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Sony aims to get ultra-smart

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“Smart” is more than a buzzword for Sony, which is poised to roll out a dizzying array of new gadgets and formats, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

It starts with the Eye and the Ear. It is likely to end in the brain and the heart, but perhaps without the capital letters that have been allocated to the other body parts, courtesy of a range of new Sony devices.

The Eye is a tiny continual-capture video camera, the Ear a voice-controlled earpiece for smartphones. They were first demonstrated at the Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona in February, along with the Xperia projector, which projects interactive displays that turn any flat area into a working surface, and the Agent, a stationery robot that takes voice instructions.

In Tokyo last week, Sony provided a deep dive into the thinking behind these gadgets, which do not yet have a release date, as the company still regards the devices as conceptual, and is evolving their use cases.

For Tomokazu “Kaz” Tajima, SVP, Head of UX Creative Design & Planning at Sony Mobile, it’s all about preparing for the future. And there could have been no better time than the first two weeks of April.

Spring had come to Tokyo, and with it the city’s famed cherry blossom season.

“The cherry blossom is a symbol of spring in Japan but also symbol of starting new things,” he said while introducing the new strategy at Sony Mobile. “Everyone in Japan feels everything starts with the cherry blossom season. In the last two weeks we completed our fiscal year. All our activity was focused on transformation and preparation for the future.

“We have successfully concluded and completed our transformation programme. We have been preparing for the future by streamlining our smartphone portfolio, and put a strong focus on premium added value devices. We are also focusing on new business creation and opportunity. What you saw at MWC was a result of 2015 activity.”

The key to the new technology, he said, was a new philosophy: “communication with intelligence”.

While the years from 2013 to 2015 were dedicated to the highly-regarded Sony Xperia Z series, the coming three years will see the Xperia X, along with a range of “smart products”, build in more intelligence around a “new communication experience”.

Tajima, who was personally involved in the creation of the Xperia brand, explains that it is a combination of the words “experience” and “ia”, which means  “place” in Latin. In short, Xperia is intended to be “the place where experience is generated”.

The four new smart products launched at MWC under the Xperia brand – Ear, Eye, Projector and Agent – each has a specific context in mind, he said.

“Ear is a very tiny earpiece, for completely hands-free communication without looking down at smartphone. It offers a very intuitive and playful communications style.

“Projector is for family communication at home, and is designed to accelerate family communications.

“Eye is a personal content creation for social networking communications: it captures your life.

“Agent is intended to support a person’s communications life in all its aspects. It has a common voice-based natural user interface, and smart support or assistance.”

The latter is in effect a robot butler that serves up information, communication and entertainment needs rather than the physical. It allows other gadgets and appliances to be controlled from a single point, using natural voice instructions. Some might say it is a glorified voice assistant and remote control, but Sony believes it will keep evolving as more intelligence is built in.

The Agent in particular is likely to be hard sell, as Sony looks for use cases that will persuade households to invest in yet another gadget that is designed to control or access the gadgets that are already around. However, even if it doesn’t sell in large numbers, it serves a similar purpose as other brands’ high-end gadgets that are affordable only by the wealthy: it is proof of technology leadership, which creates greater desirability for the more affordable devices from the same brands.

“With the intelligence and connectivity technology we have, we believe we can find a new business field beyond the smartphone,” says Tajima. “The smartphone field is very busy and competitive. We want to find new fields, and the smart products are just the beginning.”

Asked whether the projector and other new smart technologies would be built into the Xperia X series, Tajima warned against pursuing more compact devices for their own sake, but did hold out hope.

“When miniaturisation is optimised towards smartphones, we will have the possibility of building projection technology into smartphones. But if we sacrifice form factor and size, we don’t think people will enjoy the experience.

“The smartphone is defined by a graphic user interface (GUI), and the size of the interface is almost defining the size of the phone. If we have a breakthrough in the GUI, for example via the projector, we will have the chance to change the form factor of smartphones. So we will try the projector interface through this product once we have that kind of breakthrough.”

That could well mean a time where your smartphone is only an interface, and an interface can be displayed on or transmitted to any device or surface. Think of it as a phone whithout a handset. If that sounds absurd, you may just need a new kind of Ear to hear the future coming.

* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram on @art2gee

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Smart home arrives in SA

The smart home is no longer a distant vision confined to advanced economies, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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The smart home is a wonderful vision for controlling every aspect of one’s living environment via remote control, apps and sensors. But, because it is both complex and expensive, there has been little appetite for it in South Africa.

