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TechScape: Do Apple’s bigger car screens take driving in the right direction? | Technology

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Apple’s annual developer event, WWDC, is in full swing. “Dub Dub”, as it’s known, is about more than the company’s regular product launches, which are focused on the physical devices soon to hit store shelves – it is a chance for Tim Cook’s team to shape the conversation more broadly: focus attention where they want it, guide the eyes of the world to the next big thing, and steer developers towards working on the products and services necessary to enable the hardware still in the pipeline to flourish.

In previous years, that has included a strong focus on augmented reality technology, encouraging developers to adopt the company’s tools for building AR experiences. That has had both a short-term and a long-term advantage: Apple has included increasingly advanced Lidar sensors (think radar but with light) on iPhones and iPads, capable of mapping a room in fine detail. In the long term, it’s meant there’s a community of developers capable of working with the technology that Apple will use in its much-rumoured AR glasses.

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This year, we saw similar approaches across the board. The company showed off a new lock screen for the iPhone, that lets users customise far more than just the wallpaper, from the font used for the clock to the placement and location of widgets on the lock screen itself. (We will now take a brief pause while the Android users in the audience point out that they’ve had this for years.)

The changes will be useful from day one and be a clear advantage in three months when, if supply-chain leaks are accurate, the latest iPhones will have an always-on display. That feature turning the lock screen from something you see briefly while waiting for Face ID to kick in to a near-permanent presence in your life if you, like many, have your phone face-up on a desk or table for vast chunks of the day.

Yet sometimes that focus can be tiresome. When your wishlist is topped by minor feature updates and bug fixes to its current product, it can be wearying to find Apple instead driven by the relentless urge for growth to tackle another entirely new area.

What’s less common is to find it actively worrying. But that’s the feeling I had as the focus of Monday’s keynote shifted from smart-home technology to updates for Apple’s CarPlay service for connected vehicles.

Can’t drive, won’t drive

I should preface this by saying that I don’t drive, so news about CarPlay serves less as a hype reel of the features that will be arriving in my car over the coming year, and more as a foreboding look at all the things that will be drawing drivers’ attention away from the important task of not hitting me as I cross the road.

Through that lens, the CarPlay news was unsettling. “Cars have changed a lot,” said Emily Schubert, a senior manager in the company’s Car Experience team. “With larger-size screens and more of them throughout the car, there is an opportunity for iPhone to play an even more important role. We’ve been working with automakers to reinvent the in-car experience, across all of the driver’s screens.”

Apple’s preview showed a car with a dizzying amount of information at the driver’s fingertips. As well as a digital speedometer and tachometer, and a turn-by-turn map updated in between them, the display stretched off into the distance along the dashboard: information about the current trip (including ETA and fuel economy); events in the calendar; the air quality and UV index of the local area; two analogue clocks; the fact that the home garage door was closed; and the song playing on the stereo. Underneath was a second screen, with yet more weather information, and a full-size display of app icons, including news, phone and messages.

Emily Schubert at Apple’s annual developer event on Monday.
Emily Schubert at Apple’s annual developer event on Monday. Photograph: Apple Inc/Rex/Shutterstock

You can choose curated themes and styles for your gauges,” Schubert explained. “And automakers from around the world are excited to bring this new vision of CarPlay to customers.”

I bet they are. The old joke was that cars were sold on the feel of the door slamming shut, rather than passenger safety or fuel economy; the new truth appears to be that more important than either of those are the size and shape of the in-car entertainment system – a fact that Apple is pleased to promote, noting that: “CarPlay is available on over 98% of cars in the US [and] 79% of US buyers would only consider a car that works with CarPlay.”

But not one word of Schubert’s presentation addressed the safety ramifications of fitting ever-larger screens in cars, nor opening up a bevy of customisation options for users. (Apple sent my a holding email and ignored my questions asking if the company had researched the issue before embarking on development.)

Safety over style

For all that Tesla, which has pioneered the trend towards massive screens sitting in the central console of a vehicle, might wish otherwise, most cars do not yet drive themselves. But the more tasks that are shifted from buttons and dials to a touchscreen device, the less a driver is able to do while devoting their attention to the road ahead. A 2017 report from the American Automobile Association found that some tasks can be tremendously distracting: programming a navigation system took an average of 40 seconds, all of which left the driver unable to focus on the most important task at hand. “Just because a technology is available while driving does not mean it is safe or easy to use when behind the wheel. Drivers should only use these technologies for legitimate emergencies or urgent, driving-related purposes,” said Jake Nelson, the Automobile Association of America’s director of traffic safety advocacy and research.

There are other small dangers that add up. A large backlit screen in front of your face poses new problems for night driving; a shift from tactile knobs and dials to smooth glass for air conditioning and other comfort features adds yet further reasons to glance away from the road.

