This Software Won't Let You Look Away

The creepiest educational technology yet

Updated, 3:45pm.

It's hard to imagine a creepier educational technology than "FocusAssist," a new feature announced by online training company Mindflash last week. Designed to be used in corporate training courses on iPad, FocusAssist, according to Businessweek:

uses the tablet's camera to track a user's eye movements. When it senses that you've been looking away for more than a few seconds (because you were sending e-mails, or just fell asleep), it pauses the course, forcing you to pay attention--or at least look like you are--in order to complete it.

Yeesh. FocusAssist forces users to pay attention to Mindflash's videos.

Even Mindflash's announcement of the feature sounds icky:

The capability, dubbed FocusAssist, monitors trainee attention and pauses a training course in the Mindflash application when trainees look away. Organizations concerned about trainee distraction and compliance during self-paced remote training can now have greater confidence that critical information is being reviewed and understood.

I was immediately creeped out by this. FocusAssist forces people to perform a very specific action with their eyeballs, on behalf of "remote organizations," so that they may learn what the organization wants them to learn. Forcing a human's attention through algorithmic surveillance: It's the stuff of A Clockwork Orange. (And BusinessWeek uses the famous eyeballs-forced-open shot to illustrate its story.)

But maybe everything just sounds creepier when you talk about it in corporatese. Is FocusAssist as insidious as it sounds?

I tried getting in touch with Mindflash by phone, email and Twitter, to no avail*. But in its marketing, the company touts the effectiveness of FocusAssist at hospitals, clinics, and other healthcare facilities. Medical workers have to keep up with a huge body of regulation, and right now that's mostly done through online corporate training. So, according to Mindflash's press release, a worker "on breaks [or] in between patient visits" can pick up an iPad, begin a training course that covers recent regulation, and then -- when they're called away or asked a question -- they can set the iPad down or just look away from it and the course will automatically pause.

This technology already exists, too, beyond corporate training. The marketers behind Samsung's Galaxy S4 devoted an entire television ad to its "smart pause" feature, which pauses the video you're watching on your phone when you look away:

The Galaxy S4 knows to pause the video you're watching when you fall asleep: the same sort of technology MindFlash uses, made friendly for, say, new dads.

But however dad-friendly Smart Pause may be, isn't FocusAssist still a little... paternal? Or Big Brother-like? It's called FocusAssist, for one, a passive-voice-tinged brand name that omits who (or what) might be doing the assisting. Couldn't it be called PauseAssist? Or PauseAware? Even in a healthcare setting, is it really difficult for a nurse to press the pause button when he's asked a question, or when he needs to go see a patient? Especially since online corporate training courses are often designed with small video clips with interstitial quizzes, so that videos don't play all the way through?

And even outside of that use case, this technology still worries me.

FocusAssist measures a poor marker of focus. What does focus mean in its name? Does it mean sustained attention? Is sustained attention best represented by locking the eyes? When I'm enraptured by a book, I'm not directing my eyes only on the book: I stop reading, I look up, I stare out the window. Even when watching a film, I'm not ceaselessly fixated on the screen. And yet sustained eye contact is held up as an example of focus.

Second, I worry because of how a technology like FocusAssist could expand. Last month, conservative thinker Reihan Salam proposed that education -- whether online or in-person -- could be either cheap or good, but not both:

[O]nce you get past the students who are the most prepared and most eager to learn, you have to apply increasing amounts of both help and hassle. That is, you need to offer personal attention and tutoring as well as discipline and structure, all of which are labor-intensive in the extreme.

I agree with Salam, and think any long-term solution in online education will account for this labor. But I also think companies which offer online courses will strive to be as cheaply "effective" for as long as they can, and that they will experiment with technologies which can promise this "effectiveness." How long until a feature like FocusAssist is rebranded as AttentionMonitor and included in a MOOC, or a University of Phoenix course? How long until an advertiser forces you to pay attention to its ad before you can watch the video that follows?

And how long, too, until FocusAssist itself is used outside of the context it was designed for? FocusAssist is designed for healthcare workers. Mindflash markets it as appropriate and useful for healthcare facilities. We simultaneously know that technologies find a use very far from the one for which they were designed: In William Gibson's phrase, "the street finds its own uses for things." When FocusAssist is just a feature, just a box for some executive to check, it's very easy to imagine the office finding its own uses for things, too.

* Soon after this article was published, Mindflash contacted me. I'm speaking with them about FocusAssist and other technologies soon.