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Hololens gives AR big push

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Microsoft’s HoloLens has massive ramifications for businesses and professionals. We are already seeing the aviation, engineering and medical spheres embracing it and finding ways to harness its capabilities, writes ETIENNE DE VILLIERS of Fuzzy Logic.

Earlier this year, tech juggernaut Microsoft began shipping the developer’s version of its HoloLens AR headset. A device that has been in development for years, the HoloLens is the first ever fully untethered, holographic computer – which enables users to interact with high‑definition holograms in the real world.

For developers worldwide, and indeed, for individuals and businesses, the Microsoft HoloLens has the potential to transform the way we work and interact with our physical environments. While the cost of the device ($3000) remains prohibitive to the average consumer, it is already being embraced within certain industries and sectors.

Contextual Wizardry

Arguably, the HoloLens is the first device that is demonstrating the real power of Augmented Reality (AR) and its potential applications in both business, and in the longer term, our day-to-day life. One of the most compelling elements of this technology is its ability to use the context you are in, and then overlay information around or onto that physical context. So, while Virtual Reality (VR) takes you into an entirely new context, the HoloLens uses AR to enrich and enhance your own, current context.

Imagine, for example, you are in your garden and you spot an unfamiliar plant. Using the HoloLens, the idea is that by simply looking at the plant and asking the question about what it is, the answer will pop up onto the screen – overlaid onto your view of the plant. From here, you can ask other questions such as, will it work in my garden? How do I care for it?

For AR developers, the key will be to ensure that this contextual ability is seamlessly integrated into the HoloLens, so that it becomes a natural extension of our world and our work.

Untethered, Unlimited

While AR and VR have been around for many years, it is the ‘untethered’ element of the HoloLens that makes it so exciting and transformative for developers. Because it is a headset the user’s hands are freed, and in combination with excellent hand tracking technology, it opens up the opportunity for entirely new experiences that are far more interactive and immersive. And unlike AR applications on a smartphone, which use the smartphone’s camera as its ‘eyes’, the HoloLens’s see-through display allows the user’s own eyes – and therefore own, real world context – to shape and guide the experience. No longer are you limited by your device’s camera view – it is your own, real world view that is providing the context.

This ability, and the resulting immersion in both the real and virtual world, has massive ramifications for businesses and professionals. Picture a paramedic rushing to an accident, and encountering a very serious and complex emergency scene. Using the HoloLens, this paramedic can connect – via Skype – to specialists located back at the hospital, who will then be able to ‘see’ what the paramedic is seeing. They can then guide the paramedic, step by step, by overlaying digital information and guidelines onto his immediate view of the physical scene in front of him.

Businesses on the AR Bandwagon

Although many of these scenarios remain purely hypothetical at this early stage, some companies are already leveraging the HoloLens within their operations. One such company is the engineering giant thyssenkrupp, which is using the technology within its elevator business. The company has pioneered the use of the Microsoft HoloLens amongst its army of service technicians.

Using the device, the technicians are able to visualise and identify problems with elevators ahead of a job. Prior to tackling any task, a technician can view a detailed, 3D image of the elevator, and then zoom into any part – offering endless training opportunities as well. These technicians then arrive at the actual site better prepared than ever before.

In addition, they have remote, hands-free access to technical and expert information when on site – with the HoloLens able to trigger a remote call to a subject matter expert. According to the company, the device saves huge amounts of time, stress and effort. A job that normally takes 1-2 hours, now takes less than 20 minutes, reports one company spokesperson.

A Universe of Opportunity

As many who are close to this technology have asserted, we are only scratching the surface of what AR, and devices such as the HoloLens, can truly offer. The early adopters, for now, will be those industries and sectors that rely on sophisticated and expensive technology, and who can afford the high costs associated with research and development. Indeed, we are already seeing the aviation, engineering and medical spheres embracing the HoloLens and finding ways to harness its game-changing capabilities. For local businesses and industry leaders, it is well worth keeping an eye on this fast evolving technology and planning for ways to leverage its immense potential.

Etienne de Villiers, Lead Programmer at Fuzzy Logic

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Online retail gets real

After decades of experience in selling online, retailers still seek out the secret of reaching the digital consumer, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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It’s been 23 years since the first pizza and the first bunch of flowers was sold online. One would think, after all this time, that retailers would know exactly what works, and exactly how the digital consumer thinks.

Yet, in shopping-mad South Africa, only 4% of adults regularly shop online. One could blame high data costs, low levels of tech-savviness, or lack of trust. However, that doesn’t explain why a population where more than a quarter of people have a debit or credit card and almost 40% of people use the Internet is staying away.

The new Online Retail in South Africa 2019 study, conducted by World Wide Worx with the support of Visa and Platinum Seed, reveals that growth is in fact healthy, but is still coming off a low base. This year, the total sale of retail products online is expected to pass the R14-billion mark, making up 1.4% of total retail.

This figure represents 25% growth over 2017, and comes after the same rate of growth was seen in 2017. At this rate, it is clear that online retail is going mainstream, driven by aggressive marketing, and new shopping channels like mobile shopping. 

But it is equally clear that not all retailers are getting it right. According to the study, the unwillingness of business to reinvest revenue in developing their online presence is one of the main barriers to long-term success. Only one in five companies surveyed invested more than 20% of their online turnover back into their online store. Over half invested less than 10% back.

