Sharp Brains: Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News

Neuroplasticity, Brain Fitness and Cognitive Health News


Apple iPad Thumbs-Up: Brain Fitness Value, and Limitations

In a pre­vi­ous arti­cle for iPad2Sharp­Brains, I asked whether the Apple tablet (the iPad) would hin­der or sup­port cog­ni­tive fit­ness. Here, I assess the iPad against the cri­te­ria I laid out pre­vi­ously. I then assess its poten­tial for brain fit­ness in gen­eral. I am rely­ing on Apple’s infor­ma­tion; I have not yet used the iPad.

The iPad has been cov­ered all over the net, and Apple has much infor­ma­tion on its web­site, so I will not repeat that here, except to say that the iPad looks like a 9.7 inch iPod with a multi-touch LED-backlit IPS screen. It can run all iPod appli­ca­tions and more. It is a rather spec­tac­u­lar, attrac­tive plat­form for doing all of what you can do with an iPod but with com­pelling pos­si­bil­i­ties that a larger screen presents. It is also an eBook reader and an extremely impres­sive gam­ing machine. It is priced very com­pet­i­tively ($500 and up). I imag­ine that many peo­ple will forgo pur­chas­ing an iPod, a game sta­tion, a net­book and an e-reader and apply their sav­ings to this device.

The iPad itself, and as part of a tech­no­log­i­cal ecosys­tem of prod­ucts that work together, is some­thing which has major impli­ca­tions for the brain fit­ness market.

The fol­low­ing table sum­ma­rizes the check-list from my pre­vi­ous article.

Table 1 iPad Eval­u­a­tion Check-List

Cri­te­ria Assess­ment
Pow­er­ful per­sonal task-manager Yes (Third-party)
Graphic Orga­nizer Yes (third-party)
Pow­er­ful outliner Yes (third-party)
User-activity mon­i­tor No (but within reach of Apple)
Inte­grated self-testing system No (third-party can do part of this).
Major Cog­ni­tive Features
Sys­tem inte­gra­tion and syncing Yes (for what is pro­vided, anno­ta­tions not yet supported)
Rich anno­ta­tion framework No (but it is within reach of Apple)
Col­lab­o­ra­tion Some (anno­ta­tions not supported)
Mute func­tion (Atten­tion Protection) Close (iPad is attention-friendly)
Afford­able, rated content Major pub­lish­ers are on board; book prices cur­rently high; intel­li­gent qual­ity rat­ing sys­tem not announced

1. Appli­ca­tions Checklist

Apple has enabled much of whatchecklist is needed for the iPad to meet the appli­ca­tion cri­te­ria I laid out. The iPad is not just an e-reader, it is an appli­ca­tion plat­form for cog­ni­tive pro­duc­tiv­ity, brain fit­ness and learn­ing. It will run all exist­ing (140,000 and count­ing) iPod appli­ca­tions. Some of the appli­ca­tions I called for are already on the Apple App Store, though they will require (forth­com­ing) enhancements.

I pre­vi­ously noted the need for a task man­ager, a graphic orga­nizer, an out­liner, and a spaced learn­ing sys­tem. These appli­ca­tions will not be pre-installed on the iPad. How­ever, many ven­dors have already announced that their Mac OS X cog­ni­tive pro­duc­tiv­ity appli­ca­tions (includ­ing graphic orga­niz­ers, out­lin­ers and task man­agers) are being ported to the iPad. So, we can tick those cri­te­ria off.

Apple has devel­oped specif­i­cally for the iPad inex­pen­sive iWorks pro­duc­tiv­ity appli­ca­tions for com­pos­ing doc­u­ments, spread­sheets and pre­sen­ta­tions. This is implicit sup­port for active learn­ing on the iPad. In addi­tion, Apple’s exist­ing iPod appli­ca­tions are also avail­able for the iPad.

