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Can VR become billion-user platform?

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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Now IBM’s Watson joins IoT revolution in agriculture

Global expansion of the Watson Decision Platform taps into AI, weather and IoT data to boost production

IBM has announced the global expansion of Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture, with AI technology tailored for new crops and specific regions to help feed a growing population. For the first time, IBM is providing a global agriculture solution that combines predictive technology with data from The Weather Company, an IBM Business, and IoT data to help give farmers around the world greater insights about planning, ploughing, planting, spraying and harvesting.

By 2050, the world will need to feed two billion more people without an increase in arable land [1]. IBM is combining power weather data – including historical, current and forecast data and weather prediction models from The Weather Company – with crop models to help improve yield forecast accuracy, generate value, and increase both farm production and profitability.

Roric Paulman, owner/operator of Paulman Farms in Southwest Nebraska, said: “As a farmer, the wild card is always weather. IBM overlays weather details with my own data and historical information to help me apply, verify, and make decisions. For example, our farm is in a highly restricted water basin, so the ability to better anticipate rain not only saves me money but also helps me save precious natural resources.”

New crop models include corn, wheat, soy, cotton, sorghum, barley, sugar cane and potato, with more coming soon. These models will now be available in the Africa, U.S. Canada, Mexico, and Brazil, as well as new markets across Europe and Australia.

Kristen Lauria, general manager of Watson Media and Weather Solutions at IBM, said: “These days farmers don’t just farm food, they also cultivate data – from drones flying over fields to smart irrigation systems, and IoT sensors affixed to combines, seeders, sprayers and other equipment. Most of the time, this data is left on the vine — never analysed or used to derive insights. Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture aims to change that by offering tools and solutions to help growers make more informed decisions about their crops.” 

The average farm generates an estimated 500,000 data points per day, which will grow to 4 million data points by 2036 [2]. Applying AI and analysis to aggregated field, machine and environmental data can help improve shared insights between growers and enterprises across the agriculture ecosystem. With a better view of the fields, growers can see what’s working on certain farms and share best practices with other farmers. The platform assesses data in an electronic field record to identify and communicate crop management patterns and insights. Enterprise businesses such as food companies, grain processors, or produce distributors can then work with farmers to leverage those insights. It helps track crop yield as well as the environmental, weather and plant biologic conditions that go into a good or bad yield, such as irrigation management, pest and disease risk analysis and cohort analysis for comparing similar subsets of fields.

The result isn’t just more productive farmers. Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture could help a livestock company eliminate a certain mold or fungus from feed supply grains or help identify the best crop irrigation practices for farmers to use in drought-stricken areas like California. It could help deliver the perfect French fry for a fast food chain that needs longer – not fatter – potatoes from its network of growers. Or it could help a beer distributor produce a more affordable premium beer by growing higher quality barley that meets the standard required to become malting barley.

Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture is built on IBM PAIRS Geoscope from IBM Research, which quickly processes massive, complex geospatial and time-based datasets collected by satellites, drones, aerial flights, millions of IoT sensors and weather models. It crunches large, complex data and creates insights quickly and easily so farmers and food companies can focus on growing crops for global communities.

IBM and The Weather Company help the agriculture industry find value in weather insights. IBM Research collaborates with start up Hello Tractor to integrate The Weather Company data, remote sensing data (e.g., satellite), and IoT data from tractors. IBM also works with crop nutrition leader Yara to include hyperlocal weather forecasts in its digital platform for real-time recommendations, tailored to specific fields or crops. IBM acquired The Weather Company in 2016 and has since been helping clients better understand and mitigate the cost of weather on their businesses. The global expansion of Watson Decision Platform for Agriculture is the latest innovation in IBM’s efforts to make weather a more predictable business consideration. Also just announced, Weather Signals is a new AI-based tool that merges The Weather Company data with a company’s own operations data to reveal how minor fluctuations in weather affects business.

The combination of rich weather forecast data from The Weather Company and IBM’s AI and Cloud technologies is designed to provide a unique capability, which is being leveraged by agriculture, energy and utility companies, airlines, retailers and many others to make informed business decisions.

[1] The UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs, “World Population Prospects: The 2017 Revision”

[2] Business Insider Intelligence, 2016 report: https://www.businessinsider.com/internet-of-things-smart-agriculture-2016-10


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What if Amazon used AI to take on factories?

