Can emotion-detecting helmets increase productivity?

Can emotion-detecting helmets increase productivity?

By Sooraj Raj

Chinese companies are using helmets with electroencephalogram (EEG) sensors for their employees, raising both profits and privacy concerns. The South China Morning Post reported that employees working in Chinese factories, public transport, and the military are being given helmets equipped to monitor their emotional states.

Since the program was implemented in 2014, State Grid Zhejiang Electric Power (SGZEP) has boosted its profits by about 2 billion yuan (US $315 million). They claim that the technology was able to increase working standards. Another company is using the technology to train new employees by integrating the brain sensors into virtual reality headsets used to simulate different work scenarios. They claim to have reduced the number of mistakes made by workers, increasing their revenue by 140 million yuan in the past two years.

What is the technology?

It is likely that the helmets use some form of EEG measurement. Usually, over-the-skin brain scanning through EEG is very limited in what it can detect. The workers are basically instructed to wear a helmet embedded with a device that monitors their EEG readings for alpha, beta, theta, and gamma brain waves. It is then compared to a baseline reading to interpret a given emotional state.

Emotion detection using EEG signals:

The largest portion of the human brain, the cortex, is divided into the frontal, temporal, parietal, and occipital lobes (see Figure). The frontal lobe is responsible for conscious thought. The temporal lobe is responsible for the senses of smell and sound, along with the processing of complex stimuli such as faces and scenes. The parietal lobe is responsible for integrating sensory information, as well as the manipulation of objects. Finally, the occipital lobe is responsible for the sense of sight.

The human brain emits electromagnetic waves during mental activity — when a person focuses their attention or remembers something, for example. These activities fire thousands of neurons simultaneously at the same frequency, generating a wave — at a rate closer to 10 than to 100 cycles per second. Such waves can be detected by measuring either the electric field (EEG) or the magnetic field (MEG) associated with them. Though portable EEG sensing technology has been around for a long time, similar advancements in MEG are nascent. Therefore, it is most plausible that the helmets are using EEG technology.

Source: A review of channel selection algorithms for EEG signal processing

EEG is a medical imaging technique that uses electrodes on the scalp to read electrical activity generated by brain structures. More precisely, it measures voltage fluctuations resulting from ionic current flows within the neurons of the brain. These signals observed within the skull are divided into specific ranges that are more prominent in certain states of mind, namely, the delta, theta, alpha, beta, and gamma bands.

Delta waves are associated with the unconscious mind and occur during a deep dreamless sleep. Theta brain waves are associated with the subconscious mind and activities such as dreaming. Alpha waves are typically associated with a relaxed, yet aware mental state, with high alpha activity being correlated to brain inactivity. Beta waves are related to an active state of mind during intense, focused mental activity. Finally, gamma waves are associated with hyper brain activity.

The five brain waves: delta, theta, alpha, beta, and gamma (modified from Wikipedia)


A study by T. Y. Chai et al. demonstrated that it is possible to detect the emotional states of anger, happiness, sadness, and neutral with very high accuracy (>90%) using EEG biosensors.

Source : Effectiveness of Statistical Features for Human Emotions Classification using EEG Biosensors

Can it improve production?

MIT Technology Review found the State Grid Zhejiang Electric Power’s claim of a 2 billion yuan ($315 million) increase in profit “incredibly doubtful”. A back-of-the-envelope calculation based on the number of employees and revenue of SGZEP and the original parent company, State Grid Corporation of China (SGCC), tells us that this is a 3% increase in revenue for SGZEP – which doesn’t seem to be an outlandish claim.

If we try to answer the broadest question, “Are there any benefits?” we can point to the claims stated above and say that yes, there are. But the companies have provided no details on how the technology resulted in any positive outcomes, such as an increase in revenue, for example. Nevertheless, we can make some educated guesses as to what the positives might be.

For sure, the benefit to the company has to have come from an improvement in the performance of the workers, with their ability to do a better job.

If we consider the use of the helmets for subway operators, they were probably used to detect fatigue and reduce overworking. This could then have been used to reduce shift times or to warn the employees. Either way, a better operation can be ensured.

It is less clear how training new employees with emotion-detecting helmets results in an overall improvement in production. The company used them with virtual reality headsets to simulate different work scenarios and claims to have the employees making less mistakes as a result. It is possible that the helmets were used to alert the employees to undesirable states of mind such as inattentiveness or aggravation. This could have trained the employees to remain watchful of their emotional states while in actual production. It is clear, then, that the use of EEG helmets can result in fewer mistakes.

Ethical considerations:

Taking a step back, we can see that the technology is aimed at having employees maintain a productive, stress-free state of mind. This could appear as a situation where the employees not only have to do the physical work but also have to be wary of being stressed and displeased with the work. If used to modify the working environment to make it easier to work in, this will be a positive outcome for both the employers and the employees. But if used to establish totalitarian control over the employees, it would be a step backwards in the apparent progress we have made in human rights. Furthermore, the technology is far from perfect, somewhat subjective, and will undoubtedly produce false positives, inevitably complicating matters for both employers and employees.

Using EEG for productivity is not new:

In Australia, various industries, including mining, aviation, oil, and gas, have incorporated brain monitoring helmets into their day-to-day routines since 2015. The device, called SmartCap, looks like any regular baseball cap and is wired to conduct regular EEGs on the wearers and analyzes workers’ brain waves throughout their shifts.

The information gathered is then analyzed to see how alert the employees are, and information can be immediately relayed to specific workers in order to help them become aware of their current states and, perhaps, prevent injuries. In short, the cap also provides a live ranking of the fatigue of the workers.

Other consumer-focused products have also been using EEG sensors for improving mental state and productivity.

The Versus EEG headset connects to your iPhone or iPad via Bluetooth and records brain activity in real time. You then use the app to play certain games that help you master a state of relaxed attention using the feedback from the headset.

With Mindset headphones, you put them on and start a “work session” in the app. The electrodes in the headset start measuring your brain waves, and when they pick up that your focus is wandering, it’ll play a tone. You hear the tone, realize that your mind is wandering, and refocus. Over time, the act of noticing that you’re distracted will rewire your brain and teach you to become distracted less easily.

Is this the future?

If we were to take their claims at face value, the EEG helmets have undoubtedly been profitable for the companies that implemented them. And in such a case, it is only inevitable that we will see a spread in the use of similar technologies. Attempts to measure and influence people’s states of mind are not a new development, after all.

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