Office monitor

Personal computers could soon advise workers in meetings that they are talking too much, drinking too much coffee or have slept too little, according to researchers in the US.

Personal computers could soon advise workers in meetings that they are talking too much, drinking too much coffee or have slept too little – and tell your boss at the same time – according to researchers in the US.

The research project, known as Mentor/Pal, is in two parts – the Personal Assistance Link (Pal) made up of tiny sensors and transmitters monitoring each team member, and the Mentor computer program which will process information from each Pal unit.

The brainchild of researchers at Sandia National Laboratories, Mentor/Pal is being developed for use with teams in critical national security situations, such as military and homeland security operations centres. But according to project co-ordinator, Professor Peter Merkle, it could be applied to any situation where groups of people need to collaborate and make important decisions on complex tasks.

Each Pal unit monitors perspiration and heartbeat, reads facial expressions and head motions, analyses voice tones and correlates these to keep individuals informed with an up-to-the-moment account of how they are feeling.

This information is communicated to the Mentor programme – which will be constantly compiling a map of the individual’s vital signs and comparing this map with a ‘best performance’ map tailored to each individual.

The information is instantaneously transmitted to others in the meeting and pop-up messages could advise, for example, that an individual should stop talking, or that the team leader rests a person who is not performing.

Sandia’s researchers have used prototypes of the Pal system for research into group cognition.

Although they envisage a completed Pal unit to be a wireless, wearable IT device, the prototype is constructed from fixed-location PCs, EEGs, voice recognition systems, face videos, accelerometers and wired sensors monitoring key strokes and mouse clicks.

During 12 research sessions groups of five were monitored by Pal units while playing a computer game. The test data is being used to develop the Mentor programme, which is still in its early stages.

Professor Merkle sees his research as vital to the development of a symbiosis between humans and machines, ultimately creating ‘humachines’ of which this system is a prototype. Such humachines will allow humans and computers to ‘co-operate through voice, gesture and thought’, he claimed. Sandia has invested $200,000 (£110,000) in the research and plans to develop the project with the University of New Mexico this year.