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Europe’s top court sharpens guidance for sites using leaky social plug-ins

16:11 | 29 July

Europe’s top court has made a ruling that could affect scores of websites that embed the Facebook ‘Like’ button and receive visitors from the region.

The ruling by the Court of Justice of the EU states such sites are jointly responsible for the initial data processing — and must either obtain informed consent from site visitors prior to data being transferred to Facebook, or be able to demonstrate a legitimate interest legal basis for processing this data.

The ruling is significant because, as currently seems to be the case, Facebook’s Like buttons transfer personal data automatically, when a webpage loads — without the user even needing to interact with the plug-in — which means if websites are relying on visitors’ ‘consenting’ to their data being shared with Facebook they will likely need to change how the plug-in functions to ensure no data is sent to Facebook prior to visitors being asked if they want their browsing to be tracked by the adtech giant.

The background to the case is a complaint against online clothes retailer, Fashion ID, by a German consumer protection association, Verbraucherzentrale NRW — which took legal action in 2015 seeking an injunction against Fashion ID’s use of the plug-in which it claimed breached European data protection law.

Like ’em or loath ’em, Facebook’s ‘Like’ buttons are an impossible-to-miss component of the mainstream web. Though most Internet users are likely unaware that the social plug-ins are used by Facebook to track what other websites they’re visiting for ad targeting purposes.

Last year the company told the UK parliament that between April 9 and April 16 the button had appeared on 8.4M websites, while its Share button social plug-in appeared on 931K sites. (Facebook also admitted to 2.2M instances of another tracking tool it uses to harvest non-Facebook browsing activity — called a Facebook Pixel — being invisibly embedded on third party websites.)

The Fashion ID case predates the introduction of the EU’s updated privacy framework, GDPR, which further toughens the rules around obtaining consent — meaning it must be purpose specific, informed and freely given.

Today’s CJEU decision also follows another ruling a year ago, in a case related to Facebook fan pages, when the court took a broad view of privacy responsibilities around platforms — saying both fan page administrators and host platforms could be data controllers. Though it also said joint controllership does not necessarily imply equal responsibility for each party.

In the latest decision the CJEU has sought to draw some limits on the scope of joint responsibility, finding that a website where the Facebook Like button is embedded cannot be considered a data controller for any subsequent processing, i.e. after the data has been transmitted to Facebook Ireland (the data controller for Facebook’s European users).

The joint responsibility specifically covers the collection and transmission of Facebook Like data to Facebook Ireland.

“It seems, at the outset, impossible that Fashion ID determines the purposes and means of those operations,” the court writes in a press release announcing the decision.

“By contrast, Fashion ID can be considered to be a controller jointly with Facebook Ireland in respect of the operations involving the collection and disclosure by transmission to Facebook Ireland of the data at issue, since it can be concluded (subject to the investigations that it is for the Oberlandesgericht Düsseldorf [German regional court] to carry out) that Fashion ID and Facebook Ireland determine jointly the means and purposes of those operations.”

Responding the judgement in a statement attributed to its associate general counsel, Jack Gilbert, Facebook told us:

Website plugins are common and important features of the modern Internet. We welcome the clarity that today’s decision brings to both websites and providers of plugins and similar tools. We are carefully reviewing the court’s decision and will work closely with our partners to ensure they can continue to benefit from our social plugins and other business tools in full compliance with the law.

The company said it may make changes to the Like button to ensure websites that use it are able to comply with Europe’s GDPR.

Though it’s not clear what specific changes these could be, such as — for example — whether Facebook will change the code of its social plug-ins to ensure no data is transferred at the point a page loads. (We’ve asked Facebook and will update this report with any response.)

Facebook also points out that other tech giants, such as Twitter and LinkedIn, deploy similar social plug-ins — suggesting the CJEU ruling will apply to other social platforms, as well as to thousands of websites across the EU where these sorts of plug-ins crop up.

