News / Vancouver

Red light on desk means I’m on task: Vancouver invention stops work interruptions

An invention called FlowLight uses mouse and keyboard activity to sense when you're busy - and signal "don't bug me" to colleagues.

A UBC computer science professor has invented an automatic way to let colleagues know when you're concentrating hard and shouldn't be interrupted.

Alex Svensson, Flickr, Creative Commons license

A UBC computer science professor has invented an automatic way to let colleagues know when you're concentrating hard and shouldn't be interrupted.

It’s common for workers in open-plan offices to use a visual cue — a bandana, sign or even a red safety cone — to signal to co-workers that they are hard at work and don’t want to be interrupted.

But a new invention, called FlowLight, from a Vancouver-based computer scientist uses mouse and keyboard activity to automatically activate a red light to show that employees are “in the zone.”

“The light is like displaying your Skype status – it tells your colleagues whether you’re busy or open for a chat,” said Thomas Fritz, a computer science professor at the University of British Columbia.

FlowLight being tested at ABB Inc., an engineering firm in Zurich, Switzerland.

ABB Inc. and Thomas Fritz

FlowLight being tested at ABB Inc., an engineering firm in Zurich, Switzerland.

“When you’re interrupted, it can take a long time to get back into your work and it’s more likely you’ll make mistakes,” said Fritz.

Those interruptions aren’t just annoying — they can make an impact on the company’s bottom line. But FlowLight has also been designed to only turn red for a set maximum time each day, to prevent employees from feeling guilty or competing with each other to show who is the busiest bee.

Fritz is now testing FlowLight with sensors that track employees’ breathing patterns, heart rate and pupil dilation at several companies in Vancouver.

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