The two main routes for smart home installation are both fraught with peril – financial and technical.

The first is to call on a specialist installation company. Surprisingly, there are many in South Africa. Google “smart home” +”South Africa”, and thousands of results appear. The problem is that, because the industry is so new, few have built up solid track records and reputations. Costs vary wildly, few standards exist, and the cost of after-sales service will turn out to be more important than the upfront price.

The second route is to assemble the components of a smart home, and attempt self-installation. For the non-technical, this is often a non-starter. Not only does one need a fairly good knowledge of Wi-Fi configuration, but also a broad understanding of the Internet of Things (IoT) – the ability for devices to sense their environment, connect to each other, and share information.

The good news, though, is that it is getting easier and more cost effective all the time.

My first efforts in this direction started a few years ago with finding smart plugs on Amazon.com. These are power adaptors that turn regular sockets into “smart sockets” by adding Wi-Fi and an on-off switch, among other. A smart lightbulb was sourced from Gearbest in China. At the time, these were the cheapest and most basic elements for a starter smart home environment.

Via a smartphone app, the light could be switched on from the other side of the world. It sounds trivial and silly, but on such basic functions the future is slowly built.

Fast forward a year or two, and these components are available from hundreds of outlets, they have plummeted in cost, and the range of options is bewildering. That, of course, makes the quest even more bewildering. Who can be trusted for quality, fulfilment and after-sales support? Which products will be obsolete in the next year or two as technology advances even more rapidly?

These are some of the challenges that a leading South African technology distributor, Syntech, decided to address in adding smart home products to its portfolio. It selected LifeSmart, a global brand with proven expertise in both IoT and smart home products.

Equally significantly, LifeSmart combines IoT with artificial intelligence and machine learning, meaning that the devices “learn” the best ways of connecting, sharing and integrating new elements. Because they all fall under the same brand, they are designed to integrate with the LifeSmart app, which is available for Android and iOS phones, as well as Android TV.

Click here to read about how LifeSmart makes installing smart home devices easier.

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Matrics must prepare for AI

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students writing a test

By Vian Chinner, CEO and founder of Xineoh.

Many in the matric class of 2018 are currently weighing up their options for the future. With the country’s high unemployment rate casting a shadow on their opportunities, these future jobseekers have been encouraged to look into which skills are required by the market, tailoring their occupational training to align with demand and thereby improving their chances of finding a job, writes Vian Chinner – a South African innovator, data scientist and CEO of the machine learning company specialising in consumer behaviour prediction, Xineoh.

With rapid innovation and development in the field of artificial intelligence (AI), all careers – including high-demand professions like engineers, teachers and electricians – will look significantly different in the years to come.

Notably, the third wave of internet connectivity, whereby our physical world begins to merge with that of the internet, is upon us. This is evident in how widespread AI is being implemented across industries as well as in our homes with the use of automation solutions and bots like Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana. So much data is collected from the physical world every day and AI makes sense of it all.

Not only do new industries related to technology like AI open new career paths, such as those specialising in data science, but it will also modify those which already exist. 

So, what should matriculants be considering when deciding what route to take?

For highly academic individuals, who are exceptionally strong in mathematics, data science is definitely the way to go. There is, and will continue to be, massive demand internationally as well as locally, with Element-AI noting that there are only between 0 and 100 data scientists in South Africa, with the true number being closer to 0.

In terms of getting a foot in the door to become a successful data scientist, practical experience, working with an AI-focused business, is essential. Students should consider getting an internship while they are studying or going straight into an internship, learning on the job and taking specialist online courses from institutions like Stanford University and MIT as they go.

This career path is, however, limited to the highly academic and mathematically gifted, but the technology is inevitably going to overlap with all other professions and so, those who are looking to begin their careers should take note of which skills will be in demand in future, versus which will be made redundant by AI.

In the next few years, technicians who are able to install and maintain new technology will be highly sought after. On the other hand, many entry level jobs will likely be taken care of by AI – from the slicing and dicing currently done by assistant chefs, to the laying of bricks by labourers in the building sector.

As a rule, students should be looking at the skills required for the job one step up from an entry level position and working towards developing these. Those training to be journalists, for instance, should work towards the skill level of an editor and a bookkeeping trainee, the role of financial consultant.

This also means that new workforce entrants should be prepared to walk into a more demanding role, with more responsibility, than perhaps previously anticipated and that the country’s education and training system should adapt to the shift in required skills.

The matric classes of 2018 have completed their schooling in the information age and we should be equipping them, and future generations, for the future market – AI is central to this.

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