Published: March 14, 2019

Assistant Professor Tam Vu has received a prestigious CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation for his research on enabling a new type of computer, called Earable Computers.

These small devices are worn on, in or near a user's ears. With this award, Vu hopes to lay the scientific foundation for robust and effective ear-worn systems for long-term, unobtrusive monitoring of health conditions and for hands-free control of computers.

The ears are close to the source of many physiological signals, such as the brain, eyes and facial muscles. However, because there are a lot of simultaneous signals coming from the brain and body, it is challenging to design systems that are both small enough to be widely adopted and powerful enough to be accurate. Most existing head-based sensing and stimulation methods are cumbersome, intrusive and expensive – suitable only for stationary and short-term use in clinics or hospitals.

Therefore, placing small sensors in or behind the ears could make monitoring things like cognitive load, stress or sleep quality less intrusive, while also increasing user acceptance. In addition, the ear area serves as an ideal body part for applying non-invasive brain stimulations. 

“This project aims to fill a gap by enabling a novel form of wearable sensing and actuating systems that can unobtrusively, continuously, comfortably and simultaneously sense a multitude of head-based physiological signals and actuate to stimulate the brain while remaining minimally visible to the public,” Vu said.

Vu and his team will use the CAREER Award to work on:

  • A modular computing platform to simultaneously sense head-based physiological signals and stimulate the brain from inside and around the ears.
  • Novel actuation models and methods to safely stimulate the brain.
  • Modeling tools and analytic techniques that provide high-resolution information of wearer’s states.
  • Development tools that enable the designers to rapidly develop, evaluate and deploy new earable systems.

The resulting computing platform, tools and insights from this work will accelerate research and innovation in this emerging area of wearable systems and pave the way for earable systems at an unprecedented scale, Vu said.

Vu directs the Mobile and Network System Laboratory at CU Boulder. He is also a faculty member in the CU School of Medicine and a fellow of the Institute of Cognitive Science. In addition, he is actively pushing his research outcomes into practice through technology transfer activities and has co-founded two startups to commercialize them.

The preliminary work for this project was also supported by NSF, through a grant from Smart and Connected Health, as well as a Google Faculty Award in 2018.