Friday, July 11, 2014

Amazon allowed kids to spend millions on in-app purchases, FTC says has billed parents for millions of dollars’ worth of unauthorized in-app purchases made by their children, the FTC said in a complaint filed Thursday in a U.S. court.
The FTC’s lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington, seeks a court order requiring to refund parents for unauthorized purchases made by their children. The FTC also wants the court to ban the company from billing parents and other account holders for in-app charges without their consent, the agency said in a press release. keeps 30 percent of all in-app charges, the FTC said in its complaint. The Amazon case “highlights a central tenant” of consumer protection laws in the U.S., that companies should get customer permission before charging them, said Jessica Rich, director of the FTC’s Consumer Protection Bureau, during a press conference about the lawsuit.
Amazon employees raised concerns about in-app purchases by children years before the company changed its procedures, Rich said. Amazon customers seeking refunds found a process “unclear and rife with deterrents,” she said. Amazon’s official policy on in-app purchases said it does not give refunds, she added.
Amazon, in a letter to the FTC July 1, said it was “deeply disappointed” that the agency was moving toward filing a lawsuit. “We have continuously improved our experience since launch, but even at launch, when customers told us their kids had made purchases they didn’t want we refunded those purchases,” wrote Andrew DeVore, Amazon’s associate general counsel.
The FTC’s lawsuit against echoes a complaint brought by the agency against Apple. In January, Apple agreed to pay at least $32.5 million to customers in a settlement with the FTC over children’s in-app purchases.
This week, Politico reported that Apple has complained to the FTC that Google allows the same kinds of in-app purchases in its mobile app store.
The FTC’s recent focus on in-app purchases by children has drawn criticism. This week, Senator Deb Fischer, a Nebraska Republican, questioned the FTC’s actions in a letter to the agency.
“Few, if any, doubt that the app marketplace established in recent years by Amazon and its competitors has fundamentally expanded and improved the American economy,” Fischer wrote. “To pursue enforcement against these companies for specific policies in place at the market’s nascent stage would constitute a de facto tax on innovation that threatens future growth and opportunity.”
In the Amazon case, the FTC noted that the company offers many children’s apps for mobile devices such as the Kindle Fire. The company violated the FTC Act, prohibiting unfair and deceptive business practices, by billing parents and other Amazon account holders for charges incurred by children without adult consent.
Amazon’s app store allowed children playing games to spend “unlimited amounts” of money to pay for virtual items without parental involvement, the FTC alleged.
When Amazon introduced in-app charges to the Amazon app store in November 2011, there were no password requirements of any kind, the FTC alleged. Many kids’ games encouraged children to acquire virtual items in ways that blur the lines between spending virtual currency and real money, the agency said.
In one app, Ice Age Village, children can use virtual coins and acorns to buy items in the game without a real-money charge. However, they can also purchase additional coins and acorns using real money on a screen that is visually similar to the one that has no real-money charge, the FTC said. A one-time purchase in the app could cost as much as $99.99.
As early as December 2011, Amazon employees raised concerns about in-app purchases, the FTC said in its complaint. One internal Amazon communication said that allowing unlimited in-app charges without any password was “clearly causing problems for a large percentage of our customers,” the FTC said.
In March 2012, Amazon updated its in-app charge system to require an account owner to enter a password for individual in-app charges over $20. But Amazon continued to allow children to make an unlimited number of individual purchases of less than $20 without a parent’s approval, the FTC said.
An Amazon employee noted at the time of the change that “it’s much easier to get upset about Amazon letting your child purchase a $99 product without any password protection than a $20 product,” according to the complaint.
Then in early 2013, Amazon updated its in-app charge process to require password entry for some charges, but the process worked in different ways in different contexts, the FTC alleged. Even when a parent was prompted for a password to authorize a single in-app charge made by a child, that single authorization often opened an undisclosed window of 15 minutes to an hour allowing the child to make unlimited charges, the agency said.
Amazon changed its in-app purchase policy again in June, “roughly two and a half years after the problem first surfaced,” the FTC said in a press release.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

