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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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Which IoT horse should you back?

The emerging IoT is evolving at a rapid pace with more companies entering the market. The development of new product and communication systems is likely to continue to grow over the next few years, after which we could begin to see a few dominant players emerge, says DARREN OXLEE, CTOf of Utility Systems.

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But in the interim, many companies face a dilemma because, in such a new industry, there are so many unknowns about its trajectory. With the variety of options available (particularly regarding the medium of communication), there’s the a question of which horse to back.

Many players also haven’t fully come to grips with the commercial models in IoT (specifically, how much it costs to run these systems).

Which communication protocol should you consider for your IoT application? Depends on what you’re looking for. Here’s a summary of the main low-power, wide area network (LPWAN) communications options that are currently available, along with their applicability:

SIGFOX 

SigFox has what is arguably the most traction in the LPWAN space, thanks to its successful marketing campaigns in Europe. It also has strong support from vendors including Texas Instruments, Silicon Labs, and Axom.

It’s a relatively simple technology, ultra-narrowband (100 Hz), and sends very small data (12 bytes) very slowly (300 bps). So it’s perfect for applications where systems need to send small, infrequent bursts of data. Its lack of downlink capabilities, however, could make it unsuitable for applications that require two-way communication.

LORA 

LoRaWAN is a standard governed by the LoRa Alliance. It’s not open because the underlying chipset is only available through Semtech – though this should change in future.

Its functionality is like SigFox: it’s primarily intended for uplink-only applications with multiple nodes, although downlink messages are possible. But unlike SigFox, LoRa uses multiple frequency channels and data rates with coded messages. These are less likely to interfere with one another, increasing the concentrator capacity.

RPMA 

Ingenu Technology Solutions has developed a proprietary technology called Random Phase Multiple Access (RPMA) in the 2.4 GHz band. Due to its architecture, it’s said to have a superior uplink and downlink capacity compared to other models.

It also claims to have better doppler, scheduling, and interference characteristics, as well as a better link budget of 177 dB compared to LoRa’s 157 dB and SigFox’s 149 dB. Plus, it operates in the 2.4 GHz spectrum, which is globally available for Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, so there are no regional architecture changes needed – unlike SigFox and LoRa.

LTE-M 

LTE-M (LTE Cat-M1) is a cellular technology that has gained traction in the United States and is specifically designed for IoT or machine‑to‑machine (M2M) communications.

It’s a low‑power wide‑area (LPWA) interface that connects IoT and M2M devices with medium data rate requirements (375 kb/s upload and download speeds in half duplex mode). It also enables longer battery lifecycles and greater in‑building range compared to standard cellular technologies like 2G, 3G, or LTE Cat 1.

Key features include:

·       Voice functionality via VoLTE

·       Full mobility and in‑vehicle hand‑over

·       Low power consumption

·       Extended in‑building range

NB-IOT 

Narrowband IoT (NB‑IoT or LTE Cat NB1) is part of the same 3GPP Release 13 standard3 that defined LTE Cat M1 – both are licensed as LPWAN technologies that work virtually anywhere. NB-IoT connects devices simply and efficiently on already established mobile networks and handles small amounts of infrequent two‑way data securely and reliably.

NB‑IoT is well suited for applications like gas and water meters through regular and small data transmissions, as network coverage is a key issue in smart metering rollouts. Meters also tend to be in difficult locations like cellars, deep underground, or in remote areas. NB‑IoT has excellent coverage and penetration to address this.

MY FORECAST

The LPWAN technology stack is fluid, so I foresee it evolving more over the coming years. During this time, I suspect that we’ll see:

1.     Different markets adopting different technologies based on factors like dominant technology players and local regulations

2.     The technologies diverging for a period and then converging with a few key players, which I think will be SigFox, LoRa, and the two LTE-based technologies

3.     A significant technological shift in 3-5 years, which will disrupt this space again

So, which horse should you back?

I don’t believe it’s prudent to pick a single technology now; lock-in could cause serious restrictions in the long-term. A modular, agile approach to implementing the correct communications mechanism for your requirements carries less risk.

The commercial model is also hugely important. The cellular and telecommunications companies will understandably want to maximise their returns and you’ll want to position yourself to share an equitable part of the revenue.

