How do you fidget? Do tell…
New York – An engineer wants to help you find the perfect object to facilitate your office fidgeting – but he needs your help.
Are you a pen clicker, a finger drummer, or a squiggle doodler? Or maybe your tastes are more … singular. Maybe your desk toy of choice is unlike any other: A necklace you slide around on its chain, a souvenir from trips to far away lands that you tap with your pencil, or even some random piece of hardware you’ve taken to playing with in the office, far from any pretense of its intended use, appearances be damned.
Whatever your vice of choice, the odds are pretty good that you’ve fidgeted with something while trying to focus. Now researchers are trying to pin down what makes us fidget, the ways we do it, and what toys are the best for helping us maintain our focus. To do that, they’re asking for pictures and descriptions of the objects that people busy their hands with.
Michael Karlesky, a Ph.D student at NYU Polytechnic School of Engineering, studies human computer interaction at the school’s Game Innovation Lab. One day during class, he noticed a woman using her keyboard for something other than typing.
“During a lull in the class, I noticed that she was absentmindedly sort of bouncing the arrow key on her keyboard, moving the cursor back and forth,” he said. “It struck me that, well, I’ve done that, she’s doing that, but there’s no function on the computer that makes it make any sense. There’s some kind of impulse there.”
Along with his adviser, associate professor Katherine Isbister, he’s trying to pinpoint how these interactions with the objects around us – digital and analog alike – can be fine-tuned to better our lives.
“When I started to talk to people about the things they played with, it turned out it wasn’t the trivial question I thought it was,” Karlesky said. “People had very specific interests and desires about the kind of experience they’d have when playing with these objects. Some people carried specific things with them just for this purpose.”
“I think that we’ve evolved to use our bodies as well as our minds,” Isbister said. Her lab focuses on the way people interact with technology, and she thinks Karlesky’s research is an important part of that. When people spend all day in front of a computer, she said, there are bound to be focus issues. “The kinds of things we’ve evolved to do all day are very different from what we actually do. Fidgeting is a way for you to adjust your energy level in a way you might not need to if you were, say, farming instead of typing.”
In addition to surveys and a few experiments – including, Karlesky says, a day he’ll spend wired up and on camera to record every instance of fidgeting in himself – the lab is using a Web site to collect data from people around the world.
“We want to see what the shapes and sensations and feelings of these things are,” Karlesky said. “We want to see if there’s anything they have in common.”
Right now, his main focus will have to be turning all of this work into a dissertation. But he’d love it if his work could influence the design of new work-play objects to optimize office life. He and Isbister have even envisioned a smart widget for fidgeting – one that tracks your loss of focus throughout the day.
“With a digital widget, you can actually track your own behavior, and say oh, I’m fidgeting more in the afternoon,” Isbister said. “So we may be able to help make things that don’t just modulate those energy levels, but help to monitor and control them.”
To submit your own stress balls and widgets, check out the project’s tumblr: http://fidgetwidgets.tumblr.com/