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Can VR become billion-user platform?

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Virtual reality is suddenly the flavour of the moment for anything from product launches to test drives. Now a gaming guru believes it will be the next billion-user platform. ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK explores.

In November 2016, iconic car brand Jaguar set the marketing world alight with the launch of its I-PACE Concept, an all-electric sport utility vehicle. Not because the car looked so great, but because the Los Angeles event was the world’s first live virtual reality unveiling of a new vehicle.

Five groups of 66 guests, at the launch venue and in a VR hub in London, were fitted with HTC Vive Business Edition headsets, powered by Dell Precision workstations. This gave them an almost photo-realistic experience of being inside the concept car and interacting live with other participants. The big deal? They could watch the concept built piece by piece around them while a live presenter explained what was happening.

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Now, Mercedes-Benz South Africa has put together a series of virtual reality campaigns, working with animation agency Sinister Studio to develop four test-drive videos. The new Mercedes-Benz C-Class Coupé, E-Class, AMG C 63 and a new range of roadsters and cabriolets have all been given the VR treatment.

Suddenly, VR has moved out of the gaming and gimmicks realm to become a serious marketing option. The problem is that only a few people own VR headsets.

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“In 2017, VR is a niche technology,” says Piers Harding-Rolls, research director of global research consultancy IHS Markit. “The market is going to grow, but it will still be a niche market by 2020.”

Speaking at the IFA global press conference in Lisbon recently, he said it would take three to five years for the technology to broaden its appeal.

As a result, it was startling to hear one of the gurus of the gaming world declare, earlier this month, that VR, along with augmented reality – which overlays digital information on the real world – would be “the next billion user platform”.

“We can expect a revolution in computer graphics to change the way people interact with computers,” said Tim Sweeney, founder of leading gaming software company Epic Games, part owned by Tencent – which is in turn part-owned by South Africa’s Naspers.

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Sweeney was talking during a “guru session” at Dell EMC World, an annual event in Las Vegas, where he shared the stage with Frank Azor, co-founder of Alienware, an iconic gaming computer brand owned by Dell.

Azof shared Sweeney’s enthusiasm: “This revolution is not ten or 20 years away. Much like the PC industry in the 1980s, VR has come very far in very short time, but we have a lot more tools and technology today than we had 30 years ago. There’s been a little pessimism around the take-up of VR. It’s been 14 months since the Oculus Rift and HTC have been around. People expected 10-million headsets in use by now, and there’s only a million.”

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But, said Azof, it’s coming. The fact that it was now in use in motoring, real estate and even hospitals was the signal: “If you’re not already working on how to apply these technologies into your businesses and into your lives, you’re already behind.”

He gave the example of real estate businesses that now show homes to prospective buyers in a much more immersive way than relying on pictures and descriptions.

“You don’t need to deploy a $2000 high-end rig. A $100 set of glasses can give you a pretty immersive experience. Small and large hospitals use it for patient education. We learn better through experience than through literature, so hospital discharge information is being put into an experience instead of the patient reading literature.”

Mercedes-Benz S 500 4MATIC Coupé Edition 1 (C 217) 2013

Sweeney believes the reason it hasn’t taken off until now is that VR does not allow for the high tolerance that PC or mobile game players have for graphics that aren’t realistic.

“VR has to be realistic because it has to convince you that you’re immersed in the real world. Even for non photo-realistic animated experiences, your brain still has high expectations of how graphics appear around you, how lights reflect in eyes, and so on.”

The answer lies in photo-realistic computer graphics being rendered in real-time, meaning that the scene changes instantly and in a realistic way as one moves through it, with accurate simulations of how light interacts with objects in the real world.

“This requires an enormous amount of detail in an object, and it becomes impractical for artists to draw every object. Now artists can scan objects in the real world and use geometry and other techniques for rendering and accurately simulating the way cameras work in the real world.