I was puz­zled by the absence of a dic­tio­nary on the iPad home page. Users should not have to research and down­load dic­tio­nar­ies them­selves, par­tic­u­larly since a use­ful dic­tio­nary is avail­able on OS X (its ecosys­tem rel­a­tive).

2. User Monitoring

I expressed the need for a user activ­ity mon­i­tor, which was not pro­vided. What I mean here is that the Apple should include oper­at­ing sys­tem, MobileMe and appli­ca­tion sup­port for mon­i­tor­ing and report­ing on how the user is spend­ing their time across the Apple ecosys­tem. This sup­port should securely and con­fig­urably be use­able by third party appli­ca­tions so that they can report activ­ity and con­sume sta­tis­tics (sub­ject to pri­vacy set­tings). This presents many sig­nif­i­cant sci­en­tific, usabil­ity and tech­ni­cal chal­lenges; but the func­tion­al­ity could be deliv­ered over time in an incre­men­tal, user-friendly fashion.

Why dwell on this? First, user activ­ity mon­i­tor­ing would allow the user to gauge and redi­rect the use of their most pre­cious resource: their brains. The over­abun­dance of infor­ma­tion and activ­i­ties we can per­form on com­put­ers is a major brain chal­lenge. Task switch­ing with com­put­ers is so easy that hard­ware and soft­ware sup­port is required to report on how we are spend­ing our time. Who amongst us pre­cisely knows how much time they really spend writ­ing email, read­ing, etc.?

Sec­ond, user activ­ity mon­i­tor­ing would pro­vide very inno­v­a­tive sup­port for the brain fit­ness needs expressed at the 2010 Sharp­Brains Vir­tual Sum­mit and in the Sharp­Brains Guide to Brain Fit­ness:

  1. Assess­ment is a key com­po­nent of brain fitness.
  2. Inde­pen­dent mea­sures of per­for­mance are required.
  3. Brain fit­ness soft­ware must increas­ingly chal­lenge one’s devel­op­ing abilities.
  4. Brain fit­ness soft­ware needs to keep users moti­vated and engaged.
  5. Some soft­ware should tell us what part of one’s brain one is using.

All those propo­si­tions require sup­port for mon­i­tor­ing the user’s activities.

Apple’s user activ­ity mon­i­tor could con­ceiv­ably pro­vide chart sum­maries of one’s time on YouTube, mail, safari, the phone, tex­ting, etc., across its entire ecosys­tem (iPad, iPhone, OS X). This could allow one to tell one how much time one spends skim­ming con­tent, actively read­ing, writ­ing, draw­ing, etc. One’s read­ing rate could be mea­sured and tracked. The iBooks appli­ca­tion could reflect how much time one has spent inter­act­ing with any given book, chap­ter or page (ditto for other applications).

Apple pro­vides Activ­ity Mon­i­tor for its Macs, but that merely reports com­puter met­rics. There is more to gain in mea­sur­ing how our cog­ni­tive time is spent than the processor’s time.

A user mon­i­tor­ing tool could pro­vide inde­pen­dent mea­sures of per­for­mance so that we can assess the impact of using brain fit­ness prod­ucts on users. Is the user now goal-setting more reg­u­larly with a per­sonal task man­ager than before? Is the user skim­ming much con­tent (and con­se­quently not learn­ing much in depth)? This could be related by third party soft­ware to brain areas: How much time is the user spend­ing lever­ag­ing his or her visual cor­tex (using a draw­ing appli­ca­tion, anno­tat­ing images, watch­ing physics demos)? And what part of the user’s audi­tory cor­tex is he or she lever­ag­ing (pod­casts vs. music)? Is the user tak­ing notes dur­ing the pod­casts? While reading?