“Sites with the button should make sure that they are sufficiently transparent to site visitors, and must make sure that they have a lawful basis for the transfer of the user’s personal data (e.g. if just the user’s IP address and other data stored on the user’s device by Facebook cookies) to Facebook,” Neil Brown, a telecoms, tech and internet lawyer at U.K. law firm Decoded Legal, told TechCrunch.

“If their lawful basis is consent, then they’ll need to get consent before deploying the button for it to be valid — otherwise, they’ll have done the transfer before the visitor has consented

“If relying on legitimate interests — which might scrape by — then they’ll need to have done a legitimate interests assessment, and kept it on file (against the (admittedly unlikely) day that a regulator asks to see it), and they’ll need to have a mechanism by which a site visitor can object to the transfer.”

“Basically, if organisations are taking on board the recent guidance from the ICO and CNIL on cookie compliance, wrapping in Facebook ‘Like’ and other similar things in with that work would be sensible,” Brown added.

Also commenting on the judgement, Michael Veale, a UK-based researcher in tech and privacy law/policy, said it raises questions about how Facebook will comply with Europe’s data protection framework for any further processing it carries out of the social plug-in data.

“The whole judgement to me leaves open the question ‘on what grounds can Facebook justify further processing of data from their web tracking code?'” he told us. “If they have to provide transparency for this further processing, which would take them out of joint controllership into sole controllership, to whom and when is it provided?

“If they have to demonstrate they would win a legitimate interests test, how will that be affected by the difficulty in delivering that transparency to data subjects?’

“Can Facebook do a backflip and say that for users of their service, their terms of service on their platform justifies the further use of data for which individuals must have separately been made aware of by the website where it was collected?

“The question then quite clearly boils down to non-users, or to users who are effectively non-users to Facebook through effective use of technologies such as Mozilla’s browser tab isolation.”

How far a tracking pixel could be considered a ‘similar device’ to a cookie is another question to consider, he said.

The tracking of non-Facebook users via social plug-ins certainly continues to be a hot-button legal issue for Facebook in Europe — where the company has twice lost in court to Belgium’s privacy watchdog on this issue. (Facebook has continued to appeal.)

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg also faced questions about tracking non-users last year, from MEPs in the European Parliament — who pressed him on whether Facebook uses data on non-users for any other uses vs the security purpose of “keeping bad content out” that he claimed requires Facebook to track everyone on the mainstream Internet.

MEPs also wanted to know how non-users can stop their data being transferred to Facebook? Zuckerberg gave no answer, likely because there’s currently no way for non-users to stop their data being sucked up by Facebook’s servers — short of staying off the mainstream Internet.

 


0

Instagram launches shopping checkout, charging sellers a fee

16:33 | 19 March

Instagram is opening a whole new revenue stream. Now the 130 million people who tap Instagram’s product tags on shopping posts will be able to buy those items without leaving the app thanks to stored payment info. “Checkout with Instagram” launches today in the US with more than 20 top brands including Adidas, Kylie Cosmetics, and Warby Parker who’ll no longer have to direct customers to their website to make a purchase..

An Instagram spokesperson confirms to TechCrunch “We will introduce a selling fee to help to fund programs and products that help make checkout possible, as well as offset transaction-related expenses.” When we asked how much the ‘selling fee’ would charge merchants, the spokesperson told us “We aren’t sharing the specific number right now. We are testing a selling fee with businesses during the closed beta. It will not change the price of the items for consumers.” That indicates Instagram wants merchants to cough up the fee in exchange for higher purchase conversion rates rather than forcing users to pay a convenience fee for buying through the app.

Instagram’s ad business could also get a boost as Checkout could convince brands that the social network produces better return on investment since there are fewer steps before purchase. For now, only organic posts from the launch partner merchants will feature Checkout buttons, and ads aren’t eligible. But Checkout-equipped ads could be a gold mine for Instagram just as Facebook’s News Feed ad business looks shaky and CEO Mark Zuckerberg declares commerce as a fixture of the 2019 roadmap.

