Which side are you on? Internet-connected devices in homes or not? Touchscreens or buttons? The array of possibilities is confusing.

Although sales and marketing services want to believe that regularly updating our devices is a win, the cases of deliberately returning to retro technologies could be increasing in the consumer population. Recent cases of automobile manufacturers reverting from touchscreens to physical buttons support this perspective. Security issues related to the adoption of Internet-connected devices add another layer.

Volkswagen has reversed its decision to go completely touch for operations control inside its vehicles

Volkswagen has reversed its decision to go completely touch for operations control inside its vehicles. In other words, the German automaker is back to its roots with buttons available to drivers. And it starts with the presentation of the new Volkswagen iD.2 in the midst of questioning the advantages and disadvantages of button and touchscreen approaches.

Volkswagen has been trying to give a new look to its interiors for a few years. Under the leadership of former CEO Herbert Diess, the German manufacturer decided to follow in the footsteps of Tesla and centralize a large majority of its controls on the infotainment screen. It also removed physical buttons from its steering wheels and replaced them with touch-sensitive capacitive buttons. The automaker had to reverse this decision following complaints from consumers.

A range of retro-clear physical buttons is now directly accessible under the touchscreen of the ID.2 concept. These buttons allow customers to easily access the most used heating, ventilation, and air conditioning controls, which, even if it doesn’t concern all of the car’s controls, is a step in the right direction. The car will also be equipped with a manual volume button and a large central button that provides additional controls for other aspects of the vehicle.

The decision follows comparative studies that have led to the conclusion that touchscreens raise glaring safety concerns for drivers

The Swedish car magazine Vi Bilgare last year thoroughly tested the HMI (Human-Machine Interface) system of eleven modern cars and concluded that this design choice significantly affects safety behind the wheel. Indeed, the touchscreen formula lengthens the time required to perform actions that would be simple with just a button. The report indicates that the worst performing car needs 1400 meters to perform the same tasks for which the best performing car needs only 300 meters.

Vi Bilgare measured the time required for a driver to perform different simple tasks from a touchscreen, such as changing radio station or adjusting the air conditioning. At the same time, the car was being driven at 110 km/h. In parallel, the testing team compared a car without a touchscreen, a 17-year-old Volvo V70, for comparison purposes. An important aspect of this test is that the drivers had time to get to know the cars and their infotainment systems before the test began. The team made several findings, starting with the complexity of the screens.

Tesla was not the first to introduce a touchscreen, but the company has always offered touchscreens larger than most automakers, containing more car features. The electric SUV BMW iX also offers a touchscreen, but not as large as Tesla’s, and also more physical buttons. But this would not be a guarantee of an easy-to-use system. According to the team, the BMW’s infotainment system has many features, but it also has one of the most complex and complicated user interfaces ever designed.

The report emphasizes that, for the sake of saving, the touchscreen controls for air conditioning located under the screen in the new Volkswagen ID.3 and Seat Leon are not retro-clear, making them completely invisible at night. In addition, the test revealed that the claim by automakers that several functions can now be activated by voice is not entirely true. Voice control systems are not always easy to use and do not work as advertised. Therefore, the team did not take these systems into account during the test. Here are the main observations of the team:

  • The easiest car to understand and use, by far, is the 2005 Volvo V70. The four tasks are completed in ten seconds flat, during which the car is driven 306 meters at 110 km/h;
  • At the other end of the scale, the Chinese electric car MG Marvel R scored much worse. The driver needs 44.6 seconds to complete all the tasks, during which the car has traveled 1,372 meters, more than four times the distance compared to the old Volvo;
  • The BMW iX and Seat Leon are more efficient, but both are still too complicated. The driver needs nearly a kilometer to perform the tasks. The team recalls that a lot can happen in traffic during this time;
  • The Dacia Sandero and Volvo C40 perform well even though they both have touchscreens. However, they are not overloaded with features. Volvo seems to show that a touchscreen does not need to be complicated.

The team also measured the angle necessary for the driver to look down to operate the touchscreen controls. By photographing the same driver in all the tested cars, the team found that the driver must lower their line of sight by at least 56 degrees to see the bottom of the extra-wide touchscreen. In comparison, the driver lowers their line of sight by only 20 degrees in the Mercedes GLB, which has a small screen embedded in the dashboard.