Apple prefers sim­plic­ity whereas user mon­i­tor­ing is com­plex. How­ever, Apple has been known to deliver sophis­ti­cated inno­va­tion, e.g., with iPhoto’s face recog­ni­tion. Ulti­mately, Apple could lever­age embed­ded cam­eras for eye track­ing (to detect when one is read­ing vs. away from the com­puter), var­i­ous iPad sen­sors, its oper­at­ing sys­tems, MobileMe or sync ser­vices to inte­grate and report user activ­ity data. This would open huge doors to brain fit­ness soft­ware ven­dors. Only a com­pany like Apple, which con­trols a large part of the ecosys­tem, can deliver a com­pre­hen­sive user-activity mon­i­tor­ing solution.

3. Rich Anno­ta­tion Framework

I noted pre­vi­ously that active learn­ing on a tablet requires a rich anno­ta­tion sys­tem. This would, for exam­ple, allow users to high­light resources, attach notes to them, and browse their anno­ta­tions. Apple has not yet demon­strated anno­ta­tion for the iPad. Granted, anno­ta­tion is a dif­fi­cult nut to crack. It is unfor­tu­nate that many years after the advent of the web, users still do not have a stan­dard way to mark up what they read. Anno­ta­tion capa­bil­i­ties would greatly facil­i­tate active read­ing on the iPad and Macs. There­fore, I will describe anno­ta­tion require­ments in more detail so that indus­try and con­sumers alike real­ize what is needed for the iPad, com­put­ers and e-book read­ers to become more cog­ni­tively use­ful devices.

A large num­ber of anno­ta­tion prod­ucts have been intro­duced in the past (I have led the devel­op­ment of three large ones myself.) Yet anno­ta­tion can­not be ade­quately sup­ported on a piece­meal, application-by-application basis. Anno­ta­tion ulti­mately requires oper­at­ing sys­tem and ecosys­tem ser­vices. Briefly, this is the crux of what is needed:

  • a set of cross-device, oper­at­ing sys­tem ser­vices and appli­ca­tion ser­vices that allow users to eas­ily index (link) and anno­tate arbi­trary, fine-grained resources with a con­sis­tent, sim­ple, yet pow­er­ful user-interface involv­ing high­light­ing, rich text edit­ing, tag­ging, draw­ing, doo­dling, voice record­ing, etc.
  • All types of resources need to be anno­tat­able (web pages, e-books, Mail, pho­tos, PDFs, images, videos, files, third-party resources, etc)
  • an anno­ta­tion browser that allows users to review their anno­ta­tions and quickly access the spe­cific con­tent that they have anno­tated (e.g., as they review for an exam, pre­pare a pre­sen­ta­tion, or write a document).
  • IP sync­ing of user anno­ta­tions to a web ser­vice (e.g., MobileMe) so that users can access their anno­ta­tions and their anno­tated con­tent on mul­ti­ple devices.

Apple is a very con­trolled com­pany, so I imag­ine that if they have not yet pro­vided anno­ta­tion sup­port in its ecosys­tem, it is because they are still work­ing on the prob­lem and want to tackle it in a com­pre­hen­sive and user-friendly man­ner. That is accept­able. How­ever, this being 2010, it is now time for Apple to begin to pro­vide more ade­quate sup­port for active learn­ing. I find it dif­fi­cult to imag­ine how any e-reader com­peti­tor can defeat Apple if Apple were to deliver a proper anno­ta­tion solu­tion. Apple is uniquely posi­tioned to deliver on this, because Apple con­trols the entire ecosys­tem and is usability-oriented. Apple could deliver the func­tion­al­ity in a series of soft­ware updates. Not all anno­ta­tion fea­tures need to be avail­able on the iPad itself, some are more suit­able to Macs.

Until anno­ta­tion func­tion­al­ity is pro­vided, much of the poten­tial of tech­nol­ogy to sup­port active-learning will remain untapped.