Checkout tags will appear on feed posts, Stories, and Explore content from the brands in the closed beta that Instagram plans to eventually open to more businesses. When users tap the post to reveal product tags and open one, they’ll see a Checkout with Instagram button instead of the old “View on Website” button.

Their first time through they’ll enter their payment information that’s stored for future purchases. “With their protected payment information in one place, they can shop their favorite brands without needing to log in and enter their information multiple times” Instagram explains. Saving merchants from abandoned shopping carts left by users frustrated with having to sign up with each different brand is the key value offering here. TechCrunch recently reported Instagram is prototyping a Fundraiser sticker for Stories that similarly saves payment info — a database Instagram clearly wants to build up.

After users buy something within Instagram, they’ll be able to track it from a new “Orders” section of their profile that shows the status of an order plus options to cancel, initiate a return, or contact the merchant. They’ll also get a notification from Instagram when the order ships. Interestingly, Instagram isn’t mixing receipts into its messaging product like Facebook does with Messenger.

Merchants will only get the details necessary to fulfill an order, including contact info and address, but not your actual payment info. Users will see an opt-in option to share their email address with the seller for marketing purposes. Checkout with Instagram could leave merchants with a little less data than if the purchase happened on their website. But Instagram says it will provide info on which sales it generates for a merchant.

Users can pay with PayPal, Visa, Mastercard, American Express, or Discover. Instagram plans to allow merchants to integrate their Shopify, BigCommerce, ChannelAdvisor, CommerceHub, and other tools with the Checkout feature. Meanwhile, Instagram confirms that interacting with Checkout will be used as a signal for ranking what content you see. Payments are processed by PayPal — an area of business Facebook has been content not to invade, and PayPal’s fees will likely be covered by Facebook’s selling fee.

“We started using product tags to make shopping more convenient for our customers” writes Warby Parker co-founder and co-CEO Neil Blumenthal. “Checkout takes this experience one step further, making it even more intuitive and seamless for people who have discovered products they want to purchase instantaneously.” Here’s the full list of launch partner brands: Adidas, Anastasia Beverly Hills, Balmain, Burberry, ColourPop, Dior, Huda Beauty, H&M, KKW Beauty, Kylie Cosmetics, MAC Cosmetics, Michael Kors, NARS, Nike, NYX Cosmetics, Oscar de la Renta, Outdoor Voices, Ouai Hair, Prada, Revolve, Uniqlo, Warby Parker and Zara.

There’s still no sign of an Instagram standalone shopping app that was reportedly in the works. Instead, it launched a dedicated Shopping channel in Explore and tags for Stories six months ago. We recently spotted Instagram prototyping a Pinterest-style feature that would let users make their private Collections of Saved posts publicly visible. That would be a great way for commerce influencers to recommend Checkout-equipped products. Facebook has spent five years experimenting with different Buy buttons, but now it finally has them in a place they feel natural.

Instagram has fiercely protected the right to link out of its app in order to keep you steadily consuming its content. Now with over one billion users, Instagram has trapped people’s attention inside, and it’s finally ready to sell the right to sell there.

 


0

Amazon stops selling stick-on Dash buttons

13:56 | 1 March

Amazon has confirmed it’s retired physical stick-on Dash buttons from sale — in favor of virtual alternatives that let Prime Members tap a digital button to reorder a staple product.

It also points to its Dash Replenishment service — which offers an API for device makers wanting to build Internet connected appliances that can automatically reorder the products they need to function — be it cat food, batteries or washing power — as another reason why physical Dash buttons, which launched back in 2015 (costing $5 a pop), are past their sell by date.

Amazon says “hundreds” of IoT devices capable of self-ordering on Amazon have been launched globally to date by brands including Beko, Epson, illy, Samsung and Whirlpool, to name a few.

