The Center for Data Innovation spoke with Arthur Nguyen-cao and Hisham El-Halabi, co-founders of Auctify, a Canadian startup which developed “Specs,” smart glasses designed to improve motivation and increase productivity. Nguyen-cao, chief executive officer and chairman, and El-Halabi, chief technology officer, discussed how combining technology like computer vision and psychological methods can help users keep track of their activities and goals.
This interview has been edited.
Eline Chivot: How did your idea to solve procrastination with Auctify come about?
Arthur Nguyen-cao: Hisham and I started Auctify when we were engineering students. We first came up with this idea because we noticed a lot of students were struggling with stress and procrastination. It is a big problem in universities, where people are adjusting to being on their own for the first time and are trying to figure out time management strategies that work for them. We noticed that there was this drug epidemic of harmful substances in universities, but no one was paying attention to it. We did more research into this and found that between 25 and 35 percent of undergraduate students use Ritalin and other ADHD “study drugs” and stimulants to keep themselves focused and avoid all-nighters or last-minute submissions. This is totally disproportionate to the 8 percent of students that actually have ADHD and are prescribed these medications. We thought there had to be a better way to solve procrastination.
Specs are particularly relevant in today’s context, with people having to switch from an office environment to a home working environment. It’s been a huge paradigm shift for a lot of people. Many of us do struggle with it. So there’s definitely some optimization that we can help out with there.
We’re currently working to transition into full production, and Specs are currently available for preorder. In the coming months we’re planning on doing a pilot program with some of our users. We have identified a lot of use-cases. For instance, a huge market we’re seeing is personal development. Some people spending a lot of time on TV and social media are looking to take all that time and repurpose it toward more valuable activities, for instance, in personal development, such as reading, writing, fitness, playing an instrument, or passion projects.
Chivot: How does Auctify Specs help people stop procrastinating?
Hisham El-Halabi: Auctify Specs are frames that track user activities and provide personalized insights, with the objective of preventing procrastination and maximizing efficiency. But more broadly, we’ve designed this product as being more than just a tool that helps you focus at work or at school, but also something that helps you focus on whatever matters the most to you, and work towards any personal goals you can’t seem to make time for.
El-Halabi: We use a variety of sensors coupled with our proprietary computer vision software, and machine learning technology to detect the users’ activities as they go about their day. We capture data points through these sensors, encrypt them on the glasses, and send them securely by Bluetooth over to the user’s phone, where our companion mobile app decrypts the data and uses our machine learning models to process it and classify what activities users are participating in. Afterwards, the raw data is discarded, and these activities are logged in the app for users to view throughout the day.
Nguyen-cao: We found that the only thing that can really track your productivity all day would be something that the user wants to wear all day. In the case of eyeglasses, this is something that people already wear all day. Frames are easy and safe to use. We thought that if we could make it normal-looking enough, it could replace someone’s existing eyewear, and that would be a very simple way for this person to easily capture this data throughout the day without doing anything or having to think about collecting it.
With our engineering backgrounds, we were able to build the product, apply the technology, collect and use the data to classify what the users’ activity is, and detect when they lose focus. But then the challenge becomes, when you detect that people are losing focus, how do you get them to refocus? Do you just tell them to get back to work? Do you send them notifications? Procrastinating is really something that depends on human willpower and the working-smarter-not-harder type of mentality.
This is why we’ve been working with a team of expert advisors that are neuroscientists, psychologists, and psychiatrists. They gave us a lot of feedback on our product, helping us to develop some of the methods that we’ve been using to motivate people, and to validate those methods. This was helpful to improve the design of our notification and cueing systems to motivate users to refocus.
Along with their feedback, we also applied a number of specific and novel methods in positive psychology aimed to address procrastination. Procrastination is inherently addictive. Indeed, it stems from a phenomenon called delay discounting, which means that people like to prioritize short-term rewards over long-term rewards. So if I can watch Netflix now and feel good about myself for watching Netflix now, rather than work hard now, which is tough but will then lead to a reward or a promotion in the future or to the development of a skill that will benefit me in the future—most people are more likely to choose the short-term reward. The key to solving this isn’t just to force yourself to stop procrastinating, it’s to use other rewards to entice you to do more valuable activities.
One of the methods we’re using is mindfulness training. It is one of the top methods in research being used to treat substance abuse and to treat stress. We thought that if mindfulness training is efficient enough to treat serious substance abuse, we could also use it to treat less addictive or harmful behaviors like watching TV or going on social media. What is used in mindfulness training is curiosity, as this is inherently a huge reward: People love to get curious and learn new things. Mindfulness training asks you questions to help you reevaluate the productivity of your activities, to help you get really curious about what you’re currently doing, and about what you could achieve by doing other more productive, more valuable things. That is one of our top, most effective methods for helping people spend their time differently and on what they really want to be doing.
