How one app wants to make you smarter while you wait

Make the most of those small moments you’re waiting for tech to do its thing

Modern technology requires an awful lot of waiting. Waiting for slow web pages to load. Waiting for people to reply to your texts. Waiting for email to send. This week, researchers at MIT unveiled a new system designed to make wait times more productive. It’s called WaitSuite.

What is WaitSuite?

WaitSuite is a set of tools designed to help people make the most of the time they spend waiting for their phone or computer. For instance, it might take a few seconds for your laptop to connect to Wi-Fi. Or you might write an email, hit send, and it takes a few seconds before your message is actually sent. Or you might be texting back and forth with someone, waiting for them to reply; you can see the little bubble that indicates they’re typing, but you can’t see their message.

A lot of technology use includes “micro moments.” These tiny bits of time, maybe just a few seconds each, that you spend waiting. A team of researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) wanted to make these micro moments more productive. So they developed a set of tools to enable what they call “wait-learning.”

In this case, they’re trying to help people learn a new language by showing vocabulary flash cards during these in-between moments when you’re waiting for your phone or computer to do something.

How would I use it?

Carrie Cai, one of the researchers at MIT who worked on WaitSuite, walked me through an example. Imagine you wake up in the morning, open up your laptop, and you have to wait a few seconds for the Wi-Fi to connect. She explained: “The app next to your Wi-Fi icon might alert you to the fact there is a word you could be learning while you are waiting. Then, later in the day, you are waiting at the elevator to go to lunch, you can actually continue on that same vocabulary progress that you had already established before so that same vocabulary progress gets carried over from one waiting moment to the next.”

This is an idea called “micro-learning” — breaking the learning process up into small tasks and spreading them out across the day.

computer fraud

Waiting for your laptop to connect to WiFi can be frustrating. (Derek Spalding/CBC)

Could this type of “wait-learning” be distracting or an interruption?

On one hand, I would personally love to improve my French vocabulary. But on the other hand, the idea of vocabulary flash cards popping up on my phone all the time seems like it could be distracting. And indeed, the researchers at MIT have identified this as a core challenge: “designing interactions in a way that minimizes interruption to the ongoing tasks.”

When they field tested these apps, they learned that many people already engage with technology during waiting times. For instance, people waiting for an elevator might play Candy Crush, check their email repeatedly or browse social media. The idea behind WaitSuite is that if you’re going to engage with technology in these micro moments, you might want to spend that time doing something productive.

WaitSuite could also prompt you to disengage from technology. Instead of showing you a vocabulary flash card, they could prompt you to stretch, breathe, meditate or go for a walk.

Paris eiffel tower

You could learn to order a croissant properly while waiting for your ‘ami’ to respond to your text. (Getty Images)

Other than foreign language vocabulary, what other kinds of things could I learn using WaitSuite?

This particular study focused on teaching vocabulary, but Cai says this same wait-learning approach could be used for lots of different kinds of learning. She says it’s best suited for learning that you can break up into small chunks.

“Any kind of content that you might learn on a flash card — for example, historical dates or medical terms, or legal jargon — those sorts of bite-sized learning content would be appropriate for wait learning, just because they’re small, they’re short, and they’re context-free,” she said.

Basically, any task you can break down into small tasks and learn through practise and repetition.

When will this be available?

The whole WaitSuite isn’t available to the public yet. But, if you want to try this out for yourself, you can get a sneak peek. Cai and her colleagues have released a tool called WaitChatter.

Wait Chatter

Wait Chatter is a Google Chrome plug-in that makes chat wait times more productive (Adam Conner-Simons, MIT)

It’s a Google Chrome plugin that works with Google Chat in Gmail. As you’re chatting back-and-forth with a friend or colleague, it’ll pop up foreign language vocabulary words for you to learn while you’re waiting for the other person to respond. Right now, it supports French and Spanish vocabulary, and assumes that your native language is English.

Personally, while I like the idea of making my wait times more productive, I’m most looking forward to the version of WaitSuite that will remind me to disengage from my devices: to stop, take a walk around the block, or just to step away from my computer for a while.

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