So why press a physical button when a digital one will do? Or, indeed, why not do away with the need to push a button all and just let your gadgets rack up your grocery bill all by themselves while you get on with the importance business of consuming all the stuff they’re ordering?

You can see where Amazon wants to get to with its “so customers don’t have to think at all about restocking” line. Consumption that entirely removes the consumer’s decision making process from the transactional loop is quite the capitalist wet dream. Though it does need to be careful about consumer protection rules as it seeks to remove all friction from the buying process.

The ecommerce behemoth also claims customers are “increasingly” using its Alexa voice assistant to reorder staples, such as via the Alexa Shopping voice shopping app (Amazon calls it ‘hands free shopping’) that lets people inform the machine about a purchase intent and it will suggest items to buy based on their Amazon order history.

Albeit, it offers no actual usage metrics for Alexa Shopping. So that’s meaningless PR.

A less flashy but perhaps more popular option than ‘hands free shopping’, which Amazon also says has contributed to making physical Dash buttons redundant, is its Subscribe & Save program.

This “lets customers automatically receive their favourite items every month”, as Amazon puts it. It offers an added incentive of discounts that kick in if the user signs up to buy five or more products per month. But the mainstay of the sales pitch is convenience with Amazon touting time saved by subscribing to ‘essentials’ — and time saved from compiling boring shopping lists once again means more time to consume the stuff being bought on Amazon…

In a statement about retiring physical Dash buttons from global sale on February 28, Amazon also confirmed it will continue to support existing Dash owners — presumably until their buttons wear down to the bare circuit board from repeat use.

“Existing Dash Button customers can continue to use their Dash Button devices,” it writes. “We look forward to continuing support for our customers’ shopping needs, including growing our Dash Replenishment product line-up and expanding availability of virtual Dash Buttons.”

So farewell then clunky Dash buttons. Another physical push-button bites the dust. Though plastic-y Dash were quite unlike the classic iPhone home button — seeming temporary and experimental rather than slick and coolly reassuring. Even as the end of both points to the need for tech businesses to tool up for the next wave of contextually savvy connected devices. More smarts, and more controllable smarts is key.

Amazon’s statement about ‘shifting focus’ for Dash does not mention potential legal risks around the buttons related to consumer rights challenges — but that’s another angle here.

In January a court in Germany ruled Dash buttons breached local ecommerce rules, following a challenge by a regional consumer watchdog that raised concerns about T&Cs which allow Amazon to substitute a product of a higher price or even a different product entirely than what the consumer had originally selected. The watchdog argued consumers should be provided with more information about price and product before taking the order — and the judges agreed. Though Amazon said it would seek to appeal.

While it’s not clear whether or not that legal challenge contributed to Amazon’s decision to shutter Dash, it’s clear that virtual Dash buttons offer more opportunities for displaying additional information prior to a purchase than a screen-less physical Dash button. So are more easily adapted to meet any tightening legal requirements in different markets.

The demise of the physical Dash was reported earlier by CNET.

 


0

Instagram’s fundraiser stickers could lure credit card numbers

01:04 | 19 February

Mark Zuckerberg recently revealed that commerce is a huge part of the 2019 roadmap for Facebook’s family of apps. But before people can easily buy things from Instagram etc, Facebook needs their credit card info on file. That’s a potentially lucrative side effect of Instagram’s plan to launch a Fundraiser sticker in 2019. Facebook’s own Donate buttons have raised $1 billion, and bringing them to Instagram’s 1 billion users could do a lot of good while furthering Facebook’s commerce strategy.

New code and imagery dug out of Instagram’s Android app reveals how the Fundraiser stickers will allow you to search for non-profits and add a Donate button for them to your Instagram Story. After you’ve donated to something once, Instagram could offer instant checkout on stuff you want to buy using the same payment details.

