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Facebook’s flavour of the Moment

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When a billion human beings logged onto Facebook last Monday, it was just one landmark in the social network’s quest to connect humanity. For South Africans, another came just a day later, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

When a billion people log on to your service in a single day, you know you’re having a massive impact on humanity. That’s one in seven people on the planet. But it also means that you have a huge challenge on your hands: how to keep them coming back, and how to keep improving their experience when they do come back.

Last Tuesday, the day after Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook had reached a billion visitors in one day, Facebook introduced South Africans to a new service designed to enhance the sharing culture that is at the heart of the social network’s success.

Called Moments, it’s described as “a private way to share photos with friends”. It groups photos on one’s phone based on when they were taken, and uses facial recognition technology to identify the people in the photos. Friends can then synchronise from the same event, choosing with whom they want to share and sync. In the process they receive photos from the same event taken by those friends.

In a blog post when it was first launched in the United States in June, Moments product manager Will Ruben explained the thinking:

“With a phone at everyone’s fingertips, the moments in our lives are captured by a new kind of photographer: our friends. It’s hard to get the photos your friends have taken of you, and everyone always insists on taking that same group shot with multiple phones to ensure they get a copy. Even if you do end up getting some of your friends’ photos, it’s difficult to keep them all organized in one place on your phone.

“Syncing photos with the Moments app is a private way to give photos to friends and get the photos you didn’t take.”

As with most new Facebook products and services, Moments has been rolled out on a staggered basis, beginning in North America in June and finally reaching South Africa two months later.

“We’re excited to be launching it in many more countries around the world,” Ruben said in an interview this week. “It will also be translated into many more languages.”

A key aspect of Moments is that it is not integrated into Facebook itself, but is what Ruben describes as “a totally separate experience from the normal Facebook experience”. That’s because it’s a product of Creative Labs, a division of Facebook that, it says, “is crafting new apps to support the diverse ways people want to connect and share”. However, it is generally regarded as the space where small teams have free reign to experiment with new apps and options.

“Our group came together to solve a specific problem,” says Ruben. “We’ve all experienced those times when we’re hanging out with friends and take pics and say we’ll send them later but that never happens. It’s too hard to share lot of photos with a small group of people. You also have big group shots where everyone has their own version because they each had it taken with their own phone cameras.”

Sharing in Moments, he stresses, is totally separate from sharing on Facebook: “It’s you, your pics and your friends. By sharing in this way, it increases the chance of getting that pic you know was taken but you didn’t have on your own phone.”

The facial recognition technology at the heart of Moments may seem intimidating to those who have heard of such techniques being used for law enforcement. However, Facebook has been using it for several years already, as the basis for recommending which friends to tag in photos users post in their timelines.

Moments takes this a step further not in terms of technological advance, but in terms of how the technology can be put to use. Aside from identifying faces, it also synchronises them, links them up between friends’ albums – where they have accepted the link – and offers suggestions for who is in what pic.

“Moments also organizes pics in other ways,” says Ruben. “You can see all the pics you received in chronological gallery view, like a camera roll, but with a higher signal to noise ratio than a camera roll, because it not only syncs those pics that you took with friends, but also contains other people’s photos.

“I have 1400 photos of myself, and 1300 of my girlfriend, mostly because other people have synced photos of myself they’ve taken. I also have five pics of my brother Andrew he doesn’t have yet, so he can just press the Check button and he has five photos of himself he wouldn’t have had otherwise.”

The coup de grace for Moments is that it can automatically make a movie of the best photos in a particular “moment”, for example to tell the story of a wedding. The user can choose from a number of themes, and the app creates photo transitions to beat of music, making for what Ruben calls “a high quality sharing experience”.

The movie can be edited quickly, with photos added or removed if the app missed key images or added unwanted ones. The entire movie is then instantly recalibrated so that the music still keeps time with the images.

Aside from putting a good few existing apps out of business, Moments is also an answer to an increasingly common question in social media: Can we ever get enough of sharing? For now, the answer seems to be “No”.

* Arthur Goldstuck is founder of World Wide Worx and editor-in-chief of Gadget.co.za. Follow him on Twitter on @art2gee, and subscribe to his YouTube channel at http://bit.ly/GGadgets

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Money talks and electronic gaming evolves

Computer gaming has evolved dramatically in the last two years, as it follows the money, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK in the second of a two-part series.

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The clue that gaming has become big business in South Africa was delivered by a non-gaming brand. When Comic Con, an American popular culture convention that has become a mecca for comics enthusiasts, was hosted in South Arica for the first time last month, it used gaming as the major drawcard. More than 45 000 people attended.

The event and its attendance was expected to be a major dampener for the annual rAge gaming expo, which took place just weeks later. Instead, rAge saw only a marginal fall in visitor numbers. No less than 34 000 people descended on the Ticketpro Dome for the chaos of cosplay, LAN gaming, virtual reality, board gaming and new video games. 