The Top Five Most Innovative Tech Projects Of 2014 So Far

As the world sits in awe as another smartphone is launched, a gaggle of engineers and bright-eyed entrepreneurs have been quietly innovating behind the scenes. Want a natural alternative to street lighting? Or how about driving – via your iPhone – a free-roaming scalextric toy car that can blast out EMPs? Then, friends, you have come to the right place.
Here I’ll explore the top five startup projects and gadgets of 2014 so far.
1. SCiO molecular scanner
SCiO is like something straight out of science fiction. Aside from the fact that it looks like a cheap flashing toy that Dr Who might point at something with flailing tentacles, the concept itself if genius.
SCiO is the brainchild of Israeli startup Consumer Physics, which is a collaboration of brains from MIT, Stanford, CalTech, Harvard, Wiezmann Institute, The Technion, and Tel-Aviv University. SCiO is an affordable handheld molecular sensor that lets you scan and discover the molecular makeup of anything it’s pointed at, which then beams the data to your phone in real-time.
What that means is that you can scan anything and get a complete report on its molecular structure on your phone. How old is that apple you’re about to buy? Or which watermelon is the sweetest? How many units of alcohol in that glass of wine? That kind of thing.
The possibilities are as exciting as they are endless. Not least the wealth of information, data and analysis that could be built up from millions of people scanning everyday objects. The first batch won’t be shipped to Kickstarter backers until January next year. But it will go on sale in March 2015 for $249. You can watch the video of how it works on their Kickstarter campaign here.
2. Budget driverless car
Google’s driverless car dominates the headlines, but the reality is that it’s unlikely to be available any time soon and it’s certainly not going to be within your price range. But one startup is hoping, at least, to change the latter. Cruise Automation, based in San Francisco (where else?), is developing a car automation accessory that will retail for $10,000.
Kyle Vogt, the founder of the project, is hoping to start installing his “RP-1” invention onto cars early next year. It only currently works  on an Audi A4 or S4, but Vogt is hoping to modify the device so it can be retrofitted on to any car. It works largely in the same way Google’s driverless car works in that it has multiple sensors that can scan the immediate area for routes and potential collisions.
Vogt describes his invention as a “highway pilot”. He essentially means that it will work as a driving aid, rather than a system to fully takeover driving responsibility. Users will be able to switch on the system by tapping a button on an inbuilt interface in the car, and then let system take over. The driver can regain control of the car by tapping on the brake pedal or by placing their hands on the steering wheel.
Incredibly, the project only began in November 2013. Vogt and his team have worked around the clock to make it into a reality and they plan to start installing it onto cars early next year. Watch the video here.
3. Glow in the dark trees
Trees_credit dezeen
Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde and his colleague Alexander Krichevsky have developed a way of splicing illuminating properties of Jellyfish with trees to create leaves that glow in the dark. It’s brilliant, it’s innovative and it’s creation of a man who is comfortable in a turtleneck jumper and red velvet dinner jacket. There’s nothing you can’t be excited about here.
Roosegaarde first unveiled his idea at SXSW this year. Currently he only has a small houseplant prototype that works, but he’s hoping to create a much bigger version soon. To make this a reality, Roosegaarde has collaborated with the University of New York  and Krichevsky, whose technology firm Bioglowunveiled genetically modified glow-in-the-dark plants earlier this year.
Krichevsky creates the plants by “splicing DNA from luminescent marine bacteria to the chloroplast genome of a common houseplant, so the stem and leaves emit a faint light similar to that produced by fireflies and jellyfish.”Dezeen reports.
If glow in the dark trees were to be planted across pavements around the world, replacing street lights, the potential environmental benefits could be huge. Not to mention the  incredible drunken memories you’ll have of strolling down the Rainbow Road level in Mario Kart.
You can watch an interview with Roosegaarde here
4. AnkiDrive
AnkiDrive made a few waves at WWDC last year, but since then the plucky young startup has barely rocked any boats, or even made a splash in the last six months….. and other laboured water-related puns. But the Scalextric-style game officially launched this month and is looking to regain some of that initial acclaim.
Created by three engineers, Anki is one of the first genuinely high-tech physical games to hit the market. The premise is fairly straight forward, you control a car with your iPhone or iPad and drive it along a race-track. There are no barriers on either side of the track because the cars can determine its own position using some AI. As the Anki Team described it to me: “Each car scans the track 500 times per second using state of the art algorithms to determine its exact position, speed and trajectory. Using powerful AI, it then knows where it is in relation to every other car on the track.”
To add a bit of spice, not only are the cars designed by Harald Belker, the guy who designed the cars in Minority Report, but they also have some Mario Kart-esque weaponry attached to them. You can blast out EMP’s that stop rivals dead, fire missiles and hammer the gatling gun. There’s also a weapon and upgrade system on the accompanying iPhone app that lets you upgrade with the points you’ve accumulated from races and chose different loadouts. Before you panic, there are no in-app purchases, all points are acquired from playing the game.
5. PocketScan 
The Pocket Scan balances on the fine line between ludicrous budget invention on a cable infomercial and utter practical brilliance. I could easily imagine it being both advertised by Troy McClure and Dr. Nick or being demoed by a CEO at a marquee launch event at CES.
The simple, palm of the hand-sized, invention allows you to scan anything it comes into contact with. Whilst a hand-held scanner is useful, it doesn’t seem that revolutionary when many of us could just take a photo with our phones if we wanted a digital replica of something.
But it’s the Pocket Scan’s added functionality that stands it apart. If, say, you were to scan a document, the Pocket Scan’s accompanying software will recognise the text – in any language – and turn the scanned file into a document that can be edited. The same goes for pictures and anything else you scan. All scanned images appear in real time on the computer or tablet as you can them, too.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

New Species Of Elephant, Aardvark-Related Shrew Discovered In Namib Desert

A  Round-Eared Elephant-Shrew
A Round-Eared Elephant-Shrew
A new species of elephant shrew has been discovered in Africa's Namib Desert; the animal is closely related to the sea cow, aardvark, and of course the elephant.
The newly-discovered critter is called the round-eared sengi, or Macroscelides micus. The animals is part of the order Macroscelidea, which currently contains 19 sengis. Members of Macroscelidea are characterized by their narrow snouts, LiveScience reported.
The first representative of this species was collected Michael Griffin of the Namibia Ministry of Environment and Tourism by the Etendeka volcanic formation. When the species was first spotted researchers thought it was a Macroscelides flavicaudatus.
"We knew that it looked a little odd, but it was the genetic analyses that suggested that it was really very different," researcher John Dumbacher, curator of ornithology and mammalogy at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, told Live Science. "Once we got back to the field and saw several live individuals, it was clear that they differed from M. flavicaudatus in many ways, and that this wasn't just an 'odd' individual."
The team found the animal was smaller than Macroscelides flavicaudatus, had rust-colored fur, lacked darks skin pigment, and had a hairless gland on the underside of its tail, aCalifornia Academy of Sciences news release reported. The team compared the animals with other specimens, revealing they had discovered a new species.
"Had our colleagues not collected those first invaluable specimens, we would never have realized that this was in fact a new species, since the differences between this and all other known species are very subtle," Dumbacher said in the news release. "Several museum collections were instrumental in determining that what we had was truly new to science, highlighting the value of collections for this type of work. Genetically, Macroscelides micus is very different from other members of the genus and it's exciting to think that there are still areas of the world where even the mammal fauna is unknown and waiting to be explored."