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Imagine if your employer could track your behavior in one of the last inviolable realms in the workplace–the restroom. Imagine if someone tracked you not only every time you entered, but also watched whether you washed your hands, and whether you used soap.

Gross invasion of privacy? Or effective means for employers, especially those in the food service industry, to teach hand-washing and reduce the spread of germs?

Hygiene Guard is an electronic device used by employers to monitor workers in the restroom and track and modify their hygienic behavior. Workers wear small badges that blink when they pick up a signal from a sensor in the bathroom. The sensor does not stop blinking until the employee pumps the soap dispenser three times and runs the water for 15 seconds. Those who ignore the blinking are recorded. And penalized.

This is exactly the type of device that researchers in the Persuasive Technology Laboratory at Stanford University are researching. The group is studying and designing interactive persuasive technologies that motivate and influence users to change their behavior. They call the new field “captology,” and so far Stanford is the only university known to be studying it.

But many persuasive technologies are here already. And, the trend promises to grow as the Internet grows and becomes a stronger influence on our behavior.   

The group at the laboratory believes that the research will do a lot to inform and educate the consumer about ways they might be manipulated.

Persuasive computing technologies can bring about changes in many domains, such as health, safety, and education. But, as with the potty spying device, the means to bring about those changes can take some strange and unsettling forms.

Remember the “Egg” pregnancy prevention program? Students carried around an egg in an effort to convince them to think twice before fooling around. Now there’s a technology variation on the theme. Baby Think It Over, a lifelike vinyl doll, has a distinctive personality and cries at random intervals. The crying can only be stopped when the “parent” inserts a key into the control unit on the baby’s back. And, when the “parenting” session is over, a detailed record of perceived abuses such as neglect and shaking can be downloaded. Generating such a report is a much more influential method of teaching child care than the consequences of the old game—at worst a cracked egg and a bit of a mess.

The Stanford group’s latest idea takes them right back to the restroombut it also strives for a higher goal. The Optilex, a device that runs on a Palm Pilot, is a screen mounted above a urinal. Whenever a gentleman visits, the screen posts a new vocabulary word, its definition, and an example of its use. The theory behind the experiment is to test whether exposing a community of people to positive, happy words on a daily basis would change their behavior.

The real question is, will they remember to wash their hands?

LiNE Zine


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