The holy grail of Information Overload solutions
Interruptions are a major component of Information Overload (indeed, they cause more harm than the rightly reviled second component, email overload, as I’d shown here). However, we’ve known for years that not all interruptions are created equal: the damage depends on the context. An unrelated phone call while you’re taking an exam certainly does more harm than one when you’re slouching in front of the TV.
Microsoft Research had developed a wonderful application some years ago called Priorities, which looks at every aspect of a knowledge worker’s attentional context to determine whether to pass an interrupt (pop an incoming message alert, or ring the phone) or to block or divert it. Though never released to the public, Priorities worked quite well by being continuously aware of numerous contextual parameters: what applications the user is using, what their calendar says they’re doing, what deadlines they face, whether they’re talking to someone… every parameter you could want, in fact, save one: it couldn’t know what you were thinking, whether you were in the middle of some focused thought process or not. That would be the holy grail of Information Overload intervention: to read one’s thoughts in real time and react accordingly.
That capability had to wait until last January, when Dr. Ruggero Scorcioni developed Good Times, an application that routes interrupting cellphone calls based on actual brain activity. This came about in a somewhat amusing manner, and was therefore featured in a media flurry (e.g. here), causing many readers to chuckle. Not me, though: I knew I had to hear more, and I reached out to Ruggero on LinkedIn (as I try to do with every Info Overload practitioner I can find – if you are one and we aren’t connected, don’t just sit there!). We then had a fascinating conversation, and I learned a great deal about this innovative entrepreneur and his brainchild. Read on…
Unusual origin of an unusual application
Ruggero Scorcioni has one of those interesting, flexible careers I like so much. He started as a computer programmer at IBM, then decided that the brain is far more interesting, got a PhD in neuroscience and took a position in the Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla, CA. In January he attended an AT&T Developers Summit in Las Vegas, where he entered a 26 hour Hackathon challenge to develop a mobile phone application. He was one of a hundred of the 500 participants to receive a free set of Necomimi brainwave cat ears, which uses an electrode on the head to perk up the furry ears when their owner is mentally active. This was meant as a gag, but Scorcioni decided to hack the hardware of this very simple brainwave monitor, hook it up to an Arduino controller and add the software to create what he called a mentally activated “Do not Disturb” button – a setup that transfers incoming calls to voicemail when your brain waves indicate concentrated thinking.
This unusual application was so cool it was voted first place out of 70 submitted projects, netting the surprised Ruggero $30,000. And then – being a true entrepreneur – he decided to use the money to found a startup, BrainYno, to develop the idea further. At this time he is developing prototypes for a commercial product – sans furry ears, of course, but applying the same concept to implement the aforementioned holy grail!
You can see a video of the winning pitch at http://youtu.be/ZPFkqJp3Upc.
The promise and the challenge
What makes this venture interesting IMHO is the tension between its promise and the difficulties it may face. In principle, a system that can defer or route interruptions based on the intended recipient’s actual real time brain state could be immensely beneficial to knowledge workers, who are today interrupted every few minutes throughout their harried workday. Where solutions like Quiet Time use a brute force approach – blocking entire time chunks – a solution like Good Times can fine tune the blocking to the times when you’re really in need of quiet… much more efficient.
Two main issues that BrainYno needs to overcome come to mind:
- Is the system’s discrimination reliable – that is, can a brain sensor simple enough to be worn for hours without annoyance actually sense your interruptibility correctly?
- Will people actually agree to use such an unusual system in day to day work?
As a neuroscientist, Dr. Scorcioni is well positioned to research the first question; the answer to the second will emerge once the system is tested on actual workers. One would also need to identify the right people to use in such tests – people like coders, whose need to get “in the flow” is legendary, may be the first to appreciate this novel protection of their focus. And should Google Glasses succeed in making us look like cyborgs, maybe one more connection will seem less objectionable?
And perhaps the best thing would be a solution that merges the brain linkage of Good Times with leading edge tools like Microsoft’s Priorities, leveraging the strengths of all the parameters one can elicit from both brains and computers to attain even better specificity and reliability.
I’m eagerly waiting to find out!