I suggested back in 2013 that Facebook could add a “remove credit card after checkout” option to its fundraisers back in 2013 if it wanted to make it clear that the feature was purely altruistic. Facebook never did that. You still need to go into your payment settings or click through the See Receipt option after donating and then edit your account settings to remove your credit card. We’ll see if Instagram is any different.

Facebook mentioned at its Communities Summit earlier this month that it’d be building Instagram Fundraiser stickers, but the announcement was largely overshadowed by the company’s reveal of new Groups features. This week, TechCrunch tipster

found code in the Instagram Android app detailing how users will be able search for non-profits or browse collections of Suggested charities and ones they follow. They can then overlay a Donate button sticker on their Instagram Story that their followers can click through to contribute.

We then asked reverse engineering specialist

to take a look, and she was able to generate the screenshots seen above that show a green heart icon for the Fundraiser sticker plus the non-profit search engine. A Facebook’s spokespeople tell me that “We are in early stages and working hard to bring this experience to our community . . . Instagram is all about bringing you closer to the people and things you love, and a big part of that is showing support for and bringing awareness to meaningful communities and causes. Later this year, people will be able to raise money and help support nonprofits that are important to them through a donation sticker in Instagram Stories. We’re excited to bring this experience to our community and will share more updates in the coming months.”

Zuckerbeg said during the Q4 2018 earnings call this month that “In Instagram, one of the areas I’m most excited about this year is commerce and shopping . . . there’s also a very big opportunity in basically enabling the transactions and making it so that the buying experience is good”. Streamlining those transactions through saved payment details means more people will complete their purchase. Facebook CFO David Wehner noted on the call that “Continuing to build good advertising products for our e-commerce clients on the advertising side will be a more important contributor to revenue in the foreseeable future”. Even though Facebook isn’t charging a fee on transactions, powering higher commerce conversion rates convinces merchants to buy more ads on the platform.

With all the talk of envy spiraling, phone addiction, bullying, and political propaganda, enabling donations is at least one way Instagram can prove it’s beneficial to the world. Snapchat lacks formal charity features, and Twitter appears to have ended its experiment allowing non-profits to tweet donate buttons. Despite all the flack Facebook rightfully takes, the company has shown a strong track record with philanthropy that mirrors Zuckerberg’s own $47 billion commitment through the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative. And if having some relatively benging secondary business benefit speeds companies towards assisting non-profits, that’s a trade-off we should be willing to embrace.

 


0

So long then, iPhone home button…

21:35 | 12 September

… it was nice pressing you. Well, at least some of the thousands and thousands of times. Apple has finally abandoned a feature that’s been a staple of its smartphones since the very start, over a decade ago: A physical home button.

The trio of almost-all-screen iPhones unboxed today at its Cupertino HQ go all in on looks and swipes, with nothing but a sensor-housing notch up top to detract from their smoothly shining faces. 

Last year Apple only ditched the button on its premium iPhone X handset, retaining physical home buttons on cheaper iPhones. But this year it’s a clean sweep, with buttons dropped across the board.

If you want to go home on the new iPhone Xs, iPhone Xs Max or iPhone Xr (as the trio of new iPhones are confusingly named) well, there’s a gesture for that: An up swipe from the bottom edge of the screen, specifically. Or a look and that gesture if your phone is locked.

This is because Apple has also gone all in on its facial biometric authentication system, Face ID, for its next crop of iPhones — throwing out the predecessor Touch ID biometric in the process.

“Customer love it!” enthused Apple’s marketing chief, Phil Schiller, talking up Face ID from the stage, after CEO Tim Cook had reintroduced the tech by collapsing it all to: “Your phone knows what you look like and your face becomes your password.”

“There’s no home button,” confirmed Schiller, going over the details of the last of the three new iPhones to be announced — and also confirming Face ID is indeed on board the least pricey iPhone Xr. “You look at it to unlock it… you look at it to pay with Apple Pay,” he noted.

So hey there Face ID, goodbye Touch ID.

