The difficulty of staying focused in an age of distractions is one of those annoyingly accurate cliches. (I checked my phone three times just writing this paragraph.) But a startup named Auctify has what it claims is the solution: smart glasses that use AI to monitor what you’re looking at and nudge you to pay attention. Depending on your worldview, it’s the product of your dreams or a productivity-hacking nightmare.
The glasses are called Specs, and they launch today on Indiegogo. The premise is simple: a camera built into the frame of Specs uses machine learning to identify what you’re looking at, whether that’s a laptop, book, or a fellow human being. It records this data and sends it to a connected app where users can take action in a number of ways.
Machine learning tracks how you spend your time each day
If you’re casual, you can simply get a breakdown of how you’ve spent each day, with colorful pie charts recording how many of the finite minutes of your life you’ve wasted recently. If you want to be more proactive, you can set “focus sessions” for times when you want to concentrate on certain activities. And if you really want to be whipped into shape, Specs can alert you when you’re looking at the wrong thing using visual and audio cues — either a light in the corner of your vision or a sound played through the glasses’ built-in speakers.
A connected mobile app will give users a breakdown of how they’ve spent their time. Image: Auctify
Putting aside what a product like this says about our work-obsessed culture, can Specs work as promised? Although each of us knows when we’re getting distracted, it can be hard to explain the rules of this to a machine. As a journalist, for example, I use Twitter for both productive activities (finding new stories) and pointless time-wasting (reading your tweets). Will Specs know the difference?
Specs will be able to differentiate between 20 activities at launch
“Yes and no” is the short answer. In the specific example of me using the same website for different functions, Specs will be helpless. But Auctify says the glasses come with companion apps for the web and your phone that will allow Specs to identify what websites or apps you’re using and feed that information into its tracking history.
Speaking to The Verge over email, Auctify founder and CTO Hisham El-Halabi says the company’s algorithms will be able to identify 20 different activities at launch, including reading, writing, looking at your phone, your laptop, watching TV, working out at the gym, doing yoga, cooking, playing an instrument, eating, and chatting to other people. More will be added in the future, and users can change how each of these activities is categorized.
A note on crowdfunding:
Crowdfunding is a chaotic field by nature: companies looking for funding tend to make big promises. According to a study run by Kickstarter in 2015, roughly 1 in 10 “successful” products that reach their funding goals fail to actually deliver rewards. Of the ones that do deliver, delays, missed deadlines, or overpromised ideas mean that there’s often disappointment in store for those products that do get done.
The best defense is to use your best judgment. Ask yourself: does the product look legitimate? Is the company making outlandish claims? Is there a working prototype? Does the company mention existing plans to manufacture and ship finished products? Has it completed a Kickstarter before?
And remember: you’re not necessarily buying a product when you back it on a crowdfunding site.
“Since being productive means different things to different people, users can choose within the companion app which activities are recognized as productive,” says El-Halabi. “For activities that can be more vague such as studying, the user can set which specific activities contribute towards studying (such as reading, writing, etc.)”
In addition to its activity tracking, Specs has a few other tricks up its arms. A built-in blood oximeter, accelerometer, and gyroscope will allow the glasses to function as a fitness-tracking device, while bone conduction speakers will let you listen to music and even take calls using Specs. And of course, you can put prescription lenses in the glasses, too, if you want to use them for the humdrum purpose of correcting your vision.
Obviously, for a device with the express purpose of monitoring everything you do each day, privacy is a big concern. Auctify says Specs never sends photos or videos anywhere over the internet, and it uses machine learning to analyze visual on-device, after which they’re immediately discarded. The company also says information on your phone is encrypted, though that doesn’t mean the glasses themselves couldn’t be hijacked.
Screenshots of the Specs app showing the notification center and activity tracking. Image: Auctify
The biggest worry, though, is that Specs simply won’t live up to Auctify’s bold claims, as often happens with crowdfunded products. El-Halabi tells The Verge that the team has already built a fully functional prototype of Specs and shared videos of these in action.
But turning a prototype into a consumer device that can be manufactured at scale is incredibly challenging. That’s especially true of a device like Specs, which not only has to cram multiple functions into a slender piece of hardware, but also combine machine learning and multiple apps to deliver on its key function.
El-Halabi is bullish about the product’s appeal. He says “everyone can benefit from improving their productivity” and that “our audience won’t just be tech enthusiasts, but a much more diverse set of audiences that all share the universal problem of procrastination.”
Based on the team’s experience and market research, he adds that students will be particularly interested “since so many of them struggle with procrastination.” Entrepreneurs have “also shown a lot of interest,” he says, which makes sense as they “greatly value productivity.”
Funnily enough, Specs aren’t just about productivity, though. Auctify says it’s also integrating a “mindfulness training” mode into the app, which will prompt users to carry out virtuous activities they might otherwise ignore, like reading or working out. It can even lead them through calming breathing exercises. With the right mindset, even meditation can be optimized.