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Last Updated: Tuesday, 8 April, 2003, 08:55 GMT 09:55 UK
Computers that watch while you work
Robotic eyes developed at Queen's University
A computer that keeps its eye on you
Canadian researchers have designed a computer that pays attention to the person using it.

With modern-day computer users struggling under a deluge of e-mail, instant messages and phone calls, researchers from the Human Media Lab at Queen's University in Ontario have decided to ease the burden.

The team is designing devices that can work out the level of attention a person is paying to their PC and the importance that each message received may have for them.

"Today's digital lifestyle has the unfortunate side effect of bombarding people with messages from many devices all the time, regardless of whether they're willing, or able to respond," said Dr Roel Vertegaal, Director of the Human Media Lab.

All-seeing computers

One of the techniques uses an eye contact sensor that allows the computer to determine whether the user is present and whether he or she is looking at the screen.

Based on this, the computer can determine when and whether to contact them.

"We now need computers that sense when we are busy, when we are available for interruption and know when to wait their turn - just as we do in human-to-human interaction," said Dr Vertegaal.

"The way we use computers has fundamentally changed," he explained.

"There has been a shift over the past four decades from many users sharing a single mainframe computer, to a single user with a single PC, to many people using many portable, networked devices."

This week Dr Vertegaal and his team of students will unveil their findings at a conference looking at human needs in computing.

Other applications developed at the Human Media Lab include a pair of robotic eyes that allow a computer to look back at the user and attentive messaging systems that forward e-mails to the device the user is currently working on.

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