So: do your homework. And good luck!

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Ms Office hack attacks up 4X

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Exploits, software that takes advantage of a bug or vulnerability, for Microsoft Office in-the-wild hit the list of cyber headaches in Q1 2018. Overall, the number of users attacked with malicious Office documents rose more than four times compared with Q1 2017. In just three months, its share of exploits used in attacks grew to almost 50% – this is double the average share of exploits for Microsoft Office across 2017. These are the main findings from Kaspersky Lab’s Q1 IT threat evolution report.

Attacks based on exploits are considered to be very powerful, as they do not require any additional interactions with the user and can deliver their dangerous code discreetly. They are therefore widely used; both by cybercriminals looking for profit and by more sophisticated nation-backed state actors for their malicious purposes.

The first quarter of 2018 experienced a massive inflow of these exploits, targeting popular Microsoft Office software. According to Kaspersky Lab experts, this is likely to be the peak of a longer trend, as at least ten in-the-wild exploits for Microsoft Office software were identified in 2017-2018 – compared to two zero-day exploits for Adobe Flash player used in-the-wild during the same time period.

The share of the latter in the distribution of exploits used in attacks is decreasing as expected (accounting for slightly less than 3% in the first quarter) – Adobe and Microsoft have put a lot of effort into making it difficult to exploit Flash Player.

After cybercriminals find out about a vulnerability, they prepare a ready-to-go exploit. They then frequently use spear-phishing as the infection vector, compromising users and companies through emails with malicious attachments. Worse still, such spear-phishing attack vectors are usually discreet and very actively used in sophisticated targeted attacks – there were many examples of this in the last six months alone.

For instance, in late 2017, Kaspersky Lab’s advanced exploit prevention systems identified a new Adobe Flash zero-day exploit used in-the-wild against our customers. The exploit was delivered through a Microsoft Office document and the final payload was the latest version of FinSpy malware. Analysis of the payload enabled researchers to confidently link this attack to a sophisticated actor known as ‘BlackOasis’. The same month, Kaspersky Lab’s experts published a detailed analysis of СVE-2017-11826, a critical zero-day vulnerability used to launch targeted attacks in all versions of Microsoft Office. The exploit for this vulnerability is an RTF document containing a DOCX document that exploits СVE-2017-11826 in the Office Open XML parser. Finally, just a couple of days ago, information on Internet Explorer zero day CVE-2018-8174 was published. This vulnerability was also used in targeted attacks.

“The threat landscape in the first quarter again shows us that a lack of attention to patch management is one of the most significant cyber-dangers. While vendors usually issue patches for the vulnerabilities, users often can’t update their products in time, which results in waves of discreet and highly effective attacks once the vulnerabilities have been exposed to the broad cybercriminal community,” notes Alexander Liskin, security expert at Kaspersky Lab.

Other online threat statistics from the Q1, 2018 report include:

  • Kaspersky Lab solutions detected and repelled 796,806,112 malicious attacks from online resources located in 194 countries around the world.
  • 282,807,433 unique URLs were recognised as malicious by web antivirus components.
  • Attempted infections by malware that aims to steal money via online access to bank accounts were registered on 204,448 user computers.
  • Kaspersky Lab’s file antivirus detected a total of 187,597,494 unique malicious and potentially unwanted objects.
  • Kaspersky Lab mobile security products also detected:
    • 1,322,578 malicious installation packages.
    • 18,912 mobile banking Trojans (installation packages).

To reduce the risk of infection, users are advised to:

  • Keep the software installed on your PC up to date, and enable the auto-update feature if it is available.
  • Wherever possible, choose a software vendor that demonstrates a responsible approach to a vulnerability problem. Check if the software vendor has its own bug bounty program.

·         Use robust security solutions , which have special features to protect against exploits, such as Automatic Exploit Prevention.

·         Regularly run a system scan to check for possible infections and make sure you keep all software up to date.

  • Businesses should use a security solution that provides vulnerability, patch management and exploit prevention components, such as Kaspersky Endpoint Security for Business. The patch management feature automatically eliminates vulnerabilities and proactively patches them. The exploit prevention component monitors suspicious actions of applications and blocks malicious files executions.
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