It proved not only that there was room for more than one major gaming event, but also that a massive market exists for the sector in South Africa. And with a large market, one also found numerous gaming niches that either emerged afresh or will keep going over the years. One of these, LAN (for Local Area Network) gaming, which sees hordes of players camping out at the venue for three days to play each other on elaborate computer rigs, was back as strong as ever at rAge.

MWeb provided an 8Gbps line to the expo, to connect all these gamers, and recorded 120TB in downloads and 15Tb in uploads – a total that would have used up the entire country’s bandwidth a few years ago.

“LANs are supposed to be a thing of the past, yet we buck the trend each year,” says Michael James, senior project manager and owner of rAge. “It is more of a spectacle than a simple LAN, so I can understand.”

New phenomena, often associated with the flavour of the moment, also emerge every year.

“Fortnite is a good example this year of how we evolve,” says James. “It’s a crazy huge phenomenon and nobody was servicing the demand from a tournament point of view. So rAge and Xbox created a casual LAN tournament that anyone could enter and win a prize. I think the top 10 people got something each round.”

Read on to see how esports is starting to make an impact in gaming.

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Blockchain unpacked

Blockchain is generally associated with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, but these are just the tip of the iceberg, says ESET Southern Africa.

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This technology was originally conceived in 1991, when Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta described their first work on a chain of cryptographically secured blocks, but only gained notoriety in 2008, when it became popular with the arrival of Bitcoin. It is currently gaining demand in other commercial applications and its annual growth is expected to reach 51% by 2022 in numerous markets, such as those of financial institutions and the Internet of Things (IoT), according to MarketWatch.

What is blockchain?

A blockchain is a unique, consensual record that is distributed over multiple network nodes. In the case of cryptocurrencies, think of it as the accounting ledger where each transaction is recorded.

A blockchain transaction is complex and can be difficult to understand if you delve into the inner details of how it works, but the basic idea is simple to follow.

Each block stores:

–           A number of valid records or transactions.
–           Information referring to that block.
–           A link to the previous block and next block through the hash of each block—a unique code that can be thought of as the block’s fingerprint.

Accordingly, each block has a specific and immovable place within the chain, since each block contains information from the hash of the previous block. The entire chain is stored in each network node that makes up the blockchain, so an exact copy of the chain is stored in all network participants.

As new records are created, they are first verified and validated by the network nodes and then added to a new block that is linked to the chain.

How is blockchain so secure?

Being a distributed technology in which each network node stores an exact copy of the chain, the availability of the information is guaranteed at all times. So if an attacker wanted to cause a denial-of-service attack, they would have to annul all network nodes since it only takes one node to be operative for the information to be available.

Besides that, since each record is consensual, and all nodes contain the same information, it is almost impossible to alter it, ensuring its integrity. If an attacker wanted to modify the information in a blockchain, they would have to modify the entire chain in at least 51% of the nodes.

In blockchain, data is distributed across all network nodes. With no central node, all participate equally, storing, and validating all information. It is a very powerful tool for transmitting and storing information in a reliable way; a decentralised model in which the information belongs to us, since we do not need a company to provide the service.

What else can blockchain be used for?

Essentially, blockchain can be used to store any type of information that must be kept intact and remain available in a secure, decentralised and cheaper way than through intermediaries. Moreover, since the information stored is encrypted, its confidentiality can be guaranteed, as only those who have the encryption key can access it.

Use of blockchain in healthcare

Health records could be consolidated and stored in blockchain, for instance. This would mean that the medical history of each patient would be safe and, at the same time, available to each doctor authorised, regardless of the health centre where the patient was treated. Even the pharmaceutical industry could use this technology to verify medicines and prevent counterfeiting.

Use of blockchain for documents

Blockchain would also be very useful for managing digital assets and documentation. Up to now, the problem with digital is that everything is easy to copy, but Blockchain allows you to record purchases, deeds, documents, or any other type of online asset without them being falsified.

Other blockchain uses

This technology could also revolutionise the Internet of Things  (IoT) market where the challenge lies in the millions of devices connected to the internet that must be managed by the supplier companies. In a few years’ time, the centralised model won’t be able to support so many devices, not to mention the fact that many of these are not secure enough. With blockchain, devices can communicate through the network directly, safely, and reliably with no need for intermediaries.

Blockchain allows you to verify, validate, track, and store all types of information, from digital certificates, democratic voting systems, logistics and messaging services, to intelligent contracts and, of course, money and financial transactions.

Without doubt, blockchain has turned the immutable and decentralized layer the internet has always dreamed about into a reality. This technology takes reliance out of the equation and replaces it with mathematical fact.

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