Google’s new experimental apps focus on reducing screen time — including one that uses a paper envelope

In October, Google debuted experimental apps focused on digital well-being, including one that offered a notification mailbox, another that tracked how long you went between phone unlocks and even one that let you print the information you needed from your phone for the day so you wouldn’t have to use your phone, to name a few. Now, Google has added three more apps to its unique collection with the launch of a Screen Stopwatch for tracking screen time, another that lets you visualize your phone usage as bubbles and a third that lets you put your phone in an envelope… wait, what?

Envelope is not a joke, as it turns out, but rather the latest bit of creativity from London-based design studio Special Projects. The group had already created the phone info printout app, Paper Phone, which arrived when Google’s Digital Wellbeing Experiments platform first launched last year.

The team’s new Envelope app helps you to still use your phone for basic functions, like making or receiving calls or using the camera to take photos. But all this is done from inside a paper envelope custom-designed for your phone. To wrap up your phone, there’s a printable PDF for Google Pixel 3a phones that you print at full scale, then cut, fold and glue. The end result is a paper phone sleeve that leaves room for the camera and offers a numerical keypad on the front, in case you need to make calls.

The app, meanwhile, helps to make the buttons light up to be seen through the paper.

Envelope is clearly more of a design experiment rather than a practical tool. While touchscreens do work through paper, wrapping your phone up for the day will certainly complicate things — like when you need to get someone’s phone number (because no one memorizes these anymore!) or to look up directions, among other things. But it would allow you to challenge yourself to see how long you could make it before ripping the envelope open, we suppose.

Another new app, Activity Bubbles, creates a new bubble for each phone unlock during the day. The bubble then grows larger the longer you use your device. Your bubbles can be set as a live wallpaper so you can continually keep track of your screen time.

Screen Stopwatch tracks how long you’ve been on your phone each day by counting the hours, minutes and seconds of screen time with every unlock. This, too, can be set as a live wallpaper so you can see your phone usage grow throughout the day.

These latter two apps were put out by Google Creative Lab, as were many of the first apps launched last fall.

Google explained at the time the goal with its Digital Wellbeing Experiments is to inspire designers and developers to keep digital well-being at top of mind when building technology. While some of the experiments may be “out there” — like envelopes for the phone — the overall goal is not to make these mainstream apps, but rather to get people thinking about phone and app addictions. Major tech companies, Google included, are increasingly focused on what they can do better in this area — adding features like “take a break” reminders, alerts that tell you when you’re “all caught up” with your feed or rolling out tools to help reduce screen time, like app limits or the ability to turn off distracting notifications. 

The Digital Wellbeing Experiments platform is open to contributions, but new additions are reviewed before they’re added to the site, a process that could take weeks. The apps themselves will work on recent Android handsets.


Android – TechCrunch

Kids with lazy eye can be treated just by letting them watch TV on this special screen

Amblyopia, commonly called lazy eye, is a medical condition that adversely affects the eyesight of millions, but if caught early can be cured altogether — unfortunately this usually means months of wearing an eyepatch. NovaSight claims successful treatment with nothing more than an hour a day in front of its special display.

The condition amounts to when the two eyes aren’t synced up in their movements. Normally both eyes will focus the detail-oriented fovea part of the retina on whatever object the person is attending to; In those with amblyopia, one eye won’t target the fovea correctly and as a result the eyes don’t converge properly and vision suffers, and if not treated can lead to serious vision loss.

It can be detected early on in children, and treatment can be as simple as covering the good eye with a patch for most of the day, which forces the other eye to adjust and align itself properly. The problem is of course that this is uncomfortable and embarrassing for the kid, and of course only using one eye isn’t ideal for playing schoolyard games and other everyday things.

And you look cool doing it!

NovaSight’s innovation with CureSight is to let this alignment process happen without the eyepatch, instead selectively blurring content the child watches so that the affected eye has to do the work while the other takes a rest.

It accomplishes this with the same technology that, ironically, gave many of us double vision back in the early days of 3D: glasses with blue and red lenses.

Blue-red stereoscopy presents two slightly different versions of the same image, one tinted red and one tinted blue. Normally it would be used with slightly different parallax to produce a binocular 3D image — that’s what many of us saw in theaters or amusement park rides.

In this case, however, one of the two tinted images just has a blurry circle right where the kid is looking. The screen uses a built-in Tobii eye-tracking sensor so it knows where the circle should be; I got to test it out briefly and the circle quickly caught up with my gaze. This makes it so the other eye, affected by the condition but the only one with access to the details of the image, has to be relied on to point where the kid needs it to.

