Google debuts new digital wellbeing ‘experiments’ like a notification mailbox, unlock clock & even a paper phone

Following the introduction of its digital wellbeing tools for Android at Google’s I/O developer conference last year, the company has since expanded the feature set to include new options like Focus mode and better parental controls for families with children. Now, Google is trying something new. The company today introduced a set of “experimental” apps designed to help users be better aware of their device use and reduce their screen time.

The apps, which are a part of a new Digital Wellbeing Experiments platform, are very different from your standard screen time controls. They’re open-sourced projects designed to kickstart out-of-the-box thinking, but not necessarily must-have tools.

One experiment, Unlock Clock, simply shows you how often you unlock your phone.

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Another, We Flip, lets a group of friends or a family disconnect from technology altogether by flipping a big switch. And if anyone unlocks their phone, the session ends for everyone — almost like making screen time a competitive family sport.

Desert Island and Morph, meanwhile, take an app-centric approach to screen time reduction. The former requires you to go a day with only your most essential apps, while the latter helps you stay focused by giving you the right apps at the right time of day.

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That idea had been popular in years past with Android launchers, like Cover, EverythingMe, and Aviate, for example. In those cases, different homescreen configurations and widgets would appear based on what time of day it was and what you were doing. However, the idea of smartphones that personalized themselves to our needs never really took off — perhaps because these same experiences could never transition to iOS where Apple’s restrictions limited how much customization could be done.

The Post Box experiment is one of the more intriguing creations — it offers to hold your notifications until whatever time suits you.

Notification spam is now arguably one of the worst side effects of becoming a smartphone user. It’s so bad, in fact, that both Apple and Google have had to redesign ways for users to reassert control at the OS level.

Earlier this year, Apple CEO Tim Cook even said that he has gutted his iPhone’s notifications, touting the iOS feature to do so as some sort of miraculous invention — when in reality it was Apple’s flawed design of the notification system to begin with that allowed developers to continually interrupt us with their irrelevant pings.

A mailbox-style system — like this new Google experiment provides — was another obvious choice, but one that wouldn’t have allowed an app ecosystem to blossom.

Then there is the most whimsical experiment of them all, Paper Phone.

This app will print you a custom booklet of the critical information you need that day, including favorite contacts, maps, meetings, tasks, weather info, and more.

paper phone

You can then take a short break from your device, without giving up access to your must-have information. It’s like time-traveling for those of us old enough to remember life before smartphones, and a small gift of freedom for those who have never been without.

Google says this new Digital Wellbeing Experiments platform is open for contributions from any designers and developers who want to share their ideas for a more balanced relationship with technology.

“We hope these experiments inspire developers and designers to keep digital wellbeing top of mind when building technology. The more people that get involved, the more we can all learn how to build better technology for everyone,” said Google.

Interested contributors can download the “Hack Pack” and open source code available on the site to get started.

The experiments only run on Android and are offered for download on the Play Store.

While the new experiments are less about fixing existing Google products and more about playing around with new ideas, Google has several other screen time/wellbeing initiatives underway, including its Android native wellbeing features, YouTube’s ‘take a break’ reminders and other screen time controls, Google Assistant’s wind-down routines, Gmail automations like auto-reply and send later, Google Family Link and more.

Android – TechCrunch

The Google Assistant can now tell you a story on your phone

For the last year or so, you could ask the Google Assistant on your Google Home device to read your kids a story. Today, just in time for National Tell a Story Day, Google is bringing this feature to Android and iOS phones, too. It’ll be available in English in the U.S., U.K., Canada, Australia and India.

When you asked the Assistant on your phone to tell you a story before, you’d get a short inspirational quote or maybe a bad joke. Having two different experiences for the same command never really made much sense, so it’s good to see Google consolidate this.

The available stories range from tales about Blaze and the Monster Machines to more classic bedtime stories like ‘Sleeping Beauty’ and ‘Little Red Riding Hood.’

That’s in addition to other story features like ‘read along,’ which automatically plays sound effects as you read from a number of Disney Little Golden Books. That’s obviously the cooler feature overall, but the selection of supported books remains limited. For longer stories, there’s obviously audiobook support.

Or you could just sit down with your kids and read them a book. That’s also an option.

Android – TechCrunch

Google turns your Android phone into a security key

Your Android phone could soon replace your hardware security key to provide two-factor authentication access to your accounts. As the company announced at its Cloud Next conference today, it has developed a Bluetooth-based protocol that will be able to talk to its Chrome browser and provide a standards-based second factor for access to its services, similar to modern security keys.

It’s no secret that two-factor authentication remains one of the best ways to secure your online accounts. Typically, that second factor comes to you in the form of a push notification, text message or through an authentication app like the Google Authenticator. There’s always the risk of somebody intercepting those numbers or phishing your account and then quickly using your second factor to log in, though. Because a physical security key also ensures that you are on the right site before it exchanges the key, it’s almost impossible to phish this second factor. The key simply isn’t going to produce a token on the wrong site.

Because Google is using the same standard here, just with different hardware, that phishing protection remains intact when you use your phone, too.

Bluetooth security keys aren’t a new thing, of course, and Google’s own Titan keys include a Bluetooth version (though they remain somewhat controversial). The user experience for those keys is a bit messy, though, since you have to connect the key and the device first. Google, however, says that it has done away with all of this thanks to a new protocol that uses Bluetooth but doesn’t necessitate the usual Bluetooth connection setup process. Sadly, though, the company didn’t quite go into details as to how this would work.

Google says this new feature will work with all Android 7+ devices that have Bluetooth and location services enabled. Pixel 3 phones, which include Google’s Titan M tamper-resistant security chip, get some extra protections, but the company is mostly positioning this as a bonus and not a necessity.

As far as the setup goes, the whole process isn’t all that different from setting up a security key (and you’ll still want to have a second or third key handy in case you ever lose or destroy your phone). You’ll be able to use this new feature for both work and private Google accounts.

For now, this also only works in combination with Chrome. The hope here, though, is to establish a new standard that will then be integrated into other browsers, as well. It’s only been a week or two since Google enabled support for logging into its own service with security keys on Edge and Firefox. That was a step forward. Now that Google offers a new service that’s even more convenient, though, it’ll likely be a bit before these competing browsers will offer support, too, once again giving Google a bit of an edge.

Android – TechCrunch