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Apple iPad Thumbs-Up: Brain Fitness Value, and Limitations

Posted Feb 11 2010 5:28pm 1 Comment

In a previous article for iPad2SharpBrainsI asked whether the Apple tablet (the iPad) would hinder or support cognitive fitness. HereI assess the iPad against the criteria I laid out previously. I then assess its potential for brain fitness in general. I am relying on Apple’s information; I have not yet used the iPad.

The iPad has been covered all over the netand Apple has much information on its websiteso I will not repeat that hereexcept to say that the iPad looks like a 9.7 inch iPod with a multi-touch LED-backlit IPS screen. It can run all iPod applications and more. It is a rather spectacularattractive platform for doing all of what you can do with an iPod but with compelling possibilities that a larger screen presents. It is also an eBook reader and an extremely impressive gaming machine. It is priced very competitively ($500 and up). I imagine that many people will forgo purchasing an iPoda game stationa netbook and an e-reader and apply their savings to this device.

The iPad itselfand as part of a technological ecosystem of products that work togetheris something which has major implications for the brain fitness market.

The following table summarizes the check-list from my previous article.

Table 1 iPad Evaluation Check-List

Criteria Assessment
Powerful personal task-manager Yes (Third-party)
Graphic Organizer Yes (third-party)
Powerful outliner Yes (third-party)
User-activity monitor No (but within reach of Apple)
Integrated self-testing system No (third-party can do part of this).
Major Cognitive Features
System integration and syncing Yes (for what is providedannotations not yet supported)
Rich annotation framework No (but it is within reach of Apple)
Collaboration Some (annotations not supported)
Mute function (Attention Protection) Close (iPad is attention-friendly)
Affordablerated content Major publishers are on board; book prices currently high; intelligent quality rating system not announced

1. Applications Checklist

Apple has enabled much of whatchecklist is needed for the iPad to meet the application criteria I laid out. The iPad is not just an e-readerit is an application platform for cognitive productivitybrain fitness and learning. It will run all existing (140,000 and counting) iPod applications. Some of the applications I called for are already on the Apple App Storethough they will require (forthcoming) enhancements.

I previously noted the need for a task managera graphic organizeran outlinerand a spaced learning system. These applications will not be pre-installed on the iPad. Howevermany vendors have already announced that their Mac OS X cognitive productivity applications (including graphic organizersoutliners and task managers) are being ported to the iPad. Sowe can tick those criteria off.

Apple has developed specifically for the iPad inexpensive iWorks productivity applications for composing documentsspreadsheets and presentations. This is implicit support for active learning on the iPad. In additionApple’s existing iPod applications are also available for the iPad.

I was puzzled by the absence of a dictionary on the iPad home page. Users should not have to research and download dictionaries themselvesparticularly since a useful dictionary is available on OS X (its ecosystem relative).  

2. User Monitoring

I expressed the need for a user activity monitorwhich was not provided. What I mean here is that the Apple should include operating systemMobileMe and application support for monitoring and reporting on how the user is spending their time across the Apple ecosystem. This support should securely and configurably be useable by third party applications so that they can report activity and consume statistics (subject to privacy settings). This presents many significant scientificusability and technical challenges; but the functionality could be delivered over time in an incrementaluser-friendly fashion.

Why dwell on this? Firstuser activity monitoring would allow the user to gauge and redirect the use of their most precious resource: their brains. The overabundance of information and activities we can perform on computers is a major brain challenge. Task switching with computers is so easy that hardware and software support is required to report on how we are spending our time. Who amongst us precisely knows how much time they really spend writing emailreadingetc.

Seconduser activity monitoring would provide very innovative support for the brain fitness needs expressed at the 2010 SharpBrains Virtual Summit and in the SharpBrains Guide to Brain Fitness:

  1. Assessment is a key component of brain fitness.
  2. Independent measures of performance are required.
  3. Brain fitness software must increasingly challenge one’s developing abilities.
  4. Brain fitness software needs to keep users motivated and engaged.
  5. Some software should tell us what part of one’s brain one is using.

All those propositions require support for monitoring the user’s activities.

