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Goodbye to point-and-click

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At the intersection of customer-centric innovation and user experience (UX), we’re also seeing some profoundly interesting trends developing in the global technology UX space, which are changing the way we interact with, and think about, computing.

While pointing, clicking, and typing still have their place, we’ve also cemented tapping and swiping into our collective consciousness in the past few years. Additionally, speaking is now becoming a fixture. Although voice is not yet a popular interface in South Africa, I think it will soon grow in usage here, as voice and intelligent assistants continue to evolve at an impressive rate.

This makes sense for sheer convenience when you consider that research shows we can type about 40 words per minute, but can only speak about 150 words per minute comfortably. Soon, we won’t just use voice activation in smart phones, speakers and cars, but far more ubiquitously with laptops, and multiple devices around the home and office.

Moving to multimodal input

In fact, our interaction with smart devices will become more multimodal, moving toward what is most natural for the user or the environment they are in. That means instead of using voice or keyboard and mouse or tapping and swiping in isolated ways – we’ll increasingly use them together in more layered ways (imagine touching the screen while voicing a command). We’re beginning to move in this direction with innovations like far-field mics facilitating voice-enabled intelligent AIs such as Cortana and Alexa in some of our Lenovo laptops because it can be easier to talk to your PC in addition to using a traditional input like the mouse. The layering of visual and audible content as well as voice and touch is another example, because sometimes it’s just easier to tap the desired result versus saying a command out loud, or glancing at the display for data instead of listening.

Overall, voice is an area that still needs to evolve – and it will. We’re currently in what I call the ‘Wild, Wild West’ of voice. Just consider the multiple voice offerings all jostling for customer attention: Alexa, Cortana, Google Assistant, Siri, Bixby, and so on.

Choices to fit your needs

The unanswered question in the face of these options is choice. In my view, consumers will not want to be confined to one ecosystem. I believe the longer-term winners in voice will be the companies that make offerings which are interoperable with others – like our latest ThinkPad X1 series and Yoga 730 that are Cortana and Alexa-ready. The point is to empower users to play music, get news, or shop online using just their voices. This reflects a shift that is redefining the PC to something much more than a work-focused or task-based machine; in various form factors, PCs will fit into your suite of home-based consumer products, capable of being your intelligent digital assistant and playing a role in running your home appliances – all via voice.

The evolution of sight + sound

This leads me to a point about a growing user experience trend around the integration of video and voice. Over the next year or so, when customers speak a command, we’ll increasingly see a tailored response applicable to that command. For example, a simple question might be answered solely by your voice assistant. But a more complex request may provide the user with a more rounded response: it could be a graphical visualisation, or even a video. In line with this direction is our new Lenovo Smart Display with Google Assistant built-in. It’s all about the evolution of sight and sound with the intention of saving a user’s time and making their home life smarter and more convenient by adding context-relevant visuals. Users will be able to begin their morning with the latest weather, traffic situation, and meeting schedules, or relax in the evening by video-calling friends and watching YouTube – once again, just by using their voice.

Changing orientations

We expect to see an increase in both video content and video usage frequency as this trend takes hold. Data suggests that smartphones are held in portrait mode up to 94% of the time – which has been driving the use of portrait video, given that smartphones are the dominant consumption device. As a result, more portrait video is showing up in other form factors such as laptops, tablets, desktops, and now in the Lenovo Smart Display that transitions seamlessly from landscape to portrait mode. And with millions of millennials livestreaming and watching hours of videos online each day, we will see better cameras, better displays, more augmented reality (AR) video content, and more evolved AI that does a better job analysing video to help with better user recommendations.

I’m excited for what these voice and video trends will bring. Expect users to become more willing and savvy as they use voice skills with devices in more sophisticated ways. And expect voice to become more intelligent and useful in AR settings, IoT applications in the smart home and office, and for handling better cross-device interaction. Interesting times are ahead.

