Sunday, May 19, 2024

Google, Apple, and Microsoft make products friendlier to users with disabilities

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It’s Global Accessibility Awareness Day today, and Big Tech firms have accordingly issued a flurry of announcements about how they’ll make their products friendlier to people whose use of devices is hindered by disabilities.

Most coverage of Google’s I/O developer event this week may have focused on its generative AI news, but the company also announced an expansion of Project Gameface to the Android platform. Google announced that project last year—it’s an open-source, hands-free gaming “mouse” that uses the webcam to capture the gamer’s head movements and facial gestures, translating them into cursor movements via the magic of machine learning. Now Google is open-sourcing more of the code so developers can make better Android accessibility apps.

Gaming may have been the inspiration for Project Gameface—specifically, the needs of a gaming streamer named Lance Carr, who has muscular dystrophy—but the applications clearly go far beyond, with Google promising use cases in educational and work settings too.

In a similar vein, Apple yesterday also announced an upcoming iPhone and iPad feature called Eye Tracking. This does what the name suggests, giving users a way to navigate through and activate the elements of an app, just by letting the front-facing camera track their eye movements.

Apple also revealed other accessibility features that will be coming soon: Music Haptics, which will help deaf or hard-of-hearing iPhone users experience music with the aid of “taps, textures, and refined vibrations”; Vocal Shortcuts, which will let users trigger complex tasks by uttering simple sounds; and a bunch of new accessibility features specific to the CarPlay and visionOS environments.

Meanwhile, on the intriguing-hardware front, we have Microsoft’s announcement yesterday of the Proteus controller for Xbox and PC gamers.

Designed by peripherals startup ByoWave, the Proteus is a kit comprising “snap and play” parts that let people customize a wireless controller according to their needs. There’s a “mother cube” that serves as the controller’s brain, a cube features the directional pad, a piece with a mini control stick, another two providing left and right triggers, and so on. There are many possible configurations, from traditional controller layouts to wand-like columns and tabletop-friendly rectangles. Preorders are open now, with the kit ($255 to first-comers, $299 thereafter) shipping in the fall.

Microsoft also used the occasion of Global Accessibility Awareness Day to promise fixes for what some gamers with disabilities experienced from a major change that the company made last November when it started blocking the use of unauthorized accessories with the Xbox console. This has been an issue for those who had put together custom controller setups to fit their unique requirements, with equipment coming from small specialist manufacturers that aren’t official Microsoft licensees.

Part of Microsoft’s solution is for those manufacturers to get in touch and make their controllers official, but the company is also updating its own Adaptive Controller, which the Xbox always accepts, to expand support for more accessories. The $99 Adaptive Controller is a clever piece of gear that includes some built-in controller functionality of its own, but more importantly acts as a hub for specialized equipment, such as switches that are controlled by biting, sipping, and puffing with the mouth, or with one’s feet.

“We appreciate and acknowledge that gaming with a disability is highly individualistic, and the solution for one may not be the solution for all,” the company said.

More news below.

David Meyer

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NEWSWORTHY

Europe vs Meta. The European Commission has opened a formal investigation into Facebook and Instagram parent Meta, which it suspects of breaking the EU’s new Digital Services Act—a rulebook governing online content—by stimulating “behavioral addictions in children,” reinforcing the “rabbit hole effect” with its recommendation algorithms and having ineffective age verification mechanisms. Separately, TechCrunch reports that consumer advocates across Europe have hit China-owned Temu with a raft of official complaints, claiming the cheap-stuff purveyor breaks DSA rules around things like ensuring the traceability of the vendors using its platform and making its recommendation algorithms transparent.

Embarrassing iPhone bug. The latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system, iOS 17.5, reportedly has one heck of a privacy bug, with users reporting the reappearance of old photos and even voicemails that they had deleted a long time ago. As The Verge reports, some of the pictures were NSFW, so it’s easy to see why people are creeped out—one Reddit user even claimed such pictures had unexpectedly returned to an iPad they’d wiped and sold to a friend.

Musk latest. Reuters has published some must-read stories about Elon Musk’s companies in the last couple days. One of the articles details the events that led to his surprise firing of everyone in Tesla’s Supercharger division—apparently team leader Rebecca Tinucci pushed back against his demand for job cuts, so he “responded by firing her and her entire 500-member team.” Another reveals that Neuralink has long known about problems with wires on its brain implant pulling out of position, which is what just happened to its first human patient, Noland Arbaugh. Reuters also reported yesterday that a U.S. judge has green-lit a class action lawsuit that claims Tesla misled owners into thinking their vehicles would soon become autonomous.

ON OUR FEED

“This is incredibly dangerous. It lays the path for centralized, device-level client side scanning. From detecting ‘scams’ it’s a short step to ‘detecting patterns commonly associated with seeking reproductive care’ or ‘commonly associated with providing LGBTQ resources’ or ‘commonly associated with tech worker whistleblowing.’”

Signal CEO Meredith Whittaker slams Google’s push to use on-device AI to listen out for scam-like conversation patterns in Android users’ calls. Other security experts are similarly horrified by the feature, which Google says it’s testing.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

In a single night, self-driving startup Cruise went from sizzling startup to cautionary tale. Here’s what really happened—and how GM is scrambling to save its $10B bet, by Jessica Mathews

Stellantis boss slams Biden’s 100% tariff on Chinese EVs, just as he plans to start selling them: ‘Whether I like it or not they are grabbing share’, by Ryan Hogg

Amazon axed more than 100 customer service managers in CEO Andy Jassy’s latest job cuts, by Jason Del Rey

Amazon raised warehouse wages to $15 an hour 5 years ago. Today, half of workers surveyed told researchers they struggle to afford food or rent, by Bloomberg

Dell hybrid employees who don’t show up to the office enough are getting a literal red flag, by Orianna Rosa Royle

TikTok tax advice could lead to thousands of delayed refunds and/or audits, IRS warns, by Chris Morris

BEFORE YOU GO

Call center AI. Ever gotten mad at a cell center worker? You’re not the only one, and to that end, Japan’s SoftBank is about to start trialing some new AI tech—not to replace fleshy call center operatives, but to protect them from abuse by irate customers. As Reuters reports, the aim is to transmogrify angry voices into something with a “calm conversational tone” that doesn’t traumatize the poor phone jockey who’s only trying to do their job. It’s easy to imagine the comedic potential here, but it’s also a darn good, pro-human idea—it would be ideal if companies didn’t do things that enrage their customers, but either way, nobody should have to endure being yelled at in their workplace.

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