Today’s computers can be programmed to read your body language – and tell whether you’re bored or mildly engaged in what you see on the screen – as they watch you fidget, new research has discovered.

The key to judging levels of interest is a person’s display of non-instrumental movements, which are reduced when someone gets absorbed in what he or she is watching or doing. This is also known as “rapt engagement,” according to lead researcher and body language expert Dr. Harry Witchel of Brighton and Sussex Medical School in the United Kingdom.

Dr. Witchel said that there is less fidgeting or these tiny, involuntary movements when a person is greatly engaged in an activity.

“It’s the same as when a small child, who is normally constantly on the go, stares gaping at cartoons on the television without moving a muscle,” he explains.

The study involved 27 participants, who watched three-minute stimuli on their computer ranging from games to banking regulation. The subjects used a handheld trackball to minimize movements including using the mouse.

Using video motion tracking technology, the movements were measured, with the more engaging in two comparable reading tasks resulting in a 42 percent decrease in fidgeting or non-instrumental movement.

These findings could significantly affect the development of artificial intelligence, where potential future applications include creating online tutoring programs that adjust to the student’s level of interest in order to enhance engagement. This makes digital learning more like a two-way process in the future, said Dr. Witchel.

They could even help pave the way for companion robots, which could ably estimate one’s thoughts or detect emotional states that people would rather forget or stay quiet about.

This discovery could prove useful for the entertainment industry as well, where game creators or movie directors could produce readings of whether the scenes acted out on the screen sustained people’s attention.

The findings were discussed in the journal Frontiers in Psychology.

Photo: Andrea Allen | Flickr

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