U.S. Markets closed

This Software Won't Let You Look Away

Robinson Meyer
(Shutterstock/ Phatic-Photography)

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 cast a warning about the new technology of the day: the automobile. "To the countryman they are a picture of arrogance of wealth with all its independence and carelessness." Nothing, he declared, would spread socialism more quickly than cars' adoption by the wealthy.

The opposite, of course, proved true: Cars, perhaps more than any other technology, helped to democratize the country. What Wilson got right, though, is that cars were not simply, even in their earliest days, about transportation or convenience or even technology itself. They were, and have always been, cultural symbols. They have been, more specifically, status symbols. And that fact has been a significant, er, driver of cars' technological evolution. As Michael Berger notes in his The Automobile in American History and Culture, "At first, just owning a motor vehicle was sufficient to elevate one's station in life." But "as car ownership became more broadly based and car manufacturers began to produce individual makes and models aimed at members of specific socio-economic classes, social status came to be associated with a particular vehicle than ownership of a car per se." Enter the luxury car.

I mention all that not because of a new car, but because of a new phone. The next model of the iPhone, the 5C, is, apparently, set to launch in mid-September. And, according to rumors, the phone will be gold. Not figuratively, mind you, but physically: GOLD. With a case that is metallic and shiny and brings a crazy new meaning to a "brick phone." Apple, if the rumors are to be believed, is going full Midas on us.

Again, this is a rumor. So caveat, salt-grain, etc., etc. But it's worth considering why it might make sense for Apple to make a design decision that would seem to be, on the surface, so ridiculous. And one reason could have to do with the version of the phone that is the opposite of gold: the version of the phone that is plastic.

In September, if the rumors are to be believed, Apple will launch a "cheap iPhone": a phone whose plastic case, ostensibly, makes it cheaper to manufacture -- and thus to sell -- than earlier models. This is good news for consumers for whom iPhones have been financially out of reach -- and for consumers who may already own iPhones, but for whom upgrades have been out of reach. It is, overall, good.

For Apple, though, it also creates a problem. The company's stock in trade, after all, is not just well-designed consumer electronics products, but also the cultural cachet that comes along with those products. People don't wait in crazy-long lines or flock to blonde-wooded stores simply to buy good products; they do it because owning an iPhone -- and, now, owning the latest model of iPhone -- says something. About them, and about their lot in the life. The iPhone, basically, has become the personal-tech equivalent of a Louis Vuitton handbag or a BMW or a KitchenAid standing mixer. And Apple's brand, in turn, has become about more than branding of the traditional sell-the-product strain; it's also about the dynamic branding we associate with luxury goods. That branding -- that veneer of privilege and luxury -- is a crucial component of the product's value to consumers. You know those iPhone covers that offer holes in their backs in order to keep the Apple logo visible? Those say a lot.

In that context, the problem with the "cheap iPhone" is obvious: If your brand is associated with luxury, you're creating a challenge for yourself when you associate one of your products with the word "cheap." It's not an insurmountable challenge, of course -- whether they're selling fashion or automobiles, purveyors of luxury goods have long found success in creating down-market offshoots of their brands -- but it is tricky terrain to navigate. How do you expand your product's market share while maintaining a semblance of exclusivity?

Compounding the challenge, for Apple, is another problem: Phones, in their physical compactness, offer fewer and less obvious opportunities for design differentiation than, say, cars or clothes. BMW and Louis Vuitton and their counterparts simply have more physical space to experiment with when it comes to visual signals that differentiate among the levels of luxury they offer. iPhones, on the other hand, look pretty much the same. Once Apple switched the curved corners of the first three generations of iPhone in favor of the sharp angles of the next two, the obvious visual cues went away. And the less-expensive phones, per leaked images of them, will retain the same shape.

So Apple has had one obvious interface to use to differentiate among the levels of its iPhone models: the case. The white iPhone 4 was marketed as a standalone product, with Apple banking on the fact that people in the know would know that white = latest model. The iPhone 5 offered "slate" and "silver" options in addition to black and white, I'd suspect, because those are options offer obvious visual representation for the model: The phones say, right on their covers, "this is an iPhone 5." And the less-expensive iPhones, per the rumors, will offer plastic covers -- covers that are, by the looks of things, obviously plastic.

If the rumors are true, that design choice will be less about cheap iPhones and more about the expensive ones. It's a back-handed way of ensuring that elitism is maintained within the brand.

">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.

More From The Atlantic