Six Colors
Six Colors

by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Jason Snell

Inadvertent balloon drops (or, the default conundrum)

Myke Hurley drops some balloons (on purpose, this time).

When Apple shipped iOS 17 and macOS Sonoma, it introduced a slew of new video features, all based on intercepting video input and running it through a machine-learning pipeline that detects the subject and the background. The result is that apps on Apple’s platforms don’t need to be updated to take advantage of system-wide settings to blur the background and increase contrast between the subject and the background, both of which have the net effect of making your videoconference image look better. (Apple also uses those features to do some fun things with screen sharing.)

But when you’re analyzing every frame of every bit of video input on the system, you might as well have fun with it, right? So Apple decided to inject a little whimsy and use its machine-learning pipeline to detect some specific gestures and use them as triggers to render animations. The result: if you give two thumbs up in a video, by default your video will be altered to make it appear that you’re in the middle of a sudden fireworks show.

I get why this reaction feature is turned on by default. Features not turned on by default are… basically never turned on. If you want users to use a feature, turn it on. However, this is the result of that decision, as described by Matt Haughey on Mastodon:

A friend was in an online therapy session, describing his trauma so the therapist asked if he was alright and he did a thumbs up and then HUGE FIREWORKS BEHIND HIS HEAD.

It’s so bad that online therapy sessions now start with a warning dialog!

My podcast pal Myke Hurley reports that this happened in his online therapy session, too—except it wasn’t inappropriate fireworks, it was an inappropriate release of balloons.

The logical response to an inadvertent animation trigger is embarrassment—after all, you are on a live video call with someone when it happens! But after that, the second most logical response is to figure out how to turn it off. And here, we run into another challenge: any search of the interface of the app you’re using will turn up no trace of this feature, because it’s being done at a system level. Apple has decided to put all its camera controls under the blue camera icon that appears in the Menu Bar when a camera is active.

This is a tough question. If Apple has invested all this effort in building a new feature that it thinks is fun and that people will like, why turn it off by default? (Sad ironic fireworks in an online therapy session is why.)

Your operating system could trigger a more detailed warning about this new feature the first time you use a webcam on the new operating system. (I’m pretty sure it does—at least in macOS Sonoma?) The problem is, if you’re launching an app that’s using a webcam, in that moment you are probably trying to get to your meeting or therapy session or D&D game, and let’s face it, you’re probably running late. You will click OK or Continue on any window that gets in your way, probably without reading it. (Especially if you recently upgraded and are tired of all the alert windows.)

So what’s the alternative? Here’s the best thing I’ve come up with: The operating system should wait until after a session involving the webcam has ended, and then use one of its fancy new discoverability features to offer to walk the user through ways to improve their video systemwide, including the use of fun animated reactions. And if they aren’t willing to listen just then, come back and get them some other time when they’re in a better mood.

There’s no great answer here. For every Haughey or Hurley who is interrupted by inappropriate animations, there’s probably someone else who discovers the feature in a family call and thinks they’re delightful. But in a case like this, where embarrassment in front of other people is a strong possibility, I feel like our devices should probably ask permission rather than forgiveness.

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