Microsoft emphasizes focus in upcoming Office user interface

Once, Microsoft was rebuked for its egregious space-wasting when it came to user interface. Whereas the classic Mac interface, originally designed for a 9″ 512 X 384-pixel display, kept commands hidden in menus until they were needed, Microsoft fostered the distraction-free work backlash with toolbars filled with inscrutable icons and, later, a ribbon for Microsoft Office that consumed a large part of the work area.

The company recently scaled back the ribbon’s space requirements, though, and from the sound of this Verge article, more dramatic changes are in play as the Office team builds, per a preview video, “experiences built for focus.” Perhaps the closest look we get at the future concept is this ethereal view of old favorite Excel:

In addition to an overall simplification, Microsoft is also moving toolbars closer to the action where they are needed, which should also help with screen clutter. As is made clear both in the illustration and the even more abstract video, part of what’s driving the shift is Microsoft’s move onto platforms such as smartphones where there are not only smaller screens, but a need for larger targets to be hit by fingers as opposed to cursors.

There’s still much to be revealed here, but a redesign of Word that moves much of the user interface out of the way could put pressure on the cottage industry of distraction-free word processors.

TimeChi aims to be the “Fitbit of productivity”

Distraction-attacking gadgets present a paradox. They often seek to simplify an experience, but their very use often means an extra step or factor one needs to consider. Thus, their developers must take care to ensure that they don’t make the problem worse.

That’s a challenged faced by TimeChi, essentially a high-tech timer that allows you to designate periods of deep work. Unlike the illuminated BusyBox, the TimeChi’s lights are just for you as well as would-be interrupters; its glowing light might help message the latter but feels like it could be distracting to the former. TimeChi’s touch-based activaiton also seems like something that would pull focus, but the Australian team says it contributes to a sense of satisfaction that encourages productivity.

TimeChi also has a companion app and website that tracks its usage and allows you to designate what you’ve been working on during its timing sessions as well as how effective you think you were doing them. In this, it describes itself as “a Fitbit for productivity” although, paradoxically, a Fitbit is a more unobtrusive item than the TimeChi. For those for whom a timer or app plus Google Sheets is not enough, TimeChi is available for about $113 through the run of its Indiegogo campaign.

BusyBox is a sign of these distracting times

One way of classifying distractions is internally-driven interruptions versus externally-driven ones. The latter in particular may often be beyond your control. BusyBox, though, aims to minimize them by putting an illuminated sign outside of your mental temple. It warns all those who might enter that you are engaged in any manner of activities such as podcasting, gaming, or just being busy.

The sign, designed can be affixed with 3M Command Strips, is clearly inspired by the “On Air” signs that have graced studios for years, but repurposed for the pandemic era that often sees multiple family members doing office or school work at home.

The product comes in both a low-tech “standard” version that uses one of six templates and a surprisingly high-tech “digital” version that allows the creation of custom signs with graphics via an app that can even control distinct groups of BusyBoxes. It can be activated via popular voice assistants such as Siri and Google Assistant. While the standard version costs $90, the digital one costs a whopping $300. Both versions are available at half-price through the campaign.

Despite the price difference, the standard BusyBox will work for more than 120 hours per charge while the digital one will last a bit more than 10 despite it having twice the battery capacity of the standard version. The BusyBox team is also selling a remote activation button for $24.

The BusyBox looks like an effective way to siliently communicate to fellow family members or officemates that you’re working on something specific, particularly if, like its “On Air” sign inspiration, it’s something that demands quiet. Still, it seems expensive for what it is and raises the quesiton why it’s not easier to do something like this with a simple digital signage or remote screen control application and a smartphone or tablet.

The gorgeous BenQ PianoLight lights up when you walk by

Distraction can interfere with the discipline required to master a complex musical instrument like the piano, so anything that encourages one to play can be a real asset. That’s why I was compelled to try out the BenQ PianoLight, an unexpected product from the company best known for projectors and monitors. I was particularly interested in its proximity sensor; the light can turn on as you approach the piano. It doesn’t get more welcoming than that.

The product’s intrigue begins with the box, which balances despite an off-center handle due to the way BenQ has distributed the weight of the product in the package.

The light has a much smaller footprint than the one I’d been using but it emits a nearly perfect illumination of the entire keyboard, much as the company’s ScreenBar lamp spreads light across the surface area in front of a monitor. The simple controls for adjusting brightness and warmth allow for a degree of customization that’s not present in legacy piano lights.

There is room for improvement. The only component that needs to be attached is the glare shade, which is supposed to snap into the light. I’ve tried to attach it numerous times and it invariably falls off. A magnetic attachment method would have been a better solution. And the proximity sensor proved a bit too sensitive, turning the light on whenever any family member, including my cat, came within about two feet of the lamp. The feature has great potential; it would just be nice to dial it down a bit, just like the lamp’s brightness.

Regardless, the BenQ PianoLight is an elegant and effective light that is a particularly great complement to digital pianos. It’s simply one of the most attractive tech products I’ve ever used.