The Diff Displays system in use on 3 monitors (Photo: University of St Andrews)
The Diff Displays system in use on 3 monitors
(Photo: University of St Andrews)

Scientists at the University of St Andrews have developed a new interactive computer system that can tell when you are not paying attention to what is on your computer screen.

The system, which has been named “Diff Displays,” aims to prevent users from missing anything that happens on their screens.

It will be particularly useful within an office environment as it will help to reduce distractions and increase productivity. Diff Displays may also be used in high pressure roles that require workers to monitor a larger number of screens, such as air traffic controllers and in nuclear power plants.

Dr Per Ola Kristensson, one of the researchers behind the project, dismissed claims that the system was designed to catch workers who were unproductive; instead he hoped that it would improve the workplace environment. “The technology is neutral and like anything people can do good and bad things with it. We think the potential lies in improving user experience in multi-display systems,” he said.

It works by attaching a camera to the top of the computer screen. It uses computer vision algorithms to identify the user’s eyes. When the user looks away, the screen is dimmed and changes in the display are subtly visualised over time. When the user looks back at the screen, the system quickly changes back from visualisation to actual screen content via different forms of animation. The system aims to highlight the changes that happened on the screen while the user was looking away.

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Initial tests have shown that during a single working week the system reduced the number of times someone switched their attention between displays. Following the success of these tests, the researchers hope that the system can eventually become a part of our standard operating system.

Dr Kristensson told The Saint that the next step is to “conduct a series of large-scale experiments with the system in order to get a more nuanced understanding of its benefits and implications.”

Later this week, the team will present the results of their research at the ACM International Conference on Intelligent User Interfaces (IUI 2013) in Santa Monica, California. IUI serves as the principal international forum for reporting outstanding research and development on intelligent user interfaces.

PhD student Jakub Dostal carried out the work under the guidance of Dr Kristensson and Professor Aaron Quigley in the School of Computer Science.

Dostal said, “In a world where displays are starting to surround us and crave for our attention, technologies that focus on inattention become ever so important.

“Diff Displays is an example of intelligent display technologies that can be rapidly deployed and have a positive impact on potentially billions of users.”

The system is now available as a free download for Microsoft Windows.

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