  • Thibault Dousson, General Manager, Lenovo South Africa & SADC 

 

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Broadband gets a helping hand

Behind this week’s news that MTN fibre provider Supersonic has launched a fixed LTE service is an effort to rethink home connectivity, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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This week, MTN made its biggest play yet into the market for fibre connections to homes, but its biggest impact may well be within the home.

The mobile operator’s fibre-to-the-home subsidiary, Supersonic, launched a Fixed LTE offering on a month-to-month basis, meaning that homes in areas not yet wired for fibre can receive high-speed broadband. More important, they can get that access at rates that seem unprecedented for mobile data. 

There are two differences from regular packages, however. For one thing, the SIM card that comes with the package only works in specific routers that have to remain plugged into a power supply. For another, the data allocation is split half-half between regular hours and a Night Owl timeframe: the hours between midnight and dawn.

“It just needs users to adjust their internet behaviour a little,” says Calvin Collett, MD of Supersonic. “Conducting massive mobile phone updates or downloading an entire library of Netflix content shouldn’t be prioritised during the day, but should be scheduled for Night Owl data consumption.”

The biggest benefit, aside from pricing, is that one does not have to wait for fibre to arrive in a specific area. While Supersonic’s core business is fixed-line fibre-to-the-home, it is now set to leverage its parent company’s massive mobile data network.

“MTN’s LTE network coverage sits at 95%, after billions of rand was invested in network upgrades in recent years. There is absolutely no reason why those waiting for a fibre connection shouldn’t move to Fixed LTE.”

Collett argues that consumers are far more savvy and well informed of developments in the telecoms space than observers think. They carefully investigate the products and services they choose to spend on, and are looking for the best deals available.

The result is that Supersonic has quietly built up a side business in installing what is called a Mesh Wi-Fi network, consisting of a main Wi-Fi router connected to the standardfibre or LTE or router, and a series of additional access pointscalled plumes, placed in areas of low coverage through ahome.

The plumes – small pods that plug into any power point –connect to one another to expand the network across a wide area. Where traditional WI-FI extenders lose up to half the fibre bandwidth with every extension, the plumes maintain most of the speed regardless of how far the network is extended. All the pods connected to the same router form a single network with the same network name, eliminating the complications Wi-FI extenders usually introduce.

“The traditional Wi-Fi router has replaced the dial up connection, and we’re all happy about this – the infamous dial up tone is ingrained in the brains of anyone over the age of 30,” says Collett. “Wi-Fi revolutionised our way of life as the router gave us access to the internet without directly connecting to a modem. 

“We’ve moved forward, transitioning from ADSL to fibre. While fibre allows for high speed internet access, it is still connected to your Wi-Fi router. Naturally, the further you move away from the hub, the poorer your internet connection will be. Those dead spots around the house can become frustrating when your Wi-Fi signal shows 1 bar and it takes 5 minutes to load a single web page. Mesh Wi-Fi is the solution.”

Collett says he specifically researched a product that looked good, offered app-based management and required no cables. His research led him to Silicon Valley, and the result is the Supersonic Plume Mesh network system.

The drawback is that installation can be complicated for the non-technical consumer. To plug the gap, so to speak, Supersonic sends out technicians who conduct a Wi-Fi sweep of a home and advise how many Plume devices will be needed for 100% coverage. Based on this the technicians make a recommendation for an optimal “smart Wi-Fi”solution. Once installed, though, the network can be monitored and managed from a Supersonic App.

We tried it out and found it was a tale of two experiences. The initial experience was frustrating, as the pods tried to find each other. This is a necessary evil, it seems, as the Plume Mesh network optimises itself over a period of several days. That means the experience at the edge of the network can be very poor at the time of installation. After a few days, however the network was flying.

With a 100Mbps line, the experience next to the main router was around 105 Mbps, both up and down. That in itself was something of a marvel. But the biggest impact was felt at the furthest point from the router: where a Wi-Fi extender had previously delivered speeds of below 10Mbps, download speeds of 80Mbps became not only commonplace, but almost taken for granted.