I don’t doubt that Apple does have a safety story to tell here. The company’s continued investment in Siri means that more tasks than ever can be performed without taking your eyes off the road. And it’s important to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good: a world without these screens is unlikely to be a world full of great, law-abiding drivers, but rather just a world where more people than ever are comfortable holding their phone in one hand as they drive with the other.

But my priority for an in-car display is providing a driver with the information they need to get from A to B without endangering me, other road users, other drivers and themselves. To listen to Apple’s presentation, one could be forgiven for believing that the priority is to let drivers choose the colours for the speedometer.

No, Elon

A brief update on Musk: he continues to try not to buy Twitter, the company he offered $44bn (£35bn) to acquire in April with a goal of “defeating the spam bots”, because he apparently worries there might be a lot of spam bots on the social network:

Musk’s lawyers have written to Twitter accusing it of refusing to provide sufficient information about the number of false users on the service, as part of a simmering dispute over the number of spam and fake accounts that populate the platform.

An image of a smartphone featuring Elon Musk’s Twitter page, with the Twitter “birds” in the background
Will Musk walk away from his Twitter takeover? Photograph: Dado Ruvić/Reuters

The Tesla boss explicitly waived the right to due diligence as part of his offer, which once seemed as if it was progressing at record pace. But in late May, around the time of a widespread crash in tech stocks that affected Musk’s own holdings as well as those of other social networks, he seemed to develop a sudden deeply held belief that Twitter had lied about the number of fake accounts on the site, which the company had already claimed hovered at around 5%.

Now, Twitter is providing him with grounds to walk away from the deal entirely, Musk argues.

Whether Musk wants to back out, or merely renegotiate the deal for better terms, is unclear, but it’d take a very trusting person to believe that he was genuinely surprised by fake accounts and changed his mind. Whether or not the courts buy it – or Twitter folds before it even reaches a judge – is a different matter, of course. Will Musk’s record run of getting away with shit continue?

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Meditation app Calm sacks one-fifth of staff | Meditation

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The US-based meditation app Calm has laid off 20% of its workforce, becoming the latest US tech startup to announce job cuts.

The firm’s boss, David Ko, said the company, which has now axed about 90 people from its 400-person staff, was “not immune” to the economic climate. “In building out our strategic and financial plan, we revisited the investment thesis behind every project and it became clear that we need to make changes,” he said in a memo to staff.

“I can assure you that this was not an easy decision, but it is especially difficult for a company like ours whose mission is focused on workplace mental health and wellness.”

The Calm app, founded in 2012, offers guided meditation and bedtime stories for people of all ages. It received a surge of downloads triggered by the 2020 Covid lockdowns. By the end of that year, the software company said the app had been downloaded more than 100 million times globally and had amassed over 4 million paying subscribers.

Investors valued the firm, which said it had been profitable since 2016, at $2bn.

In the memo, Ko went on: “We did not come to this decision lightly, but are confident that these changes will help us prioritize the future, focus on growth and become a more efficient organization.”

More than 500 startups have laid off staff this year, according to layoffs.fyi, a website that tracks such announcements.

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Let there be ambient light sensing, without data theft • The Register

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Six years after web security and privacy concerns surfaced about ambient light sensors in mobile phones and notebooks, browser boffins have finally implemented defenses.

The W3C, everyone’s favorite web standards body, began formulating an Ambient Light Events API specification back in 2012 to define how web browsers should handle data and events from ambient light sensors (ALS). Section 4 of the draft spec, “Security and privacy considerations,” was blank. It was a more carefree time.

Come 2015, the spec evolved to include acknowledgement of the possibility that ALS might allow data correlation and device fingerprinting, to the detriment of people’s privacy. And it suggested that browser makers might consider event rate limiting as a potential mitigation.

By 2016, it became clear that allowing web code to interact with device light sensors entailed privacy and security risks beyond fingerprinting. Dr Lukasz Olejnik, an independent privacy researcher and consultant, explored the possibilities in a 2016 blog post.

Olejnik cited a number of ways in which ambient light sensor readings might be abused, including data leakage, profiling, behavioral analysis, and various forms of cross-device communication.

He described a few proof-of-concept attacks, devised with the help of security researcher Artur Janc, in a 2017 post and delved into more detail in a 2020 paper [PDF].

“The attack we devised was a side-channel leak, conceptually very simple, taking advantage of the optical properties of human skin and its reflective properties,” Olejnik explained in his paper.

“Skin reflectance only accounts for the 4-7 percent emitted light but modern display screens emit light with significant luminance. We exploited these facts of nature to craft an attack that reasoned about the website content via information encoded in the light level and conveyed via the user skin, back to the browsing context tracking the light sensor readings.”

