Fiona McCade: New meaning to ‘people watching’

THERE’S a man in Brisbane who won’t dare watch porn during office hours again. Perhaps he thought nobody would notice, because his desk backed on to the window and his co-workers couldn’t see.

But unbeknownst to him, people in the building opposite could see perfectly, and one of them uploaded a photo on to the internet of this hard-working employee having some R&R. After which, naturally, it went viral.

This little episode is yet another reminder to employers everywhere that just because someone is staring intently at their computer screen for long periods does not automatically mean that they are doing anything even vaguely worthwhile. However, office workers everywhere should be afraid, very afraid – not because of who’s looking over their shoulders, but because of what will one day be looking straight into their eyes.

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Computer scientists at the University of St Andrews have invented Diff Displays, a technology which “focuses on inattention”. Basically – and I mean really, really basically – when used in tandem with cameras, Diff Displays detects when you are looking at your computer screen, and when you are not.

It’s an excellent idea, meant to be used to help people in high-pressure jobs, in which they have to keep an eye on several screens at once; people like air-traffic controllers. Good old Diff Displays can remind them if they’re not paying enough attention to a certain screen – like, perhaps, the one with aeroplanes on it – and also reduce distractions from less important screens – like, perhaps, the one showing porn.

So far, so useful, but what if this gets into the wrong hands? One day, every office computer monitor might come equipped with Diff Displays, and then every poor, downtrodden plebeian trying to have a power nap will get dobbed in to the bosses for slacking on the job.

I suppose this won’t affect anybody watching porn, changing their Facebook status, or having staring competitions, because their eyes will always be wide open, but for those of us who think better when idly gazing out of the window, or up at the ceiling, or when fast asleep, our days of creativity may be numbered.

On the other hand, there’s always the slimmest of chances that empathic employers might install Diff Displays to remind their hard workers that it’s time to take a break from the screen, because they’ve been too attentive for too long.

I know, I can dream, can’t I? However, I’ve been doing exactly that, and I think I’ve come up with some even more brilliant applications for this neat little invention.

For a start, there needs to be a cinema or television version, to monitor the audience and detect who’s really watching and who isn’t. The moment someone’s eyes flick away from the screen, or start to close, an explanation of the action they’re missing can be communicated to them via an earpiece. This will prevent them from annoying the hell out of the person sitting next to them – who is actually bothering to watch the film – with questions like: “What’s happening now?” “Who’s that?” or “Isn’t that the same person that got killed at the beginning?”

Alternatively, the system could be used in vehicles, to deliver a stern warning when the driver’s eyelids begin to droop. Just add an audio-feed and it could turn any car into Kitt, the talking car from Knight Rider, ready to say: “Wake up” and save the day. Plus, some associated engineering could gently electrify the driver’s seat if the verbal alerts don’t work.

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Having said all that, chances are that the first thing most companies will use this for is spying on their workforce. And to do that, each worker’s screen, fitted with Diff Display, will need to be monitored by someone. Which conjures images of loads of people sitting in front of loads of computer screens, watching other people sitting in front of computer screens, to check if they’re doing their jobs properly.

In which case, who monitors the people sitting in front of loads of computer screens, monitoring the people sitting in front of computer screens? And who monitors them?

Suddenly, thanks to one, small technological leap forward, you have people watching people, watching people, watching people, ad infinitem, until someone falls asleep. Or gives up and starts watching porn.