By ANTONY BOURNE, IFS Global Industry Director for Manufacturing

Amazon recently announced record profits of $3.03bn, breaking its own record for the third consecutive time. However, Amazon appears to be at a crossroads as to where it heads next. Beyond pouring additional energy into Amazon Prime, many have wondered whether the company may decide to enter an entirely new sector such as manufacturing to drive future growth, after all, it seems a logical step for the company with its finger in so many pies.

At this point, it is unclear whether Amazon would truly ‘get its hands dirty’ by manufacturing its own products on a grand scale. But what if it did? It’s worth exploring this reality. What if Amazon did decide to move into manufacturing, a sector dominated by traditional firms and one that is yet to see an explosive tech rival enter? After all, many similarly positioned tech giants have stuck to providing data analytics services or consulting to these firms rather than genuinely engaging with and analysing manufacturing techniques directly.

If Amazon did factories

If Amazon decided to take a step into manufacturing, it is likely that they could use the Echo range as a template of what AI can achieve. In recent years,Amazon gained expertise on the way to designing its Echo home speaker range that features Alexa, an artificial intelligence and IoT-based digital assistant.Amazon could replicate a similar form with the deployment of AI and Industrial IoT (IIoT) to create an autonomously-run smart manufacturing plant. Such a plant could feature IIoT sensors to enable the machinery to be run remotely and self-aware; managing external inputs and outputs such as supply deliveries and the shipping of finished goods. Just-in-time logistics would remove the need for warehousing while other machines could be placed in charge of maintenance using AI and remote access. Through this, Amazon could radically reduce the need for human labour and interaction in manufacturing as the use of AI, IIoT and data analytics will leave only the human role for monitoring and strategic evaluation. Amazon has been using autonomous robots in their logistics and distribution centres since 2017. As demonstrated with the Echo range, this technology is available now, with the full capabilities of Blockchain and 5G soon to be realised and allowing an exponentially-increased amount of data to be received, processed and communicated.

Manufacturing with knowledge

Theorising what Amazon’s manufacturing debut would look like provides a stark learning opportunity for traditional manufacturers. After all, wheneverAmazon has entered the fray in other traditional industries such as retail and logistics, the sector has never remained the same again. The key takeaway for manufacturers is that now is the time to start leveraging the sort of technologies and approaches to data management that Amazon is already doing in its current operations. When thinking about how to implement AI and new technologies in existing environments, specific end-business goals and targets must be considered, or else the end result will fail to live up to the most optimistic of expectations. As with any target and goal, the more targeted your objectives, the more competitive and transformative your results. Once specific targets and deliverables have been considered, the resources and methods of implementation must also be considered. As Amazon did with early automation of their distribution and logistics centres, manufacturers need to implement change gradually and be focused on achieving small and incremental results that will generate wider momentum and the appetite to lead more expansive changes.

In implementing newer technologies, manufacturers need to bear in mind two fundamental aspects of implementation: software and hardware solutions. Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) software, which is increasingly bolstered by AI, will enable manufacturers to leverage the data from connected IoT devices, sensors, and automated systems from the factory floor and the wider business. ERP software will be the key to making strategic decisions and executing routine operational tasks more efficiently. This will allow manufacturers to keep on top of trends and deliver real-time forecasting and spot any potential problems before they impact the wider business.

As for the hardware, stock management drones and sensor-embedded hardware will be the eyes through which manufacturers view the impact emerging technologies bring to their operations. Unlike manual stock audits and counting, drones with AI capabilities can monitor stock intelligently around production so that operations are not disrupted or halted. Manufacturers will be able to see what is working, what is going wrong, and where there is potential for further improvement and change.

Knowledge for manufacturing

For many traditional manufacturers, they may see Amazon as a looming threat, and smart-factory technologies such as AI and Robotic Process Automation (RPA) as a far off utopia. However, 2019 presents a perfect opportunity for manufacturers themselves to really determine how the tech giants and emerging technologies will affect the industry. Technologies such as AI and IoT are available today; and the full benefits of these technologies will only deepen as they are implemented alongside the maturing of other emerging technologies such as 5G and Blockchain in the next 3-5 years. Manufacturers need to analyse the needs which these technologies can address and produce a proper plan on how to gradually implement these technologies to address specific targets and deliverables. AI-based software and hardware solutions will fundamentally revolutionise manufacturing, yet for 2019, manufacturers just have to be willing to make the first steps in modernisation.

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