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Dublin: 14 °C Thursday 17 October, 2019

Bye bye large Americano, hello alertness algorithms: The future of your morning coffee

Technology has the potential to replace your caffeine fix, writes Sarah Harford.

Image: Shutterstock/Efetova Anna

The way we live is changing fast. Every fortnight in our Future Focus series, brought to you by Volkswagen, we’ll look at how one aspect of everyday life could change in the future. This week: your morning coffee.

THE MORNING ALARM goes off, you crawl out of bed and head to the kitchen for a cup of coffee. Sound familiar?

We may be a country that loves a cup of tea, but three-quarters of Irish people are now coffee drinkers, according to Bord Bia, with over half drinking more than one cup a day. Some may love the rich taste, others may crave the burst of energy that comes with a caffeine hit.

Caffeine stimulates the nervous system and can put people in a state of alertness, which is what makes coffee so addictive. But with new developments in science and technology all the time, are there other ways or better ways that we could be getting that coffee fix in the future?

There are already a few alternative products on the market, from HVMN’s chewable coffee cubes, to the Perk bracelet that is supposed to put caffeine straight into the wearer’s system like a nicotine patch or a coffee IV drip.

But according to Charles Spence, professor of experimental psychology at Oxford University, we may not even need to consume the caffeine in coffee to give us a boost in the morning.

“There’s debate around what is it in the coffee that alerts you – is it just the caffeine or is it the smell of the coffee? When I smell a coffee I’m anticipating what’s going to happen next and my body will get ready,” he says.

Coffee spray

“Aromas or fragrances, smells like peppermint or citrus, can alert people and can make them better at performing tasks. So if the smell of coffee makes you more alert, then we could make a little spray to put in your bag or pocket, giving you a pick-me-up with a sniff of coffee. That might be one different means of delivery in the future.”

Coffee drinkers will be familiar with the ups and downs of their caffeinated friend – drink too little and you’ll have withdrawals, drink too much and you’ll get the jitters; drink too early and the effect will wear off, drink too late and you’ll be awake all night. So how do we get the balance right for the perfect pick-me-up?

Researchers with the US Army have developed an algorithm that calculates how much caffeine you should consume, and what time you should drink your coffee, in order to achieve peak performance.

Source: Shutterstock/kikovic

A recent study found that the algorithm helped people improve alertness by up to 64% – without consuming any more caffeine than usual.

Although it’s currently being tested on soldiers, there are plans to ultimately license the technology. This means there could be a personalised mobile app available that would predict when and how much coffee you should be drinking to get the optimum level of alertness.

“In the future, technology could help customise your personal routine,” adds Spence. “Some people are morning people, some are more evening people. Your technology will know if you’re an owl or a lark and can calculate what you need.”

Awakening alternatives

Our alertness levels naturally rise and fall through the day, so what should we do when we need a non-caffeine way to perk us up? Dr Andrew Allen, psychology researcher at Maynooth University, has been looking at something entirely different that could boost alertness and productivity – chewing gum.

In a number of recent studies, Allen and others found that chewing gum can offset reductions in alertness over time, suggesting that the simple act can enhance performance at work. While it may not have the caffeine kick of a cup of coffee, he notes that there could be different reasons why gum has such an effect.

“It might be something related to the motor activity in the facial muscles, which leads to a slight increase in sympathetic arousal when people are doing boring sustained-attention tasks. I think there’s also something about a sharp mint or menthol flavour that has kind of an awakening effect.”

So should we all switch to chewing a stick of gum in the middle of the work day instead of having an afternoon coffee?

“I suppose with coffee it does take a certain amount of time for the pharmacological effect of caffeine to kick in. With chewing gum you’re more in control of the time frame,” Allen adds.

Vibrations and flashing lights

“But it depends on the type of task you’re doing. Our research was based on quite boring tasks that would be more likely associated with disengagement or mind wandering. The effect is most clear when someone’s attention is beginning to flag if they’re doing a task that requires sustained attention over a considerable period of time.”

Elsewhere, there are also slightly more high-tech methods of staying alert that we could see in the future.

US company Vigo has developed a headset that tracks your blink patterns and head motions to detect when you’re getting sleepy. The device then nudges you awake with vibrations, discreet flashing lights, turning up your music or suggesting that you make a phone call.

A driver wearing the Vigo alertness headset Source: Vigo

Designed with long-distance drivers in mind, Vigo also comes with an app that monitors driving performance and aims to give users suggestions for better routines, like when to take a break.

The idea of being nudged awake by a device at work might sound a bit extreme, but Allen adds that there’s “a lot of hype around neurostimulation”, with researchers looking at non-invasive techniques like magnetic stimulation, which may be able to target areas in the brain to enhance attention further down the line.

“There’s a lot of research still to be done, especially into the ethics of these kind of approaches and what the long-term effects are. But I certainly think that will be an area of interest in the future.”

So while technology may someday play a part in how we keep alert, for now it might just be easier to stick to your morning Americano, or maybe try chewing some gum. 

The future is nearer than you think. The Volkswagen e-Golf is an electrifying driving experience, combining modern design with future-facing technology including gesture control and unique connectivity. Discover more at Volkswagen.ie. Volkswagen: we make the future real. 

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