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Will Amazon’s Cursor Patent Lead To Manipulated, Unintended Clicks?

Written by Evan Schuman
March 4th, 2013

In online, when does anticipating a user’s likely move and making that move easier morph into imposing what the retailer wants the shopper to do? Can the programming power to make a site visitor’s cursor go where the retailer wants—and to specifically click on what the retailer wants clicked, such as “click here to purchase”—be something merchants can be expected to be disciplined about using?

This ethical and marketing question (now there are two words rarely seen together) is prompted by a patent granted to Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) on February 26. That patent discusses using what Amazon calls “gravity-based link assist” to guide a cursor to where the system thinks the shopper wants it to go. And to do so more quickly than some systems can.

Although the patent specifies that this approach can be used in laptops, tablets and a wide range of other devices, its initial focus is on ebooks. That is because of a very specific technical issue: ebooks often have much slower refresh rates, so slow that shoppers can be confused about whether they have successfully clicked a link.

“In devices that employ a display with a relatively short refresh time (e.g., a cathode ray tube (CRT) display, a liquid crystal display (LCD), etc.), the visual confirmation is provided almost immediately after the user provides the input,” the patent application said. “However, some devices employ displays that do not have comparatively fast refresh times. Such displays, like an electronic paper display employed in eBook reader devices, often do not provide the same immediacy of input feedback. Instead, there may be a perceptible delay between when a user provides input and when that input is visually displayed on the screen. This delay can be confusing to users, because they are not sure whether the device registered their input at all. Complicating matters is that some of these same displays employ larger pixel granularity. As a result, it may be more difficult to identify the location of the user’s intended input on the screen. In some extreme cases, the user may unintentionally activate a different object or link. This can be frustrating to users, because they are not sure why the device registered their input in that way, and it may take multiple additional inputs to unwind the incorrect selection.”

And when that incorrect selection involves authorizing a payment, that “unwinding” might be particularly difficult and possibly expensive.

The application defines “a relatively long refresh rate” as being an update that takes more than 15 milliseconds to show the change on the screen. “Typically, electronic paper displays have display update times greater than about 100 milliseconds and, in some implementations, displays may have display update times greater than about 250 milliseconds.”

That’s the idea behind this patent; namely, it can provide a way to tell a shopper a link has been clicked and to do so faster than the machine could on its own. “Gravity-based link assist may be used to provide visual confirmation of the user’s input more quickly, thereby removing uncertainty in the mind of the user about whether an input was received. In at least some implementations, the gravity-based link assist may be provided more quickly than a display update time of the electronic device.”


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