Like any fingerprint biometric Touch ID is fallible. Having been doing a lot of DIY lately it simply hasn’t worked at all for my battered fingertips for more than a month now. Nor does it work well if you have dry skin or wet hands and so on. It can also be hacked with a bit of effort, such as via silicone spoofs.

Still, Touch ID does have its fans — given relative simplicity. And also because you can register multiple digits to share biometric access to a single iPhone with a S.O. (Or, well, your cat.)

Apple has mitigated the device sharing issue by adding support for two faces per device being registered with Face ID in iOS 12. (We haven’t tested if it’ll register a cat yet.)

However the more major complaint from privacy advocates is that turning a person’s facial features into their security and authentication key normalizes surveillance. That’s certainly harder to workaround or argue against.

Apple will be hoping its general pro-privacy stance helps mitigate concerns on that front. But exactly how the millions of third party apps running on its platform make use of the facial biometric feature is a whole other issue, though.

Elsewhere, debate has focused on whether Face ID makes an iPhone more vulnerable to being force unlocked against its owner’s will. The technology does require active interaction from the registered face in question for it to function, though — a sort of ‘eyes-on’ check and balance.

It’s probably not perfect but neither was a fingerprint biometric — which could arguably be more easily forcibly taken from someone in custody or asleep. But it’s irrefutable that biometrics come with trade-offs.

None of these technologies is perfect in security terms. Arguably the biggest problem is there’s no way to change your biometric ‘password’ if your data leaks — having your fingerprints or face surgically swapped is hardly a viable option.

Yet despite such concerns the march towards consumer authentication systems that are robust without being hopelessly inconvenient has continued to give biometrics uplift.

And fingerprint readers, especially, are now pretty much standard issue across much of the Android device ecosystem (which may also be encouraging Apple to step up and away now, as it seeks to widen the gap with the cheaper competition).

In the first year of operation its Face ID system does appear to have been impressively resilient, too — barring a few cases of highly similar looking family members/identical twins. Apple is certainly projecting confidence, now, going all in on the tech across all its iPhones.

If you’re inconsolable about the loss of the Home Button it’s not entirely extinct on Apple hardware yet: The iPad retains it, at least for now. And if it’s Touch ID you’re hankering for Apple added the technology to the MacBook Pro’s Touch Bar (on 2016 models and later).

Yet the days of poking at a physical button as a key crux of mobile computing do now look numbered.

Contextual computing — and all it implies — is the name of the game from here on in. Which is going to raise increasingly nuanced questions about the erosion of user agency and control, alongside major privacy considerations and related data ethics issues, at the same time as ramping up technological complexity in the background. So no pressure then!

At the end of the day there was something wonderfully simple about having a home button always sitting there — quietly working to take people back to a place they felt comfortable.

It was inclusive. Accessible. Reassuring. For some an unnecessary blemish on their rectangle of glass, for sure, but for others an important touchstone to get them where they needed to go.

Hopefully Apple won’t forget everything that was wrapped around the home button.

It would certainly be a shame if its spirit of inclusiveness also fell by the wayside.

Photo by Kim Kulish/Corbis via Getty Images

more iPhone Event 2018 coverage

 


0

Amazon’s fart app is the best reason to buy an Echo Button

00:49 | 13 April

As of this writing, there’s a single, solitary review for Button Tooter. It’s three stars and three sentences, and it’s a bit of an emotional rollercoaster. “They clearly ran out of ideas!” the reviewer writes. “It’s kind of fun! How about a game where you can make music. [sic]” Is Amazon’s creation of a fart app a true indication of creativity bankruptcy?

Or is it the sign of a company that’s finally discovered the killer app for its new hardware platform. It’s true that, in the past, fart apps have become a bit of a shorthand for useless mobile software. And for a brief, but glorious moment several years back, fart apps topped the various mobile charts, only to pass like, well, to quote the Oscar-nominated film, “a fart in the wind.”