We are also using positive reinforcement with gamification features, which are making productivity and focus into a game so that one collects points and gets rewarded when setting, achieving, and exceeding personal goals. We are also using mental conditioning, which involves playing an auditory or LED cue when individuals get distracted so they get reminded to go back to what their activity was.
The notifications are tricky because you have to design them to be really personalized, taking into account the users’ goals, interests, and aspirations. You can’t just tell them “You’ve been watching Netflix for two hours.” You have to create a certain level of self-accountability based on the depth of the information they’ve given you before. So for example, instead of “Stop watching Netflix,” the prompt would rather be: “Two weeks ago, you’ve set a goal to read more, and right now you’ve been watching Netflix for 30 minutes.” Making users more self-aware and self-inspired to be more productive is a much more effective strategy than making them feel bad about themselves.
El-Halabi: It’s one thing to be told what you should be doing, it’s another to receive a recommendation to take part in a mindfulness training session in which you can reflect on how you’re spending your time and decide for yourself what you should or could be spending it on. And that’s where we find people are most inspired and more motivated to put down their phone and pick up a guitar or go to the gym.
Chivot: Procrastination may be a universal problem, but productivity can be defined and experienced in various ways. How is Auctify Specs addressing this?
El-Halabi: Productivity definitely varies and means different things to different people, and that’s why we have made that as a customizable parameter within our companion app. Within the app, users can choose conveniently what activities they consider to be productive, and those which they think they tend to procrastinate with, so that Specs can help them avoid those activities. The glasses actually only classify something as productive if you tell it to. For example, if you want help to watch TV all day, you can go onto the app, swipe “TV” as “productive;” if you want help to study, choose “studying” as your productive activity and that will be tracked as such; you can choose “typing on Google Docs” as “productive;” and so on.
Chivot: How can people use these glasses for purposes that go beyond addressing productivity at work?
Nguyen-cao: Auctify Specs are normal-looking eyeglasses, so they can be prescribed and replace your regular eyeglasses. But they don’t just track your focus: It’s already possible to integrate our product with many smartphone-based applications and other activities such as virtual assistant programs. For instance, you can use it to play music. We use bone-conducting sound transducers, a technology that propagates music or sound through the bones in your skull, to your ear. In doing that, you can play music without anyone else around you hearing it. No device or plugs have to be placed in your ear, which allows you to play in music without losing awareness of your surroundings. You can also track exercise: Our biosensors are used for both track and focus, and they can also track your heart rate, the calories you burn, and the steps you take throughout the day—basically providing an alternative to the fitness tracking that you get from an Apple Watch or a Fitbit.
El-Halabi: You can also take calls with your glasses, and talk to your virtual assistant on your phone, like Siri or Alexa.
Nguyen-cao: Another feature that we’re aiming to have built by launch is screen tracking. There already are a few such software that can track how much time you spend on Netflix, on Facebook, etc. We wanted to take this idea and integrate it into Specs, so that it can track not only when you’re on your laptop, but also what you are doing on your laptop (such as time spent on Netflix or Facebook), when you’re not on your laptop, when you are using other devices, and what you are doing on these devices. That’s all just more information that can be used to help people evaluate how they spend their time throughout the day.
El-Halabi: This would also give users the opportunity to be more specific as to what they want to be productive with and what they want to avoid. For instance, they can set Twitter as “unproductive” and will receive an alert when they’ve gone to Twitter on their phone or laptop.
Chivot: How do you plan to make your Auctify Specs an accessible product that can be more broadly adopted?
Nguyen-cao: There’s definitely a stigma about smart glasses. One reason that prevents the broad uptake of these technologies is that people have concerns over privacy. So to make people feel more comfortable with this tech, we’ve built a system architecture that maintains and protects that. For example, all of the data processing is done on your phone hardware. Most companies use their own servers for processing, which means your device sends data to your phone, which itself sends that data to an external server, which itself is online, in the cloud—so if someone hacks that server, that person can get access to all of that data. We’ve designed our system so that your sensor data never leaves your phone and your person in the first place, so that it’s impossible to hack without physically breaking into your phone in person. That’s how we’re hoping to battle that stigma and make people feel really comfortable with the product.
El-Halabi: Another reason why smart glasses haven’t been massively adopted is because most of these products don’t look like regular glasses. When you put them on, it’s very clear that you are mainly trying some radical new technology. That can be uncomfortable in public. We’ve gone to great lengths to design Specs to look as indistinguishable from regular glasses as possible. At the time, to be fair, the technology wasn’t where it is today, so making that more discreet was not possible to the extent that it is now.