I've picked up some weird habits lately because of the novel coronavirus. Avoiding doorknobs, railings, and (pointlessly) the subway. Slathering in Purell every time I get back to my desk. Washing my hands two seconds longer than the person next to me at the sink like it's a competition. Taking off my phone case when I get home and vigorously scrubbing it in the sink.
I've always lived with a touch of anxiety-induced germaphobia, but with the hour-by-hour media updates on the creep of coronavirus in the US, I'm even more hypervigilant about what I touch and where.
Unfortunately, I also can't stop touching my face.
The CDC says this is bad. Specifically, it says “avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth,” a region I simply cannot stop unconsciously putting my Purell-scented fingers all over. I've thought about wearing a dog cone, or crafting some kind of smart shock collar, but the most efficient way might already be in my laptop webcam.
Donottouchyourface.com is a website that watches you at your computer and yells at you when you touch your face, as I have about a dozen times since I started writing this article. It's made by creator of Delete Yourself Mike Bodge, designer Isaac Blankensmith, and technologist Brian Moore.
To begin your re-training, Donottouchyourface.com records a couple seconds of your webcam and you sit, agonizingly, not touching your face. Then it asks you to touch all over your face for a few seconds. This is to train a Tensorflow algorithm, according to the website, so it can recognize when you're touching your dumb mug with your virus-coated fingers.
I trained it on a bunch of face-touching poses I commonly do while looking at the internet.
When you do touch your face, it yells “NO!” and a popup notification alerts you to your misdeed.
“We all work at our desks all day and pretty much touch our faces all the time,” Bodge told me. “We decided to make a tool that can help train us to break that habit.”
It's definitely not perfect. Sometimes it yells “NO!” at me when I'm not touching my face at all, which is really good for my mental health. Other times, I'm fully scratching my nose and it doesn't register. But the website says every time you refresh the page and go through the touching/not touching recordings, it re-trains the algorithm, so maybe I messed it up on the first try by not touching my face vigorously enough.
Moore said he, personally, feels like it's working.
“I have used it. It's on right now and has been all morning—it's amazing how much I touch my face and I think it really has helped me thus far,” he said. “My coworkers get a little annoyed by the sound emanating from my laptop constantly, but it's worth it to better public health.”
Blankensmith agrees. “I’ve had the website running in a background tab constantly since we launched,” he said. “I’ve noticed even when not at my desk, a little voice in the back of my head says ‘no!' whenever I reach for my face.”
With everything else going on in the world, what I don't really need right now is a voice in my head barking NO! at random intervals throughout my day, but for the cause of public health and my own well-being, I'll take it.