One of the most useful features of the Plume Mesh is the level of monitoring offered through the Supersonic app. One can observe exactly what devices are connected to which pods – each is given a name, typically of the room, that is visible only through the app.

The biggest surprise of the plume solution is that it has not become a standard solution for Wi-Fi networks everywhere. In an era when we have become deeply dependent on a decent Wi-Fi signal, it has become a necessity rather than a luxury. As a result, home connectivity should be taken far more seriously than merely fobbing consumers off on low-performance extenders. 

MTN seems to have taken this message to heart, rethinking its own approach to home usage.

“Internet access has become the third utility behind electricity and water,” says Collett. “Our goal is to ‘own the home’ but not just by connecting a bunch of devices to a central point. It’s really about how these devices can pioneer habitual change in the home that’s convenient and saves valuable time and money.”

Click here to read about SuperSonic’s pricing.

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Location data key to transforming SA’s transport system

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Location technology can transform South Africa’s transport system – but don’t expect to see self-driving cars on our roads any time soon. What’s more relevant is the need for the public and private sectors to work together more closely to unlock the significant social and economic benefits that more efficient transport and mobility systems would bring to the country, including less congestion and fewer road accidents. 

That was the message from Michael Bültmann, Managing Director, in charge of international relations  atHERE Technologies, a global leader in mapping and location platform services, at an event hosted by the international law firm Covington & Burling in Johannesburg last week, to discuss how digitization could support better mobility, safety and integration in South Africa. 

“Society needs to solve some fundamental challenges, and relevant location data can play a key role in creating a better future for mobility in South Africa. If we know where the goods and people are, and how and why they move, we have the basis for a system that matches demand and supply far more closely, and uses our transport infrastructure more efficiently,” saidBültmann.

“But no company, government or individual can do it all themselves. It’s all about collaborating. If we get real-time data use right, it would have a profound effect on the way the entire economy works: less congestion, fewer accidents, more efficient use of vehicles and public transport, less air pollution, greater quality of life, and potential savings of billions of rands in fuel, time and safer roads.”

Speaking at the event, the CSIR’s Dr Mathetha Mokonyama said that despite the billions of rands pumped into the country’s mass public transport network in recent years, 90% of commuter seats available are still provided by either cars or taxis.

“We have the right to dignity. If you want to see indignity, look at people getting up at 2am to get unreliable transport to a job that only pays R3500 a month. In our country, access to transport is critical for people to make a living, and our focus as a country should be to implement an equitable and just transport system that caters to all sectors of society,” he said.

“It was a pleasure to support the event that brought together so many viewpoints on the question of the effective use of data and location intelligence to enhance the mobility of goods, people and services,” said Robert Kayihura, senior advisor in Covington’s Johannesburg office.  “While the harmonization of regulatory regimes around the continent will take time, a key takeaway from our discussions is the critical need to build a shared vision of the future through consistent public-private dialogue and collaboration in order to accelerate and ensure the sustainable and safe digitization of Africa.”

Paul Vorster, the chief executive of the Intelligent Transport Society of SA (ITSSA), said the effective sharing of data between metros, government and the private sector would ‘go a long way’ to improving the efficiency of existing transport infrastructure.

“The starting point is to improve what we already have. Once we know what we have – that is, data – we can start solving real problems, like knowing where the demand and supply are. But to do this, metros will need to learn from each other, and they often face political hurdles in the process,” he said.

Bültmann said increasing levels of urbanisation across the world were creating the need for cities to better predict, manage and plan future urban movement. Combining and analysing data from different, complementary sources could help South African cities to improve urban planning, relieve congestion and curb pollution for better quality of life.

The event was also attended by Presidential Investment Envoy Phumzile Langeni, the National Planning Commission’s Themba Dlamini; SANRAL’s Alan Robinson; and Dr Rüdiger Lotz, the Deputy Head of Mission at the German Embassy. The guests were welcomed by Witney Schneidman, the head of Covington’s Africa practice and former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs (1997-2001) in the U.S. Government.

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