The best part is that there isn’t some treatment schema or tests — kids can literally just watch YouTube or a movie using the special setup, and they’re getting better, NovaSight claims. And it can be done at home on the kid’s schedule — always a plus.

Graphs from NovaSight website.

The company has already done some limited clinical trials that showed “significant improvement” over a 12-week period. Whether it can be relied on to completely cure the condition or if it should be paired with other established treatments will come out in further trials the company has planned.

In the meantime, however, it’s nice to see a technology like 3D displays applied to improving vision rather than promoting bad films. NovaSight has been developing and promoting its tech over the last year; It also has a product that helps diagnose vision problems using a similar application of 3D display tech. You can learn more or request additional info at its website.

Gadgets – TechCrunch

DuckDuckGo still critical of Google’s EU Android choice screen auction, after wining a universal slot

Google has announced which search engines have won an auction process it has devised for an Android ‘choice screen’ — as its response to an antitrust intervention by the region’s competition regulator.

The prompt is shown to users of Android smartphones in the European Union as they set up a device, asking them to choose a search engine from a list of four which always includes Google’s own search engine.

In mid-2018 the European Commission fined Google $ 5BN for antitrust violations attached to how it operates the Android platform, including related to how it bundles its own services with the dominant smartphone OS, and ordered it to remedy the infringements — while leaving it up to the tech giant to devise a fix.

Google responded by creating a choice screen for Android users to pick a search engine from a short list — with the initial choices seemingly based on local marketshare. But last summer it announced it would move to auctioning slots on the screen via a fixed sealed bid auction process.

The big winners of the initial auction, for the period March 1, 2020 to June 30, 2020, are pro-privacy search engine DuckDuckGo — which gets one of the three slots in all 31 European markets — and a product called Info.com, which will also be shown as an option in all those markets. (Per Wikipedia, the latter is a veteran metasearch engine that provides results from multiple search engines and directories, including Google.)

French pro-privacy search engine Qwant will be shown as an option to Android users in eight European markets. While Russia’s Yandex will appears as an option in five markets in the east of the region.

Other search engines that will appear as choices in a minority of the European markets are GMX, Seznam, Givero and PrivacyWall.

At a glance the big loser looks to be Microsoft’s Bing search engine — which will only appear as an option on the choice screen shown in the UK.

Tree-planting search engine Ecosia does not appear anywhere on the list at all, despite appearing on some initial Android choice screens — having taken the decision to boycott the auction to objects to Google’s ‘pay-to-play’ approach.

Ecosia CEO Christian Kroll told the BBC: “We believe this auction is at odds with the spirit of the July 2018 EU Commission ruling. Internet users deserve a free choice over which search engine they use and the response of Google with this auction is an affront to our right to a free, open and federated internet. Why is Google able to pick and choose who gets default status on Android?”

It’s not the only search engine critical of Google’s move, with Qwant and DuckDuckGo both raising concerns immediately the move to a paid auction was announced last year.

Despite participating in the process — and winning a universal slot — DuckDuckGo told us it still does not agree with Google’s pay-to-play auction.

“We believe a search preference menu is an excellent way to meaningfully increase consumer choice if designed properly. Our own research has reinforced this point and we look forward to the day when Android users in Europe will have the opportunity to easily make DuckDuckGo their default search engine while setting up their phones. However, we still believe a pay-to-play auction with only 4 slots isn’t right because it means consumers won’t get all the choices they deserve and Google will profit at the expense of the competition,” a spokesperson said in a statement.


Android – TechCrunch

Blindlee is Chatroulette for dating with a safety screen

Make space for another dating app in your single life: Blindlee is Chatroulette for dating but with female-friendly guardrails in the form of a user-controlled video blur effect.

The idea is pretty simple: Singles are matched randomly with another user who meets some basic criteria (age, location) for a three minute ‘ice breaker’ video call. The app suggests chat topics — like ‘pineapple on pizza, yay or nay’ — to get the conversation flowing. After this, each caller chooses whether or not to match — and if both match they can continue to chat via text.

The twist is that the video call is the ‘first contact’ medium for determining whether it’s a match or not. The call also starts “100% blurred” — for obvious, ‘dick pic’ avoidance reasons.

Blindlee says female users have control of the level of blur during the call — meaning they can elect to reduce it to 75%, 50%, 25% or nothing if they like what they’re (partially) seeing and hearing. Though their interlocutor also has to agree to the reduction so neither side can unilaterally rip the screen away.

