us - fit into a category researchers call "supertaskers."

These outliers are able to do two things at once - talk on the phone and drive, for instance - without their performance declining for either task.

"Our results suggest that there are supertaskers in our midst: rare but intriguing individuals with extraordinary multi-tasking ability," psychologists Jason Watson and David Strayer write in the report, titled "Supertaskers."

"These individual differences are important because they challenge current theory that postulates immutable bottlenecks in dual-task performance."

To get the results, the psychologists put 200 people in a driving simulator and tested their ability to react to traffic and braking cars while solving math problems and word games on a hands-free mobile phone.

Before you begin insisting that you, too, are a "supertasker" who can juggle multiple phone texts while eating, combing your hair and hurtling down the highway at 65 mph, heed this warning from the authors:

"Some readers may also be wondering if they too are supertaskers; however, we suggest that the odds of this are against them," they write.

While many people consider themselves adept multi-taskers, many psychological tests show that people do not function as well when their attention is split. However, in the future, as technology makes "supertasking" a more beneficial trait, people may be able to rewire their brains to be up to the challenge, they write.

The authors also reference several distracted driving reports, including one estimate from the National Safety Council that says 28 percent of all car crashes in the U.S. are caused by people who are using cell phones to talk or text.

[via NYTimes Bits blog]

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Filed under: distracted driving • mobile phones • multi-tasking • texting


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Are you a gadgethead? Do you spend hours a day online? Or are you just curious about how technology impacts your life? In this digital age, it's increasingly important to be fluent, or at least familiar, with the big tech trends. From gadgets to Google, smartphones to social media, this blog will help keep you informed.

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