Flowlight is an office traffic light system that lets coworkers know when you're too busy to talk

Red and green traffic lights generally work pretty well on the street, which may explain one of the reasons you got to work today in one piece. Couldn’t a similar stop-and-go concept be used in offices to let your coworkers know when they should leave you alone?

That us the slightly quirky rationale behind the Flowlight system, technology implemented by a team of researchers at the University of Zurich to help international industrial design company ABB Group to indicate when workers are “in the zone” and should not be disturbed.

“Knowledge workers are frequently interrupted by their coworkers,” Thomas Fritz, assistant professor of software quality at Zurich, told Digital Trends. “These interruptions can incur a high cost if they happen at inopportune moments, requiring a long recovery time and an increase in errors in the work. In a joint project between ABB Research and the University of Zurich, we have developed the Flowlight to reduce expensive interruptions at work. The Flowlight is a combination of a traffic light-like LED and an application that runs in the background on a user’s computer. The application automatically measures a user’s availability based on keyboard and mouse interaction and adjusts the desk traffic light’s color, as well as the Skype status of the user.”

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It is certainly a neat concept. But if you think it is just a bit of wacky office fun, like a quick impromptu Nerf battle, think again! In a large-scale longitudinal field study involving 449 ABB employees across 12 countries, Flowlight was found to reduce the interruptions of participants by 46 percent. The result was increased productivity and usage of the system which continued long after the study was over.

“The biggest challenge is the tradeoff between the FlowLight algorithm’s accuracy and the invasiveness and privacy of the user,” Fritz continued. “While monitoring more of a user’s computer interaction or the use of biometric sensors might allow us to assess the interruptibility or availability of a user better and more accurately, the more we track of the user the more invasive it is, and the more privacy concerns they have. We have therefore opted for an algorithm that is based on keyboard and mouse interaction, takes the personal history into account, and also does some smoothing of the data to avoid too many frequent changes.”

A research paper describing the work is due to be presented at the Association for Computing Machinery Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems in Denver next week. After that, Fritz said that Flowlight’s creators are working with partners to commercialize the technology.