Dating apps continue to be a bright spot for experimental ideas, despite category giants like Tinder dominating with a much cloned swipe-to-match formula. Tech giant Facebook also now has its own designs on the space. But turns out there’s no fixed formula for finding love or chemistry.

All the data in the world can’t necessarily help with that problem. So a tiny, bootstrapping startup like Blindlee could absolutely hit on something inspired that Tinder or Facebook hasn’t thought of (or else feels it can’t implement across a larger user-base).

Co-founder Sacha Nasan also reckons there’s space for supplementary dating apps.

“We’re focusing on blind dating which is a subset of dating so you can say that indirectly rather than directly we are competing with the big dating apps (Tinder etc). This is more niche and is definitely a new, untried concept to the dating world,” he argues. “However the good thing about dating apps is that they are not substitutes but complements.

“Just like people may have installed Uber on their phone but also Hailo and Lyft, people have multiple datings app installed as well (to maximise their chances of finding a partner) and that is an advantage. Nonetheless we still think that we only indirectly compete with other dating apps.”

Using a blur effect to preserve privacy is not in itself entirely a new idea. For example Muzmatch, a YC-backed dating app focused on matchmaking Muslims, offers a blur feature to users not wanting to put their profile photos out there for any other user to see.

But Blindlee is targeting a more general dating demographic. Though Nasan says it does plan to expand matching filters, if/when it can grow its user-base, to include additional criteria such as religion.

“The target is anyone above 18 (for legal reasons) and from the data we see most users are under 30,” he says. “So this covers university students to young professionals. On the spectrum of dating apps where ‘left’ would be hookups apps (like Tinder used to be) and ‘right’ would be relationship app (like Hinge), we position ourself more on the right side (a relationship app).”

Blindlee is also using video as the chemistry-channeling medium to help users decide if they match or not.

This is clever because it’s still a major challenge to know if you’ll click with an Internet stranger in real life with only a digitally mediated version of the person to go on. At least live on camera there’s only so much faking that can be done — well, unless the person is a professional actor or scammer.

And while plunging into a full-bore videochat with a random might sound a bit much, a blurry teaser with conversation prompts looks fairly low risk.

The target user for Blindlee is also likely to have grown up online and with smartphones and Internet video culture. A videocall should therefore be a pretty comfortable medium of expression for these singles.

“The idea came from my experience in the app world (since the age of 14) combined with a situation where my cousin… went on a date from one of the dating apps where the man who showed up was about 15 years older. The man had used old pictures on his profile,” explains Nasan. “That’s just one story and there are plenty like these so I grew tired of the sometimes fake and superficial aspect of the online dating world. Together with my cousin’s brother [co-founder, Glenn Keller] we decided to develop Blindlee to make the process more transparent and safer but also fun.

“Blindee makes for a fun three-minute blurred video experience with a random person matching your criteria. It’s kind of like a short, pre-date ice-breaker before you potentially match and decide to meet in real life. And we put control of the blur filter in the woman’s hand to make it safer for women (but also because if the men would have control they would straight away ask to unblur it — and we have tested this!).”

The app is a free download for now but the plan is to move to a freemium model with a limit on the number of free video chats per day — charging a monthly subscription to unlock more than three daily calls.

“This will be priced cheap around £3-4/month compared to usual dating premium subscription which cost £10+ a month,” he says. “We basically look at this income as a way of paying the server bills (as every minute of video costs us).”

The London-based startup was founded in March and launched the app in October on iOS, adding an Android version earlier this month. Nasan says they’ve picked up around 5,000 registered users so far with only minimal marketing — such as dropping flyers on London university campuses.

While they’re bootstrapping the launch he says they may look to take in angel funding “as we see growth picking up”.


Android – TechCrunch

US search market needs a ‘choice screen’ remedy now, says DuckDuckGo

US regulators shouldn’t be sitting on their hands while the 50+ state, federal and congressional antitrust investigations of Google to grind along, search rival DuckDuckGo argues.

It’s put out a piece of research today that suggests choice screens which let smartphone users choose from a number of search engines to be their device default — aka “preference menus” as DuckDuckGo founder Gabe Weinberg prefers to call them — offer an easy and quick win for regulators to reboot competition in the search space by rebalancing markets right now.

“If designed properly we think [preference menus] are a quick and effective key piece in the puzzle for a good remedy,” Weinberg tells TechCrunch. “And that’s because it finally enables people to change the search defaults across the entire device which has been difficult in the past… It’s at a point, during device set-up, where you can promote the users to take a moment to think about whether they want to try out an alternative search engine.”

Google is already offering such a choice to Android users in Europe, following an EU antitrust decision against Android last year.