4. Sync­ing Ser­vices and Collaboration

Apple seems to have deliv­ered some of the major cri­te­ria I men­tioned regard­ing sync­ing both pur­chased and user-created iPad con­tent, across the ecosys­tem. Pur­chased books, and user-content will be synced through the new iBooks appli­ca­tion (same con­cept as iTunes, but for books). My ecosys­tem cri­te­rion requires that the iBooks appli­ca­tion be avail­able on OS X so that one can read the same book on mul­ti­ple plat­forms (as one can lis­ten to music on a Mac or an iPod). This will be some­thing to watch out for.

One of the poten­tially col­lab­o­ra­tive fea­tures for the iPad is the pro­vi­sion of WIFI shared fold­ers. Also, the iPod has many col­lab­o­ra­tive fea­tures and appli­ca­tions which will trans­late to the iPad. And we can look to third party ven­dors to inno­vate here.

5. Mute Func­tion (Atten­tion Filter)

I called for an eas­ily acces­si­ble mute func­tion for the iPad. It is not yet pro­vided by Apple but the device does have a related design fea­ture, and they do have the tech­nol­ogy to deliver what is needed. The ratio­nale for the mute func­tion is that per­form­ing cog­ni­tively demand­ing tasks, such as active learn­ing and prob­lem solv­ing, involves exec­u­tive brain mech­a­nisms whose per­for­mance degrades sig­nif­i­cantly when they are inter­rupted. As John Med­ina argued in Brain Rules (pp. 84–88), it is a myth that humans are good at multi-tasking. Being bom­barded with noti­fi­ca­tions from email, instant mes­sag­ing, iPhone calls, text mes­sages, Skype/iChat invi­ta­tions, adver­tise­ments, lyri­cal music, etc., inter­feres with pro­duc­tive think­ing and read­ing due to the archi­tec­ture of the brain and mind. In this respect, con­trary to pop­u­lar crit­i­cism, the iPad’s appar­ent lack of multi-tasking may be a very sig­nif­i­cant cog­ni­tive advan­tage.

Apple holds a ven­er­a­ble posi­tion with respect to the poten­tial for automat­ing atten­tion fil­ter­ing. Because Apple pro­vides an ecosys­tem of prod­ucts and ser­vices, it could actu­ally pro­vide an ecosystem-wide mute func­tion. This would allow the user to send a sig­nal to glob­ally sup­press all but the most urgent inter­rupts. This atten­tion fil­ter could pro­vide an unin­ter­rupted block of pro­duc­tive learn­ing, think­ing, etc. Some par­ents might see value in their chil­dren being seduced by a won­drous gad­get that actu­ally encour­ages undis­turbed, active read­ing. Parental con­trols might even allow par­ents to press the global mute but­ton them­selves dur­ing their kids’ (or their own!) home­work time.

6. Afford­abil­ity and Rat­ing of Content

The avail­abil­ity and per­co­la­tion of qual­ity con­tent is a major unher­alded fac­tor for brain fitness.

Abun­dance of con­tent will be a strong point for iPad. Major pub­lish­ers are on board. Oth­ers will need to fol­low to remain com­pet­i­tive. The entire Ama­zon offer­ing will be avail­able with the Kin­dle appli­ca­tion (which seems to remove the need to pur­chase a Kin­dle). Also, the iBooks appli­ca­tion allows con­tent to be down­loaded very intuitively.

Pric­ing will need to evolve with mar­ket pres­sures that are not in Apple’s con­trol. E-book prices ought to be a much smaller frac­tion of a phys­i­cal book than Apple has men­tioned so far. I sus­pect the solu­tion to this lies in the upcom­ing emer­gence of a new breed of pub­lish­ers who will bet on Apple’s iBooks Store. These new, savvy pub­lish­ers will need to com­pete by pro­vid­ing high qual­ity con­tent at low prices. The largest pub­lisher of books 5 years from now might be a com­pany that is as unknown to most of us today as eBay or Google ini­tially was.

