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New Software Forces You to Pay Attention During Company Training

Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, 1971

Photograph by Ronald Grant/Hawk Films/Warner Bros via Everett Collection

Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange, 1971

What employee hasn’t watched a few YouTube (GOOG) videos during the half hour or so running time of the company’s required online training course? Alas, this may become a memory of simpler times. Online training technology company Mindflash on Tuesday announced a new feature called FocusAssist for iPad that uses the tablet’s camera to track a user’s eye movements. When it senses that you’ve been looking away for more than a few seconds (because you were sending e-mails, or just fell asleep), it pauses the course, forcing you to pay attention—or at least look like you are—in order to complete it.

Sound kind of creepy, even Big Brother-y? Mindflash doesn’t think so. Donna Wells, the company’s chief executive officer, writes in an e-mail: “Our focus is making sure trainees get all the information they need to do their jobs well, not penalizing learners.” Trainers do not receive any reporting on individual users’ attention spans, but they are supplied with information on which content isn’t engaging trainees.

Eye tracking isn’t being used only to keep workers in line. The Samsung (005930:KS) Galaxy S4 also will pause videos when a viewer looks away, although in that case it’s primarily intended to prevent new fathers from missing basketball highlights as they doze off in their easy chairs.

The feature was developed by a group of Stanford University Ph.D.s who also founded Sension, a “computer vision technology” company in Palo Alto that wants to use emotion- and facial-recognition technology to treat autism and Alzheimer’s disease.

Wells says that for law enforcement and health-care professionals, making sure the training is effective “can mean the difference between life and death.” The stakes are lower for office workers, but maybe they’ll finally remember how to file their expenses correctly.

Wong is an associate editor for Bloomberg Businessweek. Follow her on Twitter @venessawwong.

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