The potential benefits of touchscreens are more evident for the manufacturer, as one observer points out: Physical buttons must be designed, tested, redesigned, and validated very early in the design process for a new model, so there is time to determine how to manufacture or acquire all the parts, how they fit into the rest of the car’s systems, and how they will be wired and assembled. Just imagine the impact if, late in the process, a new feature had to be added. It would practically have to be forgotten and added in the next iteration of the model. With a touchscreen, all these dependencies disappear. The hardware team just needs to indicate that there will be a capacitive touchscreen the size of an iPad for infotainment and another of a custom size here for the instrument group. Software specialists can independently design the user interface, making changes until the last moment, or even after the last moment if the car can be updated.

In other words, touchscreens and touch controls offer some attraction to car manufacturers. They allow for controlling a large number of functions with a compact and scalable interface. A handful of touch controls and a touchscreen can also be cheaper and easier to implement than filling a whole cabin with buttons. In addition, for some time, they have been a sign that an automaker is keeping up with the times.

After the past decade, however, people are getting tired of these innovations. Touch controls are, overall, less responsive and less practical than the simple buttons of yesteryear. This is even before considering the frustration of having to dive into a menu system just to turn on a heated seat. This is the reason for the proliferation of returns to the old school among more and more manufacturers.

Should the physical keyboard also be brought back on smartphones?

Phones were initially only equipped with physical keyboards. This changed with the advent of smartphones: we had the right, notably thanks to Nokia, to a clickable side wheel, then BlackBerry arrived with its small clickable ball for moving a mouse. Since then, we have touch interfaces that simplify life in most uses. However, one bastion seems to be resisting: text input. Should the physical keyboard be brought back on smartphones? This is suggested by Clicks Technology by launching a keyboard case for the iPhone.

The whole thing connects to the user’s phone via a rather simplistic mechanism. It is enough to slide the phone inside, carefully align the phone’s power port with the USB-C or Lightning connector that sticks out from the inner edge, and insert the case around the top part. Clicks does not use Bluetooth and does not contain a battery but is powered directly from the phone. According to the company’s website, the case supports pass-through fast charging on the iPhone 15 Pro.

In short, the initiative revives the contradictory discussions on whether touchscreens can stand alone. Indeed, if the touchscreen can replace the mouse through the combination of clicking operations with the finger and scrolling, for the keyboard the debate remains. The keyboard offers the main advantage of being able to type text naturally and quickly, which is not the case with the touchscreen which forces the user to look at the keys (because they do not feel them under the fingers).

Designers put forward an additional disadvantage in a video on the new case: the size. The clicks will give the iPhone proportions similar to those of a TV remote control, which should be a nuisance for users. The case also does not have an integrated magnet, so that MagSafe accessories such as chargers and wallets will not attach very well. However, wireless charging should still work.

The company specifies that a dedicated application, soon available on the Apple App Store, will continue to bring new features to the keyboard over time. The case will first be available in two colors – bumblebee (yellow) and London sky (gray-blue) – and the designers indicate that the first buyers will receive Founders Editions of the case. They will thus benefit from VIP support and early access to new colors.

The team behind Clicks includes former employees of Apple, BlackBerry, and Google, according to the company’s announcement. The latter describes the abandonment of physical keys in smartphones as “strange”, considering that the creators use keyboards on their laptops and other devices.

Clicks brings the tactility and precision of a physical keyboard to the iPhone so that users do not have to wait to go back to their desk to create or communicate with the satisfying feedback that only real buttons can provide, declare the designers of this solution.

What about Internet-connected devices? Should they be present in homes?

Should you or shouldn’t you have Internet-connected devices in your home? Is the Internet of Things more of a threat than it is useful? The joke that follows, which includes opinions of consumers and workers in the technology industry, gives some food for thought. A “my whole house is smart” joke faces a “the only connected device in my house is a printer and I keep a gun next to it just in case it makes a noise I don’t recognize.”

One of the most important debates when it comes to Internet-connected devices is their utility in the face of the risks associated with their use, particularly hacking and intrusion into the privacy of their owners. Amazon’s connected devices are among those that reignite the contradictory discussions on this matter.

In fact, federal prosecutors have charged two men with participating in a series of attacks against over a dozen Ring security camera owners. They took over them and used that access to broadcast the police’s response live on social media. Kya Christian Nelson, 21, of Racine, Wisconsin, and James Thomas Andrew McCarty, 20, of Charlotte, North Carolina, gained access to 12 Ring cameras after compromising the Yahoo Mail accounts of each owner, according to an indictment filed in the Central District of California. In just one week, starting on November 7, 2020, the men made fake emergency calls to local police services from each owner, aiming for an armed response, and even broadcast the police reaction live.