“Outside the games industry, we are seeing a lot of non-fiction, non-game stuff, like architectural renderings in real time. Architects have high expectations of real-time rendering, accurate shading of wood, and the like.”

Sweeney believes automobile manufacturers will be early beneficiaries.

“Car makers like McLaren are using real-time rendering for pre production. In future, when car designers are designing cars, they will be constantly building it in VR and testing and retesting it before building the car itself. This means real-time has to be done very accurately.

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“GM wants customers to walk into a dealership and configure a car and then watch themselves in their own car. And customers want to see themselves in the car they configured before they buy it.”

Not that gamers will be left behind.

“The next really interesting step is multi-player games. Doom was the first game that really defined multi-players, but they haven’t changed much in 20 years. All lo-fi and low bandwidth, you shooting and having simple dialogue; it’s not very interesting. We’re going to see more change in multiplayer gaming in the next two years than in the last 20 years.

“This is the most exciting time I’ve ever seen in the industry. These funny VR helmets you wear now are just the start of the revolution.”

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SA consumers buy 3.2m smartphones in Q1

Smartphone sales in South Africa grew by 12.4% year-on-year in the first quarter of 2018, reaching around 3.2 million units for the period.

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However, the value of the smartphone segment increased by 22.8% as sales of entry-level devices to low- and mid-income consumers continued to drive the market, according to point of sale data from market research firm, GfK South Africa.

GfK South Africa’s data reveals that telecommunications retail enjoyed a strong start to the year, with revenue growing 22.4% year-on-year. The growing popularity of phablets and higher unit prices (as a result of a weaker rand) helped to drive this increase in revenue, against a backdrop of low or negative growth in many segments of the consumer technology market.

“The mobile device market showed good growth in the quarter, despite rising prices during the period under review,” says Norman Muzhona, Solutions Specialist for Telecommunications at GfK South Africa. “In addition to the exchange rate, the introduction of popular, new mid-tier devices by several leading vendors helped to drive higher retail revenues in the telecoms market.”

Information technology retail revenues for the quarter contracted 4.8% compared to 2017, largely because of decreasing monitor prices and a 38.9% decline in tablet revenues. However, desktop computer revenues grew 39% and mobile computing revenues grew 6.5% year-on-year, thanks to higher prices and increased sales of higher-end products.

Says Berno Mare, Solutions Specialist for IT, Office Equipment and Value Added Services: “Retailers introduced new computing devices priced in the R3000 band during the quarter and enjoyed surprisingly strong demand for these entry-level units.

“Telcos enjoyed robust growth in mobile computing retail sales, thanks to credit deals, subsidised contracts and attractive data offers. However, South African consumers are heavily indebted, which may dampen growth for the rest of the year.”

With consumers rapidly migrating to smartphones, sales of traditional mobile phones continued to decline, down 1.6% year-on-year to around 2 million for the quarter. However, the exchange rate and the introduction of higher-priced brands helped to drive a 8.9% year-on-year revenue increase in mobile phone revenues during the period under review.

This follows the 21% drop in mobile phone unit sales in the first quarter of 2016 compared to the same period in 2015. “Operators continue to lead the transition from feature phones to smartphones as they pursue higher data revenues,” says Muzhona. “The entry-level market for smartphones is fiercely competitive, and the minimum specs of lower cost smartphones is improving all the time.”

GfK South Africa expects the migration from mobile phones to smartphones to accelerate in 2018. However, it remains to be seen if the introduction of 4G-enabled, Voice-over-LTE-ready feature phones will have any impact on the South African mobile phone market.

Sectors of the consumer electronic market that showed strong growth for the first quarter of 2018 include loudspeakers—revenues up 21.6% year-on-year, thanks to demand of Bluetooth-enabled product—and ultrahigh definition (UHD) panel TVs—where revenues grew 33%, thanks to the growing affordability of the technology. UHD unit shipments were up 76%, while the average selling price of the products fell 24%.