When con­sid­er­ing the cost of pur­chas­ing books for an iPad, we need to con­sider the sur­pris­ingly low-cost of the iPad and how much value it pro­vides to users. The iPad is a con­ver­gence device. This sin­gle fact will allow many cus­tomers to forgo the pur­chase of either a net­book, a gam­ing sta­tion, a portable video player, an iPod or other MP3 player. Also, the soft­ware on the App store tends to be afford­able and is abun­dant. It will also give par­ents an addi­tional option to pro­vide a com­puter to their families.

Finally, there is the issue of intel­li­gent rat­ing and per­co­la­tion of qual­ity e-books. Brain fit­ness requires that we read the best con­tent and not be dis­tracted by the rest. Ide­ally, we should spend time read­ing pow­er­ful ideas that “stretch” our minds. Cur­rent rat­ing sys­tems are not up to this chal­lenge; this is an area for inno­va­tion. An intel­li­gent con­tent rat­ing sys­tem would reflect rel­e­vance, orig­i­nal­ity, dif­fi­culty, com­plex­ity, anno­ta­tion den­sity and coher­ence of con­tent, along with other data includ­ing the user’s pro­file. Such a sys­tem could lever­age (future) mon­i­tor­ing and anno­ta­tion data (depend­ing on pri­vacy settings).

In sum, it looks like there will be an abun­dance of con­tent, though pric­ing and rat­ing sys­tems are to be deter­mined.

7. iPad vs. Paper

To deter­mine how the iPad will com­pare with paper will require usabil­ity stud­ies. Hav­ing care­fully ana­lyzed Apple’s iPad keynote address and worked on pro­duc­tive e-reading solu­tions for sev­eral years, the iPad seems very impres­sive to me, even at a distance.

  • The form fac­tor and phys­i­cal han­dling seem right.
  • The multi-touch tech­nol­ogy has over 1,000 sen­sors; it seems very responsive.
  • It uses a pre­mium in-plane switch­ing liq­uid crys­tal dis­play for view­ing from mul­ti­ple angles, which is impor­tant for comfort.
  • Con­tent nav­i­ga­tion is my major con­cern with e-readers. iPad and iBooks have some very impres­sive tricks to match and improve on paper. The tac­tile flip­ping of pages seems very intu­itive. Nav­i­ga­tion to and with the table of con­tents is effi­cient. There is a sub­tle but cru­cial nav­i­ga­tion bar at the bot­tom of the page which reflects one’s place in the book and allows one to nav­i­gate quickly to a par­tic­u­lar page. There are other (fade-out) nav­i­ga­tion controls.
  • The iPad’s anno­ta­tion sys­tem is lack­ing (though there seems to be book­mark­ing), but this is within Apple’s grasp with a soft­ware update.

Reader’s whose eyes can­not han­dle LCD may need to use an alter­na­tive to this inte­grated envi­ron­ment with e-pub for­mat­ted books that sup­port video, ani­ma­tion and so much more.

8. Lack of Adobe Flash: Impli­ca­tions for Brain Games

Adobe Flash is soft­ware made by Adobe that allows users to play videos and run pro­grams within most of their web browsers. Apple refuses to allow Adobe Flash to be installed on iPad, iPods or the iPhone.

This presents a chal­lenge for many brain fit­ness web sites, because they tend to imple­ment their soft­ware using Flash. Should the indus­try be clam­or­ing for Apple to sup­port Flash? I per­son­ally think not, but this is per­haps the source of most frus­tra­tion with the iPad. It is a suf­fi­ciently impor­tant and com­plex issue for me to elab­o­rate on.

