Fitness tracker for the brain



Local company aims to improve people’s cognitive wellness with smart glasses

By Charlotte Danby Faculty of Engineering

Waterloo-based deep tech startup AdHawk Microsystems recently launched MindLink Air (TM), everyday glasses that can read its wearer’s eye health and cognitive state using research-grade, camera-free eye-tracking technology. Its real-time insights help the wearer adjust their daily routine to improve productivity and avoid mental fatigue.  

Driven by its founders’ desire to help people, AdHawk is a local success story that exemplifies Waterloo’s innovation and entrepreneurship ecosystem.

The company was co-founded in 2015 by University of Waterloo alumni from the Faculty of Engineering, including Dr. Neil Sarkar (BASc ’01, MASc ’03 and PhD ’13), Sandro Banerjee (BASc ’01), Dr. Nino Zahirovic (BASc ’06 and PhD ’11) and Dr. Raafat Mansour, a professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering.

Today, they maintain strong ties to the University and Waterloo-based Velocity - Canada’s most successful incubator. AdHawk employs a proud team made up of many Waterloo scientists, engineers and co-op students because, as Sarkar, the company’s CEO says, "they’re brilliant." 

We asked Sarkar to expand on his journey from student to entrepreneur and tell us more about the breakthrough benefits of MindLink Air.   

What drew you to Waterloo for your studies? 

I chose it for my undergrad because of the co-op program. Every four months of hard academic graft, I got thrown into the real world to work in a real workplace. It was a challenging balancing act but so worth it; I put my studies to use and saw how the deployment of technology can change people’s lives. It made the whole notion of "impact" immediately tangible.  

My research interests led me to do my master’s degree and my entrepreneurial pursuits brought me back for my PhD. Waterloo’s unique intellectual property (IP) Policy 73 was a strong pull factor - any innovation created by students and/or faculty members belongs to them rather than the University. Plus, I got to work with the outstanding Dr. Mansour who helped build AdHawk and is still a member of the team.  

Why eye-tracking technology? 

We wanted to build something that contributes to social good. My exposure to epilepsy in the family had an enormous influence on me growing up and got me thinking about a neurological wearable that could alert people to an impending seizure, for example. Not only could it track the regularity and number of absence seizures to inform correct treatment, but it could also provide forewarning that could prevent accidents and help people navigate their days better. 

But we knew that with the right technology - and device - the eye could track more issues around productivity, fatigue, response time, vision, cognition and stress, and provide actionable insights to improve the quality of people’s lives. Many of us wear a sleep or fitness tracker for cardiovascular health because we know the sooner a problem is flagged, the more effectively it can be treated. We wanted to create something that could do the same for cognitive decline, myopia and burnout. 

For our eye-tracking technology to address all these challenges and have any meaningful impact, it had to fit affordably and stylishly into people’s current lifestyles. And so, we designed smart, lightweight glasses for comfortable, everyday use.  

How does MindLink Air work?  

We think of MindLink Air as the first fitness tracker for the brain. It looks and feels like any other pair of eyeglasses or sunglasses - and can include an existing prescription and blue light filter. But while you wear them, an ultra-compact micro-electromechanical system (MEMS) begins tracking your eye movement, capturing data thousands of times each second.  

The data is accessible via a mobile app that communicates with the glasses and is translated into personalized insights. If you work on a computer for example, it can help you know when it’s time to take a break, sit further back from the screen, enlarge the font size or look up into the distance to give your eyes a rest.  

By reading your fatigue and cognitive load levels while you’re working, it can help you find your flow state - that perfect balance between focus and cognitive load, which ultimately enables you to do more in less time. 

What are its other areas of use? 

MindLink Air can give very precise insights into its wearer’s cognitive load while they’re driving or flying. Waterloo researchers are using our technology to review and potentially improve pilot training and education. Tracking the movement, scan patterns and eye fixation of student pilots’ eyes will give the research team biomarkers associated with skills development which could help explain why some student pilots learn faster and fly better than others. 

Remote patient monitoring is another area we’re excited about. Most optometrists only get to see their patients once every two years. In the meantime, a patient’s prescription or general condition could slowly get worse. As an example, MindLink Air can send data directly to an optometrist about their patient and alert them to an elderly patient’s risk of a fall. 

Currently our technology can produce all kinds of different reports that are relevant to the individual use case - whatever the scenario, if the glasses are on, the data is being captured. As MindLink Air becomes more mainstream, it will capture a broad base of long-term data on neurological activity to indicate brain health, disease progression and treatment efficacy.  

In time, and with use, we see our glasses used as part of an early detection system to treat neurodegenerative diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. This ongoing potential for social impact is what keeps us motivated.  

Read First automated atomic force microscope makes the nanoworld visible in minutes for how AdHawk’s technology is being used to capture three-dimensional data at nanoscale.

Banner image: Members of the AdHawk Microsystems team.