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FlowLight at work
A green light means it’s OK to chat with a FlowLight user. (UBC Photo)

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.

That’s where FlowLight could come in handy.

The gadget, invented by a computer scientist at the University of British Columbia, monitors your keystrokes and mouse clicks to determine how deeply you’re engaged in your work. When the activity hits a pre-set level, the light on the device turns from green to red.

“The light is like displaying your Skype status – it tells your colleagues whether you’re busy or open for a chat,” Thomas Fritz, an assistant professor at UBC who started work on the invention at the University of Zurich, explained in a news release.

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. Fritz took the idea and kicked it up a notch, based on the assumption that someone who’s deeply in the zone might get too focused to close a door, put up a cone or turn on a warning light.

“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,” Fritz said.

Fritz and his colleagues tested the FlowLight system with nearly 450 ABB employees at 15 locations around the world, including Vancouver, B.C. Researchers found that FlowLight users reported fewer interruptions, as well as higher awareness about times when they shouldn’t interrupt colleagues. Some reported that the lights motivated them to get their work done faster.

The system was set up so that the red light could be lit no longer than a maximum period per day, to reduce potential feelings of guilt (“Why is my light is always green?”) or competitiveness (“How long can I keep my light red?”).

In a follow-up project, Fritz and a Ph.D. student, Manuela Züger, are testing more advanced versions of the FlowLight system with biometric sensors to monitor heart rate, eye blinks and brain waves. Those experiments are being done at companies in Vancouver in collaboration with InteraXon and Mio Global.

FlowLight isn’t ready for its Kickstarter campaign yet, but Fritz will be presenting the findings from his initial round of experiments on Monday during the CHI 2017 computer conference in Denver.

In addition to Fritz and Züger, the authors of “Reducing Interruptions at Work: A Large-Scale Field Study of FlowLight” include Christopher Corley, Andre Meyer, Boyang Li, David Shepherd, Vinay Augustine, Patrick Francis, Nicholas Kraft and Will Snipes.

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