For years, innovators have tried to devise computerized gadgetry to aid the brain. Advances have come slowly, but new work unveiled in recent months has sparked enthusiasm.

Computer scientist Roel Vertegaal of Queen's University in Ontario has crafted headphones that replicate the brain's unconscious noise filter, which handles the so-called cocktail party effect. In a crowded setting, two people in a conversation use eye contact to help them focus on each other's words and tune out background noise. Vertegaal's “attentive headphones” have a camera attached to an accompanying computer that tracks a person's gaze as a cue for interaction. The technology could one day help people in trains and in coffee shops work on their laptops more productively by minimizing the effects of distractions.

At Microsoft Research in Redmond, Wash., psychologist Mary Czerwinski has tested a prototype of a helmet that, as she says, “projects infrared light into the brain from the scalp and measures optical changes as the light is reflected back out.” The manufacturer, Archinoetics in Honolulu, developed the wireless helmet for the military to try to gauge a soldier's mental workload, helping him or her act on reason rather than impulse in tense situations. Czerwinski foresees consumers possibly using such headgear to navigate shopping malls and supermarkets. At demos, individuals are sometimes wary about donning the helmet, but Czerwinski says resistance to such interactive hardware is waning as people adopt wearable technology, such as heart rate monitors.

Other advances could make driving safer. At Drexel University, computer scientist Dario Salvucci has developed a computer model that predicts how a driver's concentration on the road may be compromised by other cognitive tasks, such as listening to the radio or talking on a cell phone. Car companies have been trying Salvucci's software, along with a driving simulator, as a test bed for new accessories that do not distract drivers.