But Buttons have always been a curiosity among the Echo family, some employee’s side project that somehow made it into production. Amazon’s formed a couple of partnerships with game makers, but the company has clearly spent much more time focusing on the rest of its smart home devices.

I never had any desire to have an Echo Button in my life — and the Button Tooter arrived. Now all I can think about is how much I want a remote button that can make my Echo Spot fart. And $20 seems like a small price to pay for the five or so minutes of pure childlike joy it will bring to my life. When’s the last time you could say that about a gadget.

Because we may have gotten old in the blink of an eye, and technology may have made us callous and uncaring husks of our former selves. The world may be full of hate, and this precise moment in time may feel as though we’re closer to the brink of global destruction by our hands.

But there’s one truth I know, that has always and will always hold in the face of an ever-changing world: farts are funny. So go forth and press, friends.

 


0

Amazon opens Echo Button games to developers

03:45 | 4 April

Echo Buttons are one of the stranger bits of hardware to come out of the Amazon labs in recent memory. Announced alongside the latest Echos, the little light up devices are designed to bring interactive game play to the Alexa Echo system.

The company’s already announced a handful of compatible titles, and it seems that list is about to get a bit longer, as it opens up a beta version of the Gadgets Skill API for the hardware.

Developers can platform to associate button presses with different skills and send light up animation to the hardware. A preview version of the API lead to the development of a number of experiences for the two for $20 peripherals, including light up playback of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech and Trivial Pursuit from Hasbro. The selections are nothing if not eclectic.

The toy company is also using the announcement to launch a new game: an Echo Button version of Simon, the popular 1980s light up memory game. You can download Simon Tap now, and Alexa will list a sequence of colors the players then match. The hardware works with most of the Echo line, including, Echo, Echo Dot, Echo Show, Echo Plus and Echo Spot.

 


0

Researchers find the best way to press a button

07:14 | 21 March

When all you have is a finger everything looks like a button . But what happens if you’re unable to press buttons or, more likely, we begin using robots and other tools to interact with the real world? That’s what researchers at Aalto University, Finland, and KAIST, South Korea wanted to find out when they started examining how humans tap buttons.

“This research was triggered by admiration of our remarkable capability to adapt button-pressing”, said Professor Antti Oulasvirta at Aalto University. “We push a button on a remote controller differently than a piano key. The press of a skilled user is surprisingly elegant when looked at terms of timing, reliability, and energy use. We successfully press buttons without ever knowing the inner workings of a button. It is essentially a black box to our motor system. On the other hand, we also fail to activate buttons, and some buttons are known to be worse than others.”

During their study, they assessed the push buttons – buttons with actual travel – were more usable than touch buttons and that the best buttons were the ones that reacted at time of maximum impact. The researchers created something called “Impact Activation.” These buttons activate only when they are fully pressed, thereby ensuring that users will know exactly when they are and are not tapping a key on a keyboard or even a musical instrument.

From their release:

The simulations shed new light on what happens during a button press. One problem the brain must overcome is that muscles do not activate as perfectly as we will, but every press is slightly different. Moreover, a button press is very fast, occurring within 100 milliseconds, and is too fast for correcting movement. The key to understanding button-pressing is therefore to understand how the brain adapts based on the limited sensations that are the residue of the brief press event.

The researchers argue that the key capability of the brain is a probabilistic model: The brain learns a model that allows it to predict a suitable motor command for a button. If a press fails, it can pick a very good alternative and try it out. “Without this ability, we would have to learn to use every button like it was new,” tells Professor Byungjoo Lee from KAIST. After successfully activating the button, the brain can tune the motor command to be more precise, use less energy and to avoid stress or pain. “These factors together, with practice, produce the fast, minimum-effort, elegant touch people are able to perform.”

