Collaboration Research Puts the 'I' in Team
Lab personnel aim to maximize group performance through technology.
U.S. Air Force researchers intend next year to provide a system on the commercial market that will significantly improve collaboration capabilities among groups, whether special forces, cyberwarfare, medical or sports teams. The combat fitness tool will categorize teams or individuals as being in red, yellow or green zones, offering an easy-to-understand assessment of readiness levels that will allow commanders to decide if a person needs a break, whether a team’s workload should be rebalanced or if one team is better prepared than another to tackle a specific mission or task.
In a sense, the 24/7 Combat Fitness System puts the “I,” for individual, in team. The system “will be mostly based on individuals, but we can aggregate that data. For example, we give this data to coaches, and they can quickly see the readiness level of each individual player, but they can do that for their whole team,” says Scott Galster, chief, Applied Neuroscience Branch, Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL). “From the sports metaphors, it’s like a team is firing on all cylinders or is in the zone. In the business world, it’s high-performing teams. We want to know what causes that.”
The system monitors a variety of performance measures, such as heart rate, respiration, core temperature, hydration and accelerometry data, which includes acceleration and deceleration of the entire human body as it performs specific tasks. “It’s in development. We deliver iterations for people to try out. The plan right now is to have a commercialized product by the end of 2016,” Galster reports.
The AFRL team seeks to offer commanders or coaches a simple tool that will provide the necessary information without drowning them in data. “We follow the sense, assess and augment paradigm,” Galster states, adding that “sensed data” is just data until its meaning is assessed and a solution provided to improve performance. This paradigm “has been adopted across the Defense Department,” he offers.
To develop the system, the researchers work with a wide array of personnel and teams, including special forces, cyber operations units, a college football team, a neuroscientist and even a quadriplegic former race car driver. The AFRL has a cooperative research and development agreement with Ohio State University. Researchers outfit each of the school’s football players with sensors that can be personalized depending on which position they play. Linebackers, receivers and quarterbacks, for example, have different demands placed on them. “It needs to be personalized to them and the tasks we’re asking them to do, because if they’re in that yellow or red zone, we need to make sure we’re telling them what to do to get back to that green zone,” Galster indicates.
But the Ohio State partnership is “bigger than just the football team,” he asserts. Galster also works closely with a neurosurgeon at the Ohio State Wexner Medical Center. “There are a lot of sensors we want to deploy. The military is looking at elite athletes and special operations. Ohio State Wexner Medical Center will be looking at what kind of sensors would be applicable to clinical populations. And then we will both be looking at increasing performance of what we would in general call the ‘normal population,’” he reports. “There’s a continuum of functionality—clinical, functional and elite—that we’re looking at.”
Additionally, Galster’s team was involved in a project last year that paved the way for Sam Schmidt, a quadriplegic former race car driver, to get behind the wheel again. Along with industry, others within the AFRL developed human performance technologies that allowed Schmidt to control a semiautonomous Corvette C7 Stingray at more than 100 miles an hour using head movements to steer the car. The project could benefit future human-machine collaboration. For Galster’s group, it offered a chance to assess sensors under potentially life-or-death conditions. “Our particular role was not to create the interface for Sam. It was to monitor him because he is prone to epileptic seizures. He’s prone to overheating. He’s prone to a lot of different things. We outfitted him with sensors that provided that information back to the pit area in a continuous way,” Galster says.
His team also has had recent successes in the cyber arena. In a couple of instances, researchers equipped cyberwarriors with sensors, including heart rate monitors and eye trackers, and successfully demonstrated that the soldiers’ workload lacked balance. The researchers recommended changes that allowed the cyber teams to work together more effectively.
In one case, they advised rearranging the room so that people spent less time walking from one desk to another seeking information. The time away from the desk is time spent off-task. “Just by some simple changes, we were able show that if you make this move physically, then you’re going to increase the efficiency and best performance of your team,” Galster says.
To further enhance efficiency and performance, the combat fitness system can be tailored for a variety of teams performing an array of functions. The system design depends in part on whether the person or the team is performing a mentally demanding or physically demanding task. An intelligence analyst in an air-conditioned room, for example, would not need hydration sensors. “But if I’m special operations jumping out of planes and saving people, hydration would be a consideration I would need to pay attention to because the mission is very physically demanding,” Galster explains.
The system also is being crafted to keep pace with changing technology. “What we’re doing is making it plug and play. There’s certain information we want, but we don’t want to be tied to a particular sensor because they get out of date, just like old computers. Every two years or so, they get replaced by something newer, fancier or more capable,” he points out.
Meanwhile, in a separate effort, researchers are developing a system to measure a whole team’s level of collaboration. That represents a tougher challenge because it introduces elements such as communication and what Galster refers to as postural sway.
Every standing person exhibits this “body sway,” a subconscious movement imperceptible to the human eye. And when two people work well together to perform a task—playing a game of “Tetris,” for example—they are literally in sync. “Teams that perform better begin to synchronize in their postural sway. So far it has been a pretty good predictor. As performance increases and we get better at doing a task together, that’s one of the measures that really shines,” Galster reports.
That particular finding surprised the research team. Initially the researchers thought the synchronization was a fluke. “We found that actually by mistake. We thought there was nothing to that, and then four or five experiments later, we’re still finding it,” Galster notes.
Other researchers have found similar results regarding heart rates: When people work well as a team, their heart rates synchronize. Although the AFRL team hypothesized that this might occur, “We’ve not really found conclusive evidence to show that yet in the kinds of tasks that we’ve asked our participants to do,” Galster says.
In addition, the AFRL is exploring whether personnel in an air operations center will spot changes on a screen more effectively while working alone or with others. “One of the other kinds of constructs we’re looking at is called change blindness, where things can happen and you just don’t see them. We’re trying to determine whether a team of operators performs better than an individual,” Galster offers. “One of the strategies is to split the screen. You look left, and I’ll look right, and we should in theory cut our search times in half.”
Of course, people may not use that strategy unless explicitly told to do so. Without guidance, teams can take awhile to develop an effective collaboration strategy, he adds.
The researchers are also interested in next-generation technology, such as wearable patches and flexible sensors capable of measuring biomarkers in sweat and saliva. “There are a number of different biomarkers that are indicative of changes in performance. For example, people typically look at cortisol and some of the other inflammatory biomarkers,” Galster says.
The team is looking at “off body” sensors, too, in several different ongoing research projects. One uses a form of noninvasive monitoring known as noncontact photoplethysmography, “where we’re getting heart rates with standoff cameras up to 50 meters away,” he states.
While the 24/7 Combat Fitness System is coming soon, the system measuring collaboration among entire teams is further off and has yet to even be named. “Team-based research is, by its nature, a slow endeavor, especially if you’re running a lot of experiments, like we do. I don’t have a cute acronym for that one,” Galster says.