Apple’s user activity monitor could conceivably provide chart summaries of one’s time on YouTubemailsafarithe phonetextingetc.across its entire ecosystem (iPadiPhoneOS X). This could allow one to tell one how much time one spends skimming contentactively readingwritingdrawingetc. One’s reading rate could be measured and tracked. The iBooks application could reflect how much time one has spent interacting with any given bookchapter or page (ditto for other applications).

Apple provides Activity Monitor for its Macsbut that merely reports computer metrics. There is more to gain in measuring how our cognitive time is spent than the processor’s time.

A user monitoring tool could provide independent measures of performance so that we can assess the impact of using brain fitness products on users. Is the user now goal-setting more regularly with a personal task manager than before? Is the user skimming much content (and consequently not learning much in depth)? This could be related by third party software to brain areas: How much time is the user spending leveraging his or her visual cortex (using a drawing applicationannotating imageswatching physics demos)? And what part of the user’s auditory cortex is he or she leveraging (podcasts vs. music)? Is the user taking notes during the podcasts? While reading?

Apple prefers simplicity whereas user monitoring is complex. HoweverApple has been known to deliver sophisticated innovatione.g.with iPhoto’s face recognition. UltimatelyApple could leverage embedded cameras for eye tracking (to detect when one is reading vs. away from the computer)various iPad sensorsits operating systemsMobileMe or sync services to integrate and report user activity data. This would open huge doors to brain fitness software vendors. Only a company like Applewhich controls a large part of the ecosystemcan deliver a comprehensive user-activity monitoring solution.

3. Rich Annotation Framework

I noted previously that active learning on a tablet requires a rich annotation system. This wouldfor exampleallow users to highlight resourcesattach notes to themand browse their annotations. Apple has not yet demonstrated annotation for the iPad. Grantedannotation is a difficult nut to crack. It is unfortunate that many years after the advent of the webusers still do not have a standard way to mark up what they read. Annotation capabilities would greatly facilitate active reading on the iPad and Macs. ThereforeI will describe annotation requirements in more detail so that industry and consumers alike realize what is needed for the iPadcomputers and e-book readers to become more cognitively useful devices.

A large number of annotation products have been introduced in the past (I have led the development of three large ones myself.) Yet annotation cannot be adequately supported on a piecemealapplication-by-application basis. Annotation ultimately requires operating system and ecosystem services. Brieflythis is the crux of what is needed:

  • a set of cross-deviceoperating system services and application services that allow users to easily index (link) and annotate arbitraryfine-grained resources with a consistentsimpleyet powerful user-interface involving highlightingrich text editingtaggingdrawingdoodlingvoice recordingetc.
  • All types of resources needed to be annotatable (web pagese-booksMailphotosPDFsimagesvideosfilesthird-party resourcesetc)
  • an annotation browser that allows users to review their annotations and quickly access the specific content that they have annotated ( they review for an examprepare a presentationor write a document).
  • IP syncing of user annotations to a web service (e.g.MobileMe) so that users can access their annotations and their annotated content on multiple devices.

Apple is a very controlled companyso I imagine that if they have not yet provided annotation support in its ecosystemit is because they are still working on the problem and want to tackle it in a comprehensive and user-friendly manner. That is acceptable. Howeverthis being 2010it is now time for Apple to begin to provide more adequate support for active learning. I find it difficult to imagine how any e-reader competitor can defeat Apple if Apple were to deliver a proper annotation solution. Apple is uniquely positioned to deliver on thisbecause Apple controls the entire ecosystem and is usability-oriented. Apple could deliver the functionality in a series of software updates. Not all annotation features need to be available on the iPad itselfsome are more suitable to Macs.

Until annotation functionality is providedmuch of the potential of technology to support active-learning will remain untapped.  

4. Syncing Services and Collaboration

Apple seems to have delivered some of the major criteria I mentioned regarding syncing both purchased and user-created iPad contentacross the ecosystem. Purchased booksand user-content will be synced through the new iBooks application (same concept as iTunesbut for books). My ecosystem criterion requires that the iBooks application be available on OS X so that one can read the same book on multiple platforms (as one can listen to music on a Mac or an iPod). This will be something to watch out for.

