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Loathed wiggly-word CAPTCHAs morph into 'fun' click-'n'-drag games

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A UK startup is trying to make a game out of solving CAPTCHAs*, the ubiquitous but sometimes irritating challenges designed to make sure that a human, rather than a 'bot, is registering for an online service.

CAPTCHAs typically oblige website visitors to type out distorted words presented in images to prove that they are human and not a computer bot. They are commonly found when buying tickets online, posting to forums or completing webmail sign-up forms.

Future Ad Labs’ interactive advertising format, PlayCaptcha, aims to turn completing CAPTCHAs into a game. The technology launched last week with two initial partners, Heinz and Reckitt Benckiser.

The PlayCaptcha for Heinz invites visitors to pour a virtual bottle of Salad Cream onto a sandwich, instead of being forced to decipher hard-to-read text. For Reckitt Benckiser, Future Ad Labs has developed a PlayCaptcha that persuades visitors to clean a virtual dirty penny by dragging it into a bowl of Cillit Bang.

The challenge takes the place of banner ads for Heinz or the like on third-party sites while also serving as a test to differentiate between bots and humans for website signups.

A demo showing a Heinz sauce-themed CAPTCHA on a Marketing Week sign-up page can be seen here.

Future Ad Labs' PR agency offered to arrange a similar mock-up for El Reg (feeding Reg the Vulture a tasty morsel of raw BOFH? – Sub-ed) but we declined, since the Marketing Week example illustrates the basic point of how the technology would work in practice just as well.

Future Ad Labs’ technology is built for both mobile and tablets and in either case is capable of being solved by touch alone.

Over the years many weird and wonderful alternatives to the unloved mangled-text CAPTCHA have been tried, ranging from videos, politically correct Voight-Kampff style questions to calculus-based CAPTCHAs. Google's reCAPTCHA at least serves some useful purpose of helping to digitize books.

None of the approaches stops spammers signing up for online services, they simply use sweatshops in India to defeat the puzzle. PlayCaptcha might be defeated in just the same way but at least it's less annoying than mangled text. Its developers claim the technology offers a way of commercialising the signup process.

"For both Heinz and Cillit Bang, PlayCaptcha delivers engagement rates many times higher than traditional digital advertisement formats, while providing a better user experience for web page visitors," according to Future Ad Labs’ promotional blurb.

"PlayCaptcha will also have a positive impact on the brand-publisher relationship because it provides the opportunity to generate revenue for the advertiser through the CAPTCHA process, which until now has been an unmonetisable part of every website," it adds.

The London-based start-up reckons 300 million CAPTCHAs are completed daily, something it equates to 150,000 human hours wasted every 24 hours. Making a bad problem worse, one in four attempts at completing a CAPTCHA fail – a figure that (although we weren't able to independent verify it) sounds about right.

“By utilising a creative solution that avoids the negative experience of CAPTCHAs, consumers can immerse themselves in the brand without interrupting their online experience, which helps build brand awareness," explained Howard Kingston, chief exec and co-founder of Future Ad Labs.

Kingston claimed that PlayCaptchas are "just as secure at verifying humans as wiggly words that you can't even read" during a video pitch for the technology, shown below. ®

Promo video by Future Ad Labs to promote their CAPTCHA technology ®

* Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart

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