Other market highlights for the first quarter of 2018 include:

  • Photo category revenues were up 8.1% year-on-year.
  • Small domestic appliance revenues grew 8%, following a 10.3% decline in Q1 2016 over Q1 2015. Hot air fryers sold well, as did kettles and toasters.
  • Major domestic appliances showed small year-on-year growth over Q1 2016, despite a decline in average selling price in many sub-categories of this market. Cooling products continued to make the highest contribution to growth in this segment.
  • Office Equipment revenues declined 18% year-on-year, led downwards by lower printer and cartridge sales volumes.
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What kids want online

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Kaspersky Lab’s latest report on the online activities of children – based on statistics received from its solutions and modules with child protection features – highlights children’s online activities and the importance of protecting them when online. For example, video content globally, comprised 17% of searches over the last months. Although many videos watched as a result of these searches may be harmless, it is still possible for children to accidentally end up watching videos that contain inappropriate content.

The report shows anonymised statistics from Kaspersky Lab’s flagship consumer solutions for Windows PCs and Macs that have the Parental Control module switched on and from Kaspersky Safe Kids, a standalone service for Windows, Mac, iOS and Android devices.

In South Africa, communication sites (such as social media, messengers, or emails) were the most popular pages visited by computers with parental controls switched on – with users in South Africa visiting these sites in 69% of cases over the previous 12 months. Software, audio, and video accounted for 17% of searches. Websites with this content have become significantly more popular since last year, when it was only the fifth most popular category globally at 6%. The top four is rounded off with electronic commerce (4.2%) and alcohol, tobacco, and websites about narcotics (3.9%), which is a new addition compared to this time last year.

The report presents search results on the ten most-popular languages* for the last 6 months. The data shows that the video & audio category – including requests related to any video content, streaming services, video bloggers, series and movies – are the most regularly ‘googled’ by children (17% of the total requests). The second and third places go to translation (14%) and communication (10%) websites respectively. Interestingly, games websites sit in fourth place, generating only 9% of the total search requests.

We can also see a clear language difference for search requests: for example, video and music websites are typically searched for in English, which can be explained by the fact that the majority of movies, TV series and musical groups have English names. Spanish-speaking kids carry out more requests for translation sites, while communication services are mostly searched for in Russian.

More than any other nationality, Chinese-speaking children look for education services, while French-speaking kids are more interested in sport and games websites. In turn, German-speaking requests dominate in the “shopping” category. The leading number of search requests for porn are in Arabic, and for anime are in Japanese.

“Kids in different countries have different interests and online behaviors, but what links them all is their need to be protected online from potentially harmful content. Children looking for animated content could accidentally open a porn video. Or they could start searching for innocent videos and unintentionally end up on websites containing violent content, both of which could have a long-term impact on their impressionable and vulnerable minds,” says Anna Larkina, Web-content Analysis Expert at Kaspersky Lab.

As well as analysing searches, the report also looks into which websites children visit or attempt to visit that contain potentially harmful content which falls under one of the 14 preset categories** for the last 12 months.

The mobile trend is again highlighted in the figures for computer games, which are now in fifth place locally on the list at 3%. As kids continue to show a preference for mobile games rather than computer games, this category will only continue to decrease in popularity on computers over the coming months and years.cleardot.gif

“No matter what they are doing online, it is important for parents not to leave their children’s digital activities unattended, because there’s a big difference between care and obtrusiveness. While it is important to trust your children and educate them about how to behave safely online, even your good advice cannot protect them from something unexpectedly showing up on the screen. That’s why advanced security solutions are key to ensuring children have positive online experiences, rather than harmful ones,” adds Anna Larkina.

The Kaspersky Total Security and Kaspersky Internet Security consumer solutions include a Parental Control module to help adults protect their children against online threats and block sites or apps containing inappropriate content. In turn, the Kaspersky Safe Kids solution allows parents to monitor what their children do, see or search for online across all devices, including mobile devices, and offers useful advice on how to help children behave safely online.

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