One of the potentially collaborative features for the iPad is the provision of WIFI shared folders. Alsothe iPod has many collaborative features and applications which will translate to the iPad. And we can look to third party vendors to innovate here.  

5. Mute Function (Attention Filter)

I called for an easily accessible mute function for the iPad. It is not yet provided by Apple but the device does have a related design featureand they do have the technology to deliver what is needed. The rationale for the mute function is that performing cognitively demanding taskssuch as active learning and problem solvinginvolves executive brain mechanisms whose performance degrades significantly when they are interrupted. As John Medina argued in Brain Rules (pp. 84-88)it is a myth that humans are good at multi-tasking. Being bombarded with notifications from emailinstant messagingiPhone callstext messagesSkype/iChat invitationsadvertisementslyrical musicetc.interferes with productive thinking and reading due to the architecture of the brain and mind. In this respectcontrary to popular criticismthe iPad’s apparent lack of multi-tasking may be a very significant cognitive advantage.

Apple holds a venerable position with respect to the potential for automating attention filtering. Because Apple provides an ecosystem of products and servicesit could actually provide an ecosystem-wide mute function. This would allow the user to send a signal to globally suppress all but the most urgent interrupts. This attention filter could provide an uninterrupted block of productive learningthinkingetc. Some parents might see value in their children being seduced by a wondrous gadget that actually encourages undisturbedactive reading. Parental controls might even allow parents to press the global mute button themselves during their kids’ (or their own!) homework time.

6. Affordability and Rating of Content

The availability and percolation of quality content is a major unheralded factor for brain fitness.

Abundance of content will be a strong point for iPad. Major publishers are on board. Others will need to follow to remain competitive. The entire Amazon offering will be available with the Kindle application (which seems to remove the need to purchase a Kindle). Alsothe iBooks application allows content to be downloaded very intuitively.

Pricing will need to evolve with market pressures that are not in Apple’s control. E-book prices ought to be a much smaller fraction of a physical book than Apple has mentioned so far. I suspect the solution to this lies in the upcoming emergence of a new bread of publishers who will bet on Apple’s iBooks Store. These newsavvy publishers will need to compete by providing high quality content at low prices. The largest publisher of books 5 years from now might be a company that is as unknown to most of us today as eBay or Google initially was.

When considering the cost of purchasing books for an iPadwe need to consider the surprisingly low-cost of the iPad and how much value it provides to users. The iPad is a convergence device. This single fact will allow many customers to forgo the purchase of either a netbooka gaming stationa portable video playeran iPod or other MP3 player. Alsothe software on the App store tends to be affordable and is abundant. It will also give parents an additional option to provide a computer to their families.

Finallythere is the issue of intelligent rating and percolation of quality e-books. Brain fitness requires that we read the best content and not be distracted by the rest. Ideallywe should spend time reading powerful ideas that “stretch” our minds. Current rating systems are not up to this challenge; this is an area for innovation. An intelligent content rating system would reflect relevanceoriginalitydifficultycomplexityannotation density and coherence of contentalong with other data including the user’s profile. Such a system could leverage (future) monitoring and annotation data (depending on privacy settings).

In sumit looks like there will be an abundance of contentthough pricing and rating systems are to be determined.

7. iPad vs. Paper

To determine how the iPad will compare with paper will require usability studies. Having carefully analyzed Apple’s iPad keynote address and worked on productive e-reading solutions for several yearsthe iPad seems very impressive to meeven at a distance.

  • The form factor and physical handling seem right.
  • The multi-touch technology has over 1,000 sensors; it seems very responsive.
  • It uses a premium in-plane switching liquid crystal display for viewing from multiple angleswhich is important for comfort.
  • Content navigation is my major concern with e-readers. iPad and iBooks have some very impressive tricks to match and improve on paper. The tactile flipping of pages seems very intuitive. Navigation to and with the table of contents is efficient. There is a subtle but crucial navigation bar at the bottom of the page which reflects one’s place in the book and allows one to navigate quickly to a particular page. There are other (fade-out) navigation controls.
  • The iPad’s annotation system is lacking (though there seems to be bookmarking)but this is within Apple’s grasp with a software update.