How can we use this information in our daily lives? Well, this research suggests that high-travel, clicky keys with switches from Cherry and other “tactile” keyboard makers could be better for us, neurologically, than keyboards with less precise travel. Further, it shows us that the best interfaces are physical and not touchscreen, something that anyone who has tried to play touchscreen-based fast-twitch video games can attest.

Further, the researchers discovered that button pressing is an acquired skill and perhaps we were right to force ourselves to let Mavis Beacon teach us keyboarding. “We believe that the brain picks up these skills over repeated button pressings that start already as a child. What appears easy for us now has been acquired over years,” said Lee.

 


0

Amazon’s Echo Buttons get their own version of Trivial Pursuit

19:42 | 19 December

Echo Buttons got lost in the deluge of Alexa products announced by Amazon a few months back. Understandably so — they were fun, but weird additions to company’s portfolio of smart home products. The little glowing devices finally start shipping today, priced at $20 for a two-pack, and Hasbro’s offering one of the more compelling reasons to pick them up for the holidays.

The buttons pair to an Echo device via bluetooth, serving as gameshow buzzers. Trivial Pursuit Tap is one of the first third-party applications to take advantage of the little plastic discs, turning the smart home speaker into a makeshift, at-home, Alexa-based gameshow. Users can connect up to four of the Buttons at once, assigning different colors to each player.

It’s a fun little divergence from the standard Echo line — one that apparently started off as a bit of a pet project and somehow made its way to retail. Given the recent surge in popularity of app-based trivia games, however, this could actually prove a bit of a dark horse success for the company, especially given their low barrier of entry.

According to Amazon’s site, the Buttons should arrive prior to Christmas, which makes them solid candidates for stocking stuffers, and will give the family something to do other than argue about politics and the new Star Wars after all of the presents are unwrapped. Whether or not they’re stashed away in the closet come New Year’s, however, is entirely dependent on whether other game companies embrace the tech. 

 


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Amazon adds loads more branded Dash buttons in UK

13:20 | 18 October

Amazon has doubled the total selection of branded Dash buttons available to UK members of its Prime subscription service, to more than 100, just over a year after launching the push-button wi-fi gizmos, which let people reorder a specific product via its ecommerce marketplace just by pushing the button.

The first Dash buttons launched in the UK in August last year. Amazon now says Dash Button orders have delivered more than 160,000 cups of coffee and almost 300,000 rolls of toilet tissue paper in the market.

Although it’s not — in typical Amazon fashion — breaking out any hard metrics for the buttons, which cost £4.99 a piece (though users then get a £4.99 discount on their first Dash push order — so sticking these things all over your white goods comes with essentially zero additional cost, assuming you’re already locked into Amazon’s Prime membership program).

Reordering toilet roll is the most popular Dash push for UK users, according to the ecommerce giant. Followed by dishwasher tablets, cat litter, cat food, beer, mouthwash and baby wipes. So most definitely this gadget is one to file under ‘utility & convenience’ (not ‘shiny & sexy’).

Among the new brands willingly sticking themselves on Dash buttons are Bold, Cillit Bang, English Tea Shop, evian, Febreze, Flash, Gaviscon, Harringtons, Head & Shoulders, Pampers, Purina Gourmet, SMA, Tampax, Vet’s Best and Waterwipes.

The full list of new (and existing) UK Dash buttons can be found here.

For fast moving consumer goods brands, which inevitably have stacks of similarly priced rival products vying to catch consumers’ eyes on shop shelves, the chance to peel away and monopolize consumers’ attention in their own homes is clearly the equivalent of catnip.

Add in the fact Dash also reduces friction for repeat orders of their product and, well, there’s really no down side as far as the brands are concerned. Dash buttons for every kind of staple seems inevitable — at least until some kind of instant reordering gets integrated into products themselves.

Until then an unknown number of Brits are apparently comfortable pebble-dashing their homes with stick-on buttons. Or at least happy to put a Dash button for reordering bog roll somewhere near the toilet (hopefully in close proximity to soap and hot water).

 


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