Wearables and the future of impairment detection

One of the most inspiring parts about being in the design industry is getting the opportunity to work with innovative groups of people who are trying to change the world. Born out of The Forge, McMaster University’s start-up accelerator, Zentrela’s Cognalyzer is a fascinating product that blends entrepreneurship and neuroscience. It has become the first portable EEG wearable to objectively measure the psychoactive effects of THC on the brain. In other words, it can determine if you’re high or not. 

In an era of cannabis legalization, reliable impairment detection will become increasingly important for protecting consumer rights and safety in the workplace. A major limitation of current roadside and workplace testing is that the results only indicate if cannabis is present in someone’s system. Zentrela’s Cognalyzer on the other hand can detect how high someone is on the spot. This is a groundbreaking product that’s sure to shape the future of EEG technology and impairment detection.

How it works

The Cognalyzer testing process revolves around Zentrela’s patented algorithms which use EEG technology to analyze brain waves and determine if someone is under the influence of THC – the chemical compound in cannabis that creates the high. On the EEG, a series of electrodes collect electrical signal and send the information through a proprietary wiring harness and control unit. From here, the data gets transmitted via Bluetooth to a tablet or computer where the analysis takes place. After about 5 minutes of live data collection, Zentrela’s algorithms will have enough information to determine the presence of impairment and the extent to which the test subject is impaired. This technology brings unmatched objectivity and clarity to the impairment detection industry while also opening the door for cannabis producers to better test and segment their products.

The Design Challenge

Part of the excitement of working on the Cognalyzer stemmed from the inherent design challenges to be overcome. Testing validity is at the heart of Zentrela’s core value proposition and the hardware must match the sophistication of the software upon which the Cognalyzer relies. One of the main challenges was designing the system to be a one-size-fits-all solution while keeping the manufacturing costs down to facilitate mass distribution. In order to optimize for these considerations, we designed the headset around a die-cut frame. Using early prototypes, we continually tested construction and adjustment styles to ensure that electrodes would be easy to position accurately. This iterative prototyping process, using in house 3D printing and hand-built prototypes, helps us expose weaknesses early on and serves as an aid to discover opportunities for innovation.

Usability and Human Factors

The Cognalyzer system is designed for two users, both equally important; the test administrator and the test subject. Cognalyzer tests are designed to be performed in the real world, not in a laboratory setting and, for those administering and receiving tests, it’s likely to be the first time interacting with EEG technology. Because of this, the hardware needed to be foolproof and easy to use.

From the administration standpoint, we carefully considered variations in head shape and size and designed the fit system accordingly. Eight of the ten electrodes can be accurately positioned and checked for signal quality regardless of head size or brain position within the skull. To help secure these electrodes in place for the duration of the test, we designed an electrode that can slide along a track in the die-cut headset to custom-locate on any subject. Our usability and ergonomic testing process was geared towards improving the testing experience for those administering and receiving the test. In addition to speed, we knew that a big part of the experience would come down to subject comfort which is especially important as many of us are predisposed to feel uncomfortable when receiving any type of medical test. To help make the experience more comfortable we added soft materials to the die-cut edges and electrode bodies that would come in contact with subjects’ skin and head.

Prototypes, iteration, and the final product

Throughout the development process, we built a number of prototypes that included early proofs-of-concept to conduct form studies as well as fully functional prototypes to help point out any final areas for improvement. The Zentrela team was very involved in this process and regularly took prototypes back to the lab for user testing. This feedback and iteration loop was instrumental in getting to a final product that strikes a balance between, subject comfort, ease of testing, and of course, medical validity.