Reader’s whose eyes cannot handle LCD may need to use an alternative to this integrated environment with e-pub formatted books that support videoanimation and so much more.

8. Lack of Adobe Flash: Implications for Brain Games

Adobe Flash is software made by Adobe that allows users to play videos and run programs within most of their web browsers. Apple refuses to allow Adobe Flash to be installed on iPadiPods or the iPhone.

This presents a challenge for many brain fitness web sitesbecause they tend to implement their software using Flash. Should the industry be clamoring for Apple to support Flash? I personally think notbut this is perhaps the source of most frustration with the iPad. It is a sufficiently important and complex issue for me to elaborate on.

Apple’s exclusion of Flash is not a matter of commercial rivalry. (Credits to Steve Leach for elucidating some of the following reasons behind Apple’s position.) In sumFlash has been plagued by serious securitystabilityperformance and other problems. Here is how that relates to brain fitness:

  • Security. If the iPad is to be a major brain fitness platform on which sensitive user and productivity data will be stored (’s neuropsychological profileone’s IQ ratingsetc.)then the absence of some major security vulnerabilities in an era of increasing malware may be advantageous.
  • Stability and performance. A tablet that slows downloses battery power too fastor crashes while one is trying to work is not always as useful as one that does not.
  • Speed of innovation. Apple’s not having to contend with third-party vendors of virtual machines like Flash and Java means that it can more quickly innovate and resolve problems with fewer risks. The brain fitness marketwhich is leading-edgestands to benefit from this speed.
  • Flash is a major vector for pornography (though there are other means).
  • Apple and Google supports HTML 5 including open standard alternatives to Flash videos (but not running arbitrary applications).

The iPad offers a large number of very interesting hardware and software features that cannot be leveraged in a browser via Flash (e.g.accelerometerdigital compassmulti-touch displayand a camera enclosure for future development). Hencemore sophisticated brain fitness applications ought to be written directly for the iPad. An alternative for brain fitness companies that do not want to write a native iPad or OS X application is to partner with thin-client gaming companies such as

I encourage readers to have a very careful look at the Apple iPad keynote presentation’s section on the app store (and gaming)which starts 29 minutes 48 seconds into that video. The iPad seems to be a surprisingly powerful gaming platform that will attract many children and young adultsgiven its compelling value proposition (not to mention the Apple brand itself).

Customers who prefer the advantages and current ubiquity of Flash will vote with their dollars and have recourse to devices running Google and Microsoft operating systems.

Concluding Remarks

The iPad seems poised to be thumbsupa commercial success. It fulfills many of the requirements that it sets out to fulfill. And it meets many of the requirements that I called for in my article. And what it doesn’t do it can potentially do with updates. The iPad represents a compelling new class of convergence devices. It has a powerful software development kit that will be very attractive to developers of brain fitness applications. The Mac operating system (on which iPad applications are written be written) is a versatile and increasingly popular software development platform. So at a minimumthe iPad is a platform which the brain fitness market will need to prepare for.

LucPBeaudoin-225x300Dr. Luc P. Beaudoin is Adjunct Professor of Education at Simon Fraser University. He specializes in theoretical and applied cognitive science. He has been doing research and development on integrated learning environments since 2001. He is also doing research and development in the areas of cognitive fitness and productivity. He was amongst the first employees of two of Canada’s most successful high tech startups (as software developer and writer). He has also been Assistant Professor of Military Psychology and Leadership.

Thanks to Carl FordeCarrie Spencer and Stephen K. Leach for reviewing and commenting on drafts this article.
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Apples War on Amazon
One of the biggest new features on the iPad, Apple’s newest gotta-have-it gadget, is the iBook store. Many of the blogger listed on the blog index at were saying that- Never mind that Amazon’s Kindle E-Reader, which runs on E-ink, is supposed to be easier on the eyes; the new Apple full color Apple device is going to sell like hotcakes.
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