Google Android choice screen

DuckDuckGo is concerned US regulators aren’t thinking pro-actively enough about remedies for competition in the US search market — and is hoping to encourage more of a lean-in approach to support boosting diversity so that rivals aren’t left waiting years for the courts to issue judgements before any relief is possible.

In a survey of Internet users which it commissioned, polling more than 3,400 adults in the US, UK, Germany and Australia, people were asked to respond to a 4-choice screen design, based on an initial Google Android remedy proposal, as well as an 8-choice variant.

“We found that in each surveyed country, people select the Google alternatives at a rate that could increase their collective mobile market share by 300%-800%, with overall mobile search market share immediately changing by over 10%,” it writes [emphasis its].

Survey takers were also asked about factors that motivate them to switch search engines — with the number one reason given being a better quality of search results, and the next reason being if a search engine doesn’t track their searches or data.

Of course DuckDuckGo stands to gain from any pro-privacy switching, having built an alternative search business by offering non-tracked searches supported by contextual ads. Its model directly contrasts with Google’s, which relies on pervasive tracking of Internet users to determine which ads to serve.

But there’s plenty of evidence consumers hate being tracked. Not least the rise in use of tracker blockers.

“Using the original design puzzle [i.e. that Google devised] we saw a lot of people selecting alternative search engines and we think it would go up from there,” says Weinberg. “But even initially a 10% market share change is really significant.”

He points to regulatory efforts in Europe and also Russia which have resulted in antitrust decisions and enforcements against Google — and where choice screens are already in use promoting alternative search engine choices to Android users.

He also notes that regulators in Australia and the UK are pursuing choice screens — as actual or potential remedies for rebalancing the search market.

Russia has the lead here, with its regulator — the FAS — slapping Google with an order against bundling its services with Android all the way back in 2015, a few months after local search giant Yandex filed a complaint. A choice screen was implemented in 2017 and Russia’s homegrown Internet giant has increased its search market share on Android devices as a result. Google continues to do well in Russia. But the result is greater diversity in the local search market, as a direct result of implementing a choice screen mechanism.

“We think that all regulatory agencies that are now considering search market competition should really implement this remedy immediately,” says Weinberg. “They should do other things… as well but I don’t see any reason why one should wait on not implementing this because it would take a while to roll out and it’s a good start.”

Of course US regulators have yet to issue any antitrust findings against Google — despite there now being tens of investigations into “potential monopolistic behavior”. And Weinberg concedes that US regulators haven’t yet reached the stage of discussing remedies.

“It feels at a very investigatory stage,” he agrees. “But we would like to accelerate that… As well as bigger remedial changes — similar to privacy and how we’re pushing Do Not Track legislation — as something you can do right now as kind of low hanging fruit. I view this preference menu in the same way.”

“It’s a very high leverage thing that you can do immediately to move market share and increase search competition and so one should do it faster and then take the things that need to be slower slower,” he adds, referring to more radical possible competition interventions — such as breaking a business up.

There is certainly growing concern among policymakers around the world that the current modus operandi of enforcing competition law has failed to keep pace with increasingly powerful technology-driven businesses and platforms — hence ‘winner takes all’ skews which exist in certain markets and marketplaces, reducing choice for consumers and shrinking opportunities for startups to compete.

This concern was raised as a question for Europe’s competition chief, Margrethe Vestager, during her hearing in front of the EU parliament earlier this month. She pointed to the Commission’s use of interim measures in an ongoing case against chipmaker Broadcom as an example of how the EU is trying to speed up its regulatory response, noting it’s the first time such an application has been made for two decades.

In a press conference shortly afterwards, to confirm the application of EU interim measures against Broadcom, Vestager added: “Interim measures are one way to tackle the challenge of enforcing our competition rules in a fast and effective manner. This is why they are important. And especially that in fast moving markets. Whenever necessary I’m therefore committed to making the best possible use of this important tool.”

Weinberg is critical of Google’s latest proposals around search engine choice in Europe — after it released details of its idea to ‘evolve’ the search choice screen — by applying an auction model, starting early next year. Other rivals, such as French pro-privacy engine Qwant, have also blasted the proposal.

Clearly, how choice screens are implemented is key to their market impact.

“The way the current design is my read is smaller search engines, including us and including European search engines will not be on the screen long term the way it’s set up,” says Weinberg. “There will need to be additional changes to get the effects that we were seeing in our studies we made.

“There’s many reasons why us and others would not be those highest bidders,” he says of the proposed auction. “But needless to say the bigger companies can weigh outweigh the smaller ones and so there are alternative ways to set this up.”


Android – TechCrunch