Apple’s exclu­sion of Flash is not a mat­ter of com­mer­cial rivalry. (Cred­its to Steve Leach for elu­ci­dat­ing some of the fol­low­ing rea­sons behind Apple’s posi­tion.) In sum, Flash has been plagued by seri­ous secu­rity, sta­bil­ity, per­for­mance and other prob­lems. Here is how that relates to brain fitness:

  • Secu­rity. If the iPad is to be a major brain fit­ness plat­form on which sen­si­tive user and pro­duc­tiv­ity data will be stored (e.g., one’s neu­ropsy­cho­log­i­cal pro­file, one’s IQ rat­ings, etc.), then the absence of some major secu­rity vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties in an era of increas­ing mal­ware may be advantageous.
  • Sta­bil­ity and per­for­mance. A tablet that slows down, loses bat­tery power too fast, or crashes while one is try­ing to work is not always as use­ful as one that does not.
  • Speed of inno­va­tion. Apple’s not hav­ing to con­tend with third-party ven­dors of vir­tual machines like Flash and Java means that it can more quickly inno­vate and resolve prob­lems with fewer risks. The brain fit­ness mar­ket, which is leading-edge, stands to ben­e­fit from this speed.
  • Flash is a major vec­tor for pornog­ra­phy (though there are other means).
  • Apple and Google sup­port HTML 5 includ­ing open stan­dard alter­na­tives to Flash videos (but not run­ning arbi­trary applications).

The iPad offers a large num­ber of very inter­est­ing hard­ware and soft­ware fea­tures that can­not be lever­aged in a browser via Flash (e.g., accelerom­e­ter, dig­i­tal com­pass, multi-touch dis­play, and a cam­era enclo­sure for future devel­op­ment). Hence, more sophis­ti­cated brain fit­ness appli­ca­tions ought to be writ­ten directly for the iPad. An alter­na­tive for brain fit­ness com­pa­nies that do not want to write a native iPad or OS X appli­ca­tion is to part­ner with thin-client gam­ing com­pa­nies such as

I encour­age read­ers to have a very care­ful look at the Apple iPad keynote presentation’s sec­tion on the app store (and gam­ing), which starts 29 min­utes 48 sec­onds into that video. The iPad seems to be a sur­pris­ingly pow­er­ful gam­ing plat­form that will attract many chil­dren and young adults, given its com­pelling value propo­si­tion (not to men­tion the Apple brand itself).

Cus­tomers who pre­fer the advan­tages and cur­rent ubiq­uity of Flash will vote with their dol­lars and have recourse to devices run­ning Google and Microsoft oper­at­ing sys­tems.

Con­clud­ing Remarks

The iPad seems poised to be thumbsupa com­mer­cial suc­cess. It ful­fills many of the require­ments that it sets out to ful­fill. And it meets many of the require­ments that I called for in my arti­cle. And what it doesn’t do it can poten­tially do with updates. The iPad rep­re­sents a com­pelling new class of con­ver­gence devices. It has a pow­er­ful soft­ware devel­op­ment kit that will be very attrac­tive to devel­op­ers of brain fit­ness appli­ca­tions. The Mac oper­at­ing sys­tem (on which iPad appli­ca­tions are writ­ten) is a ver­sa­tile and increas­ingly pop­u­lar soft­ware devel­op­ment plat­form. So at a min­i­mum, the iPad is a plat­form which the brain fit­ness mar­ket will need to pre­pare for.

LucPBeaudoin-225x300Dr. Luc P. Beau­doin is Adjunct Pro­fes­sor of Edu­ca­tion at Simon Fraser Uni­ver­sity. He spe­cial­izes in the­o­ret­i­cal and applied cog­ni­tive sci­ence. He has been doing research and devel­op­ment on inte­grated learn­ing envi­ron­ments since 2001. He is also doing research and devel­op­ment in the areas of cog­ni­tive fit­ness and pro­duc­tiv­ity. He was a first-round employee of two of Canada’s most suc­cess­ful high-tech star­tups. He has also been Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Mil­i­tary Psy­chol­ogy and Leadership.

Thanks to Carl Forde, Car­rie Spencer and Stephen K. Leach for review­ing and com­ment­ing on drafts this arti­cle.
Related arti­cle

Will the Apple Tablet Sup­port or Hin­der Cog­ni­tive Fitness?


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