Are You A Workaholic? This Desk Light Can Help You Work Uninterruptedly

Cornelia Mascio
Mag 6, 2017

It's a classic conundrum for coders: Sometimes you get so absorbed in what you're doing that you hate being interrupted, and you can't even stop to put up a "Do Not Disturb" sign.

The inspiration for the idea came from employees at ABB Inc., who got in the habit of putting traffic cones on their desks to signal that they were too busy to talk.

"The light is like displaying your Skype status - it tells your colleagues whether you're busy or open for a chat", said Thomas Fritz, an assistant professor at UBC who started work on the invention at the University of Zurich.

FlowLight monitors a person's working pattern from keyboard and mouse activity.

The idea was inspired by an experience while working with ABB Inc., an global engineering company, where employees were resorting to putting road safety cones on their desk when they were coding and didn't want to be interrupted. When the activity lessens, it goes back to green.

FlowLight being tested at ABB Inc. an engineering firm in Zurich Switzerland
ABB Inc. and Thomas Fritz Flow Light being tested at ABB Inc. an engineering firm in Zurich Switzerland

To avoid employees competing or feeling guilty for "slacking", the device is created to turn red for a maximum amount of time each day no matter how hard someone works. This is to keep people from feeling that they're not working hard enough, or from competing with their coworkers.

Testers of the gadget - 450 members of staff at the company who used traffic cones - reported fewer interruptions, greater motivation to finish work faster, and a greater awareness of when they could interrupt colleagues.

That said, people can certainly be "in the zone" yet not using their computer.

Because keyboard and mouse activity are not the only indications that someone is hard at work, Fritz and his PhD student Manuela Züger from the University of Zurich, developed and tested a more advanced version of the FlowLight with companies in Vancouver to determine whether it can be improved by using biometric sensors to detect heart rate variability, pupil dilation, eye blinks or even brainwave activity.

The results from the initial FlowLight trial with ABB will be presented Monday in Denver, Colorado at the CHI 2017, an Association for Computing Machinery conference.

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