Why you should care
Because nothing in this world is safe.
This article is NSFW — Not Safe for Work. Not because of sex or drugs or images of scantily clad women. For that, or for at least two of the three, check out my colleague’s repertoire. But if you’re at work, then under no circumstances should you be reading this article for pleasure. How dare you!
As you may know, your boss has the right to monitor your browsing history during working hours to ensure that company-issued technology is used in a productive manner. And now comes a new development that can track, monitor and optimize workers in the physical world too.
Enter the latest performance-enhancing device: eye-tracking glasses. Granted, eye-tracking tech has been around for decades within the four walls of a lab. It’s frequently used in academia for psychological studies and in software development to judge how intuitive or confusing a website is for new users. It’s only recently, though, that it’s been possible to miniaturize and integrate tracking hardware into glasses that allow wearers to freely explore the world as tiny cameras monitor every subconscious glance or iris twitch. A third front-facing camera captures the surrounding environment.
With a few fancy algorithms and some trigonometry, the glasses can output a video overlaid with a triangulated point of the wearer’s real-time gaze, explains Tom Englund, a business unit president at Sweden-based Tobii. While the glasses have been employed to test how shoppers interact with store displays, for example, the “human performance segment” — with employers using the glasses to help train or monitor workers — is a burgeoning new market, says Englund. The gizmo could lead to new workflow efficiencies, or an overreaching boss getting an even creepier level of oversight.
We aren’t looking to make [the workers] automatons, but we are looking to make them more accurate and efficient.
Page Clinton, user experience researcher, Heavey RF
It’s currently very difficult to manage employees whose jobs rely heavily on visual tasks. For quality assurance on an automotive production line, for example, best practices on how to inspect a paint job are “seldom documented well,” says Englund. Eye-tracking tech could be used to record and review the training of new inspectors; the Tobii exec cites companies whose training times have been reduced by two-thirds.
Indeed, companies deploying eye-tracking systems have been able to understand operations from a worker’s-eye view, allowing insights that were previously impossible. In a study of air traffic controllers conducted in conjunction with Sweden’s Linköping University, researchers found that controllers “were not observing conflicts in flight paths as they were supposed to,” says Billy Josefsson, an automation and human performance manager at LFV, the Swedish state-owned civil aviation authority. As for mistakes caused by fatigue or dwindling focus, “eye tracking is the most reliable source” for monitoring “attention capacity,” says Josefsson. The results of LFV’s tests prompted changes to the layout of display screens to more seamlessly alert air traffic controllers to incoming threats.
The eye-tracking tech is catching on in less highly skilled professions too. Heavey RF, an Irish company that develops technology and software for warehousing companies, has implemented glasses-mounted eye tracking to analyze the patterns of workers retrieving stock from shelves.
The eye-tracking tech can even provide a window into the mind by recording microchanges in pupil dilation and timing how long someone looks at a certain object. That way, the software can analyze whether the viewer is passively seeing something or actively looking and thinking about it. These so-called “cognitive workload” measures help Heavey RF design more efficient practices for warehouses participating in the eye-tracking tests.
In many instances, eye-tracking studies are replacing an over-the-shoulder supervisor with clipboard, pen and paper, says Englund, which is often too disruptive to workers to yield accurate results. In a variety of professions, developing a level of almost machinelike efficiency might seem alienating, but it could be the key to surviving the trend toward complete automation. “We aren’t looking to make [the workers] automatons,” says Page Clinton, who conducted the eye-tracking research for Heavey RF, “but we are looking to make them more accurate and efficient.”
The technology, however, brings with it concerns about employers monitoring workers’ every move — and indeed, their every glance. Though current applications have been limited to short-term tests and training programs (the battery and SD card storage on the glasses currently last only a couple of hours), serious privacy concerns could arise if the glasses are used around the clock for real-time monitoring. “Employers have misused every monitoring technology ever invented, and there’s no reason to think they won’t misuse this one too,” says Lew Maltby of New Jersey–based National Workrights Institute, an advocate for workplace privacy.
The potential of the technology might well boil down to the software used for interpreting the data — time-intensive analysis of eye-tracking data has proved prohibitive in early tests. The same is true for its privacy potential: If the software that interprets the data does so to look for patterns across all employers, there are few concerns, says Maltby. But if an employer can “disaggregate the data” to look at any one employee’s every eye movement throughout the day, that could be “a serious invasion of privacy.”
Big Brother — or Big Boss — may be watching you. Now, try not to think about that disturbing reality the next time your mind wanders at work.