On the surface, the industry looks healthy, as a surprisingly high 71% of online retailers surveyed say they are profitable. But this brings to mind the early days of Amazon.com, in 1996, when founder Jeff Bezos was asked when it would become profitable.

He declared that it would not be profitable for at least another five years. And if it did, he said, it would be in big trouble. He meant that it was so important for long-term sustainability that Amazon reinvest all its revenues in customer systems, that it could not afford to look for short-term profits.

According to the South African study, the single most critical factor in the success of online retail activities is customer service. A vast majority, 98% of respondents, regarded it as important. This positions customer service as the very heart of online retail. For Amazon, investment back into systems that would streamline customer service became the key to the world’s digital wallets.

In South Africa online still make up a small proportion of overall retail, but for the first time we see the promise of a broader range of businesses in terms of category, size, turnover and employee numbers. This is a sign that our local market is beginning to mature. 

Clothing and apparel is the fastest growing sector, but is also the sector with the highest turnover of businesses. It illustrates the dangers of a low barrier to entry: the survival rate of online stores in this sector is probably directly opposite to the ease of setting up an online apparel store.

A fast-growing category that was fairly low on the agenda in the past, alcohol, tobacco and vaping, has benefited from the increased online supply of vapes, juices and accessories. It also suggests that smoking bans, and the change in the legal status of marijuana during the survey, may have boosted demand. 

In the coming weeks, we can expect online retail to fall under the spotlight as never before. Black Friday, a shopping tradition imported “wholesale” from the United States, is expected to become the biggest online shopping day of the year in South Africa, as it is in the USA.

Initially, it was just a gimmick in South Africa, attempting to cash in on what was a purely American tradition of insane sales on the Friday after Thanksgiving Day, which occurs on the third Thursday of November every year. It is followed by Cyber Monday, making the entire weekend one of major promotions and great bargains.

It has grown every year in South Africa since its first introduction about six years ago, and last year it broke into the mainstream, with numerous high profile retailers embracing it, and many consumers experiencing it for the first time. 

It is now positioned as the prime bargain day of the year for consumers, and many wait in anticipation for it, as they do in the USA. Along with Cyber Monday, it provides an excuse for retailers to go all out in their marketing, and for consumers to storm the display shelves or web pages. South African shoppers, clearly, are easily enticed by bargains.

Word of mouth around Black Friday has also grown massively in the past two years, driven by both media and shoppers who have found ridiculous bargains. As news spreads that the most ridiculous of the bargains are to be had online, even those who were reticent of digital shopping will be tempted to convert.

The Online Retail in SA 2019 report has shown over the years that, as people become more experienced in using the Internet, their propensity to shop online increases. This is part of the World Wide Worx model known as the Digital Participation Curve. The key missing factor in the Curve is that most retailers do not know how to convert that propensity into actual online shopping behaviour. Black Friday will be one of the keys to conversion.

Carry on reading to find out about the online retailers of the year.

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Reliable satellite Internet?

MzansiSat, a satellite-Internet business, aims to beam Internet connections to places in South Africa which don’t have access to cabled and mobile network infrastructure, writes BRYAN TURNER.

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Stellenbosch-based MzansiSat promises to provide cheap wholesale Internet to Internet Service Providers for as little as R25 per Gigabyte. Providers who offer more expensive Internet services could benefit greatly from partnering with MzansiSat, says the company. 

“Using MzansiSat, we hope that we can carry over cost-savings benefits to the consumer,” says Victor Stephanopoli, MzansiSat chief operating officer.

The company, which has been spun off from StellSat, has been looking to increase its investor portfolio while it waits for spectrum approval. The additional investment will allow MzansiSat’s satellite to operate in more regions across Africa.

The MzansiSat satellite is being built by Thales Alenia Space, a French company which is also acting as technical partner to MzansiSat. In addition to building the satellite, Thales Alenia Space will also be assisting MzansiSat in coordinating the launch. The company intends to launch the satellite into the 56°E orbital slot in a geostationary orbit, which enables communication almost anywhere in Africa. The launch is expected to happen in 2022. 

The satellite will have 76 transponders, 48 of which will be Ku-band and 28 C-band. Ku-band is all about high-speed performance, while C-band deals with weather-resistance. The design intention is for customers of MzansiSat to choose between very cheap, reliable data and very fast, power-efficient data. 

C-band is an older technology, which makes bandwidth cheaper and almost never affected by rain but requires bigger dishes and slower bandwidth compared to Ku-band connections. On the other hand, Ku-band is faster, experiences less microwave interference, and requires less power to run – but is less reliable with bad weather conditions.

MzansiSat’s potential military applications are significant, due to the nature of the military being mobile and possibly in remote areas without connectivity.  Connectivity everywhere would be potentially be life-saving.

Consumers in remote areas will benefit, even though satellite is higher in latency than fibre and LTE connections. While this level of latency is high (a fifth of a second in theory), satellite connections are still adequate for browsing the Internet and watching online content. 

The Internet of Things (IoT) may see the benefits of satellite Internet before consumers do. The applications of IoT in agriculture are vast, from hydration sensors to soil nutrient testers, and can be realised with an Internet connection which is available in a remote area.

Stephanopoli says that e-learning in remote areas can also benefit from MzansiSat’s presence, as many school resources are becoming readily available online. 

“Through our network, the learning experience can be beamed into classrooms across the country to substitute or complement local resources within the South African schooling system.”

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