Furthermore, the company (Amazon) informs users that it reserves the right to send videos of their intimacy to the police in the event of a major incident. It has provided a record number of videos to the government last year.

As indicated in Ring’s law enforcement guidelines, Ring reserves the right to respond immediately to urgent information requests from law enforcement in cases involving an imminent threat of death or serious physical injury to any person. Requests for emergency disclosure must be accompanied by a duly completed emergency request form. Based on the information provided in the emergency request form and the circumstances described by the officer, Ring determines in good faith whether the request meets the well-known standard, based on federal law, according to which there is an imminent threat of death or serious physical injury to any person requiring the immediate disclosure of information , the company said in response to a senator’s questionnaire.

Ring is essentially a smart security solution that allows owners to monitor their homes from anywhere. With a Ring connected doorbell, it is possible to communicate with people standing in front of the doorbell (equipped with a camera) from a FireTV, Echo Show, Echo Spot or Echo speaker. It is a kind of permanently open window into what is happening in and around a home. Amazon teams have access to these video contents and the company states that it maintains a network infrastructure through which they make them available to law enforcement.

Brian Huseman, an Amazon executive, states, in a recent letter, that Ring has shared videos of these connected doorbells at least 11 times with U.S. authorities so far in 2022, without the consent of the device owner. These are the numbers for so-called urgent information requests. In these cases, the police do not need to produce a warrant.

It is for such cases that Eugene Kaspersky issued a warning that the Internet of Things could quickly become the Internet of Threats. His warnings followed a report from the company Darktrace that hackers had used an Internet-connected thermometer used in an aquarium to penetrate a casino’s network.

Darktrace reported that the hackers were able to extract 10 GB of data. “The attackers used the thermostat to infiltrate the network. They then managed to lay their hands on the database of the bettors and exfiltrated it by the same channel all the way to the cloud,” said Nicole Eagan, CEO of Darktrace. For the latter, “we are now overwhelmed with connected objects: thermostats, refrigeration and air conditioning systems, not to mention Alexa devices.” There are simply too many connected objects. This situation increases the attack surface that most cannot be countered by conventional defense systems.

With connected objects, there is first the problem of quality. Robert Hannigan, former director of the British intelligence agency, touches on this as well, by making a correlation worthy of interest: “I saw a bank being hacked through its CCTV cameras simply because cost was prioritized over quality when acquiring these devices.”

Then there is the know-how of system integrators, that is, the people responsible for inserting these devices into an existing environment. In the case of this casino, this aspect raises the question of whether the people who were tasked with this took all the necessary security precautions when integrating the connected thermometer. In essence, it is a matter of verifying that they separated the aquarium network from the rest of the computer system.

Darktrace’s report had provided an answer to this question by pointing out that “to ensure separation from the commercial network, the casino placed the aquarium behind a virtual private network in order to isolate it.” Suffice? The answer is no, because Darktrace was able to make the observations that led to the publication of this case of computer hacking.

“The communication model of the aquarium with the rest of the computer system was in line with that of other devices configured in a similar way. On the other hand, our artificial intelligence detected major irregularities in terms of exchanges with the outside,” Darktrace said in its report.

From 2016 to 2017, there was a lot of talk about Mirai, a malware that relied on IoT devices to create zombie networks. This purpose has, each time, raised the problem of the vulnerability of connected objects. It is also necessary to say that fallibility is a characteristic of all computer systems. The human operator, aware of this state of affairs, must therefore prioritize his ability to make the right choices to contribute to securing his environment.

Sources: Amazon, Darktrace, video iD.2, Clicks

And you?

What retro technologies do you continue to use on a daily basis? For what reasons?
For or against fully or mostly touch interfaces in cars?
For or against the return of physical keyboards on smartphones?
What do you think of the Clicks solution for the iPhone? What are your expectations for a future iteration?
Should you or should you not have Internet-connected devices in your home?

See also:

Is Tesla’s touchscreen gear lever a very bad idea? NHTSA says it meets compliance standards and does not violate rules

General Motors’ self-driving unit would like to deploy vehicles without a steering wheel, mirrors, or pedals in 2023. It has filed a request with the NHTSA regulator

The United States removes the requirement for manual controls for fully automated vehicles; autonomous vehicles without a steering wheel or pedals are now allowed

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