It was this technique that enabled the proof-of-concept attacks like stealing web history through inferences made from CSS changes and stealing cross origin resources, such as images or the contents of iframes.

Snail-like speed

Browser vendors responded in various ways. In May 2018, with the release of Firefox 60, Mozilla moved access to the W3C proximity and ambient light APIs behind flags, and applied further limitations in subsequent Firefox releases.

Apple simply declined to implement the API in WebKit, along with a number of other capabilities. Both Apple and Mozilla currently oppose a proposal for a generic sensor API.

Google took what Olejnik described his paper as a “more nuanced” approach, limiting the precision of sensor data.

But those working on the W3C specification and on the browsers implementing the spec recognized that such privacy protections should be formalized, to increase the likelihood the API will be widely adopted and used.

So they voted to make the imprecision of ALS data normative (standard for browsers) and to require the camera access permission as part of the ALS spec.

Those changes finally landed in the ALS spec this week. As a result, Google and perhaps other browser makers may choose to make the ALS API available by default rather than hiding it behind a flag or ignoring it entirely. ®



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4 supports that can help employees outside of work

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Everyone has different situations to deal with outside of the workplace. But that doesn’t mean the workplace can’t be a source of support.

Employers and governments alike are often striving to make workplaces better for everyone, whether it’s workplace wellbeing programmes or gender pay gap reporting.

However, life is about more than just the hours that are spent in work, and how an employer supports those other life challenges can be a major help.

Family-friendly benefits

Several companies have been launching new benefits and policies that help families and those trying to have children.

Job site Indeed announced a new ‘family forming’ benefit package earlier this year, which is designed to provide employees with family planning and fertility-related assistance.

The programme includes access to virtual care and a network of providers who can guide employees through their family-forming journey.

Vodafone Ireland introduced a new fertility and pregnancy policy in February 2022 that includes extended leave for pregnancy loss, fertility treatment and surrogacy.

And as of the beginning of 2022, Pinterest employees around the world started receiving a host of new parental benefits, including a minimum of 20 weeks’ parental leave, monetary assistance of up to $10,000 or local equivalent for adoptive parents, and four weeks of paid leave to employees who experience a loss through miscarriage at any point in a pregnancy.

Helping those experiencing domestic abuse

There are also ways to support employees going through a difficult time. Bank of Ireland introduced a domestic abuse leave policy earlier this year, which provides a range of supports to colleagues who may be experiencing domestic abuse.

Under the policy, the bank will provide both financial and non-financial support to colleagues, such as paid leave and flexibility with the work environment or schedule.

In emergency situations where an employee needs to immediately leave an abusive partner, the bank will help through paid emergency hotel accommodation or a salary advance.

In partnership with Women’s Aid, the company is also rolling out training to colleagues to help recognise the symptoms of abuse and provide guidance on how to take appropriate action.

Commenting on the policy, Women’s Aid CEO Sarah Benson said employers who implement policies and procedures for employees subjected to domestic abuse can help reduce the risk of survivors giving up work and increase “feelings of solidarity and support at a time when they may feel completely isolated and alone”.

A menopause policy

In 2021, Vodafone created a policy to support workers after a survey it commissioned revealed that nearly two-thirds of women who experienced menopause symptoms said it impacted them at work. A third of those who had symptoms also said they hid this at work. Half of those surveyed felt there is a stigma around talking about menopause, which is something Vodafone is seeking to combat through education for all staff.

Speaking to SiliconRepublic.com last year, Vodafone Ireland CEO Anne O’Leary said the company would roll out a training and awareness programme to all employees globally, including a toolkit to improve their understanding of menopause and provide guidance on how to support employees, colleagues and family members.

In Ireland, Vodafone employees are able to avail of leave for sickness and medical treatment, flexible working hours and additional care through the company’s employee assistance programme when going through the menopause.

Support hub for migrants

There are also initiatives to help people get their foot on the employment ladder.

Earlier this year, Tánaiste Leo Varadkar, TD launched a new service with education and employment supports for refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants.

The Pathways to Progress platform is part of the Open Doors Initiative supporting marginalised groups to access further education, employment and entrepreneurship in Ireland.

As part of the initiative, member company Siro offered a paid 12-week internship programme for six people who are refugees. The internships include job preparation, interview skills and access to the company’s online learning portals.

Open Doors Initiative CEO Jeanne McDonagh said the chance to land a meaningful job or establish a new business is key to people’s integration into Ireland, no matter what route they took to get here.

“Some are refugees, some are living in direct provision, some will have their status newly regularised, and others will come directly for work,” she said. “Our new service aims to support all migrants in finding a decent job as they prepare to enter the Irish workforce, and to support employers as they seek to build an inclusive culture in their workplaces.”

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