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Whilst many of us can probably remember drifting off at school during a particular lesson where the teacher failed to fully engage our attention, this could possibly become a thing of the past now that researchers have found a way to measure how engaged someone is with computer-based content.

As many more courses become available online, as well as educators employing a higher level of computer assistance during lessons, something called ‘affective-aware technology’ could potentially help increase the engagement of those people using these services. This would mean that the computer-aided lesson could recognize when a student’s interest is waning, and change either the content or delivery of the lesson to re-engage them.

Non-Instrumental Movements

A study carried out at the Brighton and Sussex Medical School found that the level of interest shown by a person using a computer can be measured using tiny actions known as non-instrumental movements. These involuntary movements are exhibited by all of us, but tend to decrease when we’re fully engaged with what we’re doing.

A common example is a young child, who is normally full of energy and unlikely to sit still for very long. But, place the same child in front of a television showing their favourite show, and they will very often become completely still and fully engaged with the characters within the show.

Dr Harry Witchel, lead author of the study, calls this ‘rapt engagement.’ He suggests that what happens to that small child watching television happens when any of us are highly engaged with something that we’re doing: those tiny movements become supressed and it is this that can be measured by a computer.

Dr Harry Witchel, BSMS

Dr Harry Witchel, BSMS (sussex.ac.uk)

Dr Witchel’s study involved placing 27 participants in front of a variety of different computer based stimuli, ranging from a computer game, to reading part of a bestselling book, and reading an extract from the banking regulations of the European Union. The study measured movement in the participant’s head, body and legs.

What they found was that when comparing two reading tasks, the bestselling book resulted in a 42 percent reduction in non-instrumental movement when compared to reading banking regulations.

Shaping future interactions

The implications of being able to monitor and track these involuntary movements could certainly be broad-reaching across a variety of different sectors. Dr Witchel said of this discovery that: “Being able to ‘read’ a person’s interest in a computer program could bring real benefits to future digital learning, making it a much more two-way process.”

For education providers, digital learning could certainly become much more personalized, using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to gauge a user’s interest and adapt the content accordingly if their attention appears to be dropping.

Looking further into the future, companion robots could also use this technology to effectively engage with people and provide a more interactive experience. Of applying this method to this particular sector, Dr Witchel added that: “It could help us create more empathetic companion robots, which may sound very ‘sci fi’ but are becoming a realistic possibility within our lifetimes.”

For those making games or even movies, being able to detect the level of interest of a test audience could certainly help to design improvements to the final product.

The study was published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology and certainly shows that the way we interact with technology in the future will become more interactive and personalized than ever.

Top image: Home Office Workstation Notebook. (Public Domain)

References:

http://www.sussex.ac.uk/newsandevents/?id=34454

https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2016.00157/full

https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/now-computers-can-tell-when-you-re-bored/#

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Emma Stenhouse, MSc

Emma qualified with a BSc (Hons) in Equine Science in 2003 and has had a passion for horses since a young age. She continued her academic career with an MSc in Applied Marine Science, gained in 2004. Emma’s main scientific focus was the navigational techniques of sea turtles and whether they use the acoustics of the surf-zone as a cue for nesting. She then worked for a sea turtle conservation project on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica before travelling to New Zealand where she worked as a Mari...Read More

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