As smart as it gets

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By Scientists have found in iPhones an inexpensive way of studying dyslexia TVJ
  • Published 3.10.11
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The iPhone is fast emerging as a useful tool for gathering data for a variety of scientific experiments.

A team of cognitive psychologists is already exploring this idea and has designed an “app” for iPhone which they hope will provide them access to millions who are willing to participate in a research study, with just a touch of a button.

The multinational research team, led by Stephane Dufau, a cognitive psychologist at the French research agency CNRS, is currently using this app for a large-scale research project on dyslexia, a developmental reading disorder believed to affect up to one in 10 children in any society.

“A smartphone is a portable laboratory that fits in a pocket. It is much beyond a communication tool and a device that plays music and movies. It can display words and images with great accuracy and precision, required for conducting many cognitive experiments,” says Dufau, who created the app called “Science XL: Test your word power”.

The iPhone / iPad app is available for free download in seven major languages at AppStore for anyone who wants to participate in this study.

The app tests the participants’ word power by asking them to decide whether each word presented is a real word or a non-word. It measures accuracy and, importantly, the time taken to make such decisions.

Cognitive psychologists have been using this exercise, which provides considerable insight into the cognitive processes involved in skilled reading as well as reading impairments, for a long time in conventional laboratory settings.

According to Dufau, one major advantage of using a smart phone like the iPhone is that it gives instant access to users in many countries, speaking different languages, of different ages and sexes. This aspect differs totally from a classical laboratory experiment where participants are mainly students from nearby universities.

The scientists say with the number of iPhone users worldwide expected to exceed one billion by 2013, they wanted to explore whether they could utilise this market to revolutionise research in cognitive science. The preliminary results of this study were recently published in the journal PLoS One.

“It could change the way that human social and psychological research is conducted because it allows us to access vast number of individuals from a range of demographics relatively inexpensively. We managed to test almost 5,000 participants in a period of three months, which would have taken years in a lab and incurred very substantial costs,” says Kathy Rastle, a co-author and professor of psychology at Royal Holloway, in the UK, in a statement.

More importantly, she says, the results collected so far are strikingly similar to those obtained in laboratory conditions, demonstrating the potential for capitalising on this technology.

The scientists have plans to take the app much beyond this particular study. “We are programming a unified app that will include the languages already under study, and many others. In the near future, this app will also accept other kind of experiments such as studies on memory and ageing, or reading development,” Dufau told KnowHow.

Other scientific experiments in the recent past have exploited the potential of the iPhone. In November last year, for instance, a team of researchers in the US used it for a unique experiment that investigated the happiness levels of people engaged in routine activities. Similarly, a group from the University of Southampton developed an iPhone app that allows its users to measure their carbon footprint when they are using grid electricity.