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New gadgets – and your voice – prepare for take-off

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The annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week promises to be the runway for the take-off of thousands of new gadgets, as well as the ancient technology called voice, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

They come in their thousands to Las Vegas partake in the annual circus of consumer electronics. And that is just the exhibitors.

This week, more than 20 000 new gadgets, devices, contraptions and applications will be launched across half a dozen convention centres and venues sprawling across the gambling and meetings mecca. Amid the noise and buzz of new ways of doing robots, virtual reality, smart cars and smart homes, one may just be able to discern the shape of the future emerging.

The Consumer Electronics Show, or International CES as the organisers prefer it to be branded, is the runway from which much of the Western World’s new technology takes off, setting the scene for the year in tech. The most glaring exceptions are smartphones, which tend to wait for the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona in February, and anything from Apple – which is always conspicuous by its absence from tech expos.

However, the shadow of Apple will be highly visible: it is trying to persuade innovators and manufacturers to build its HomeKit smart-home system into their new products. That technology will be at the heart of the company’s new HomePod smart speaker, but it already faces an uphill battle, which visitors to CES will be able to witness first hand.

It is expected that the world’s two leading voice activated “intelligent agents”, Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa, will not only give Apple a run for its innovation, but will in fact point the way. Already at the 2017 edition of CES, Alexa was making its appearance in anything from pool cleaners to washing machines. This year it would like to show it can be even more innovative – and more useful.

Google, for its part, is making its biggest appearance yet at CES. Banners reading “Hey Google!” – the wake-up call for devices like the Google Home smart speakers – are plastered across Las Vegas. Both the Home and the new Home Mini are aggressively targeting the market share of Amazon’s Echo and Echo Dot.

This outdoor marketing blitz will be matched in the expo halls by the number of products on display bearing the Google logo and some form of smart functionality.

The war between Amazon and Google will be played out on numerous devices, with each trying to gain market share in categories ranging from headphones to smart TVs. That is ironic, since the TV category itself is one of the biggest battlegrounds of CES. In the last few years, Samsung and LG have slugged it out for boasting owners for biggest, sharpest, brightest, thinnest, smartest and other adjectives that serve as a proxy for technology leadership.

This year they are rejoined in earnest by Panasonic, which is both competing with and collaborating with Samsung, among other. In one of the early announcements of CES, the two companies agreed with 20th Century Fox to update the High Dynamic Range (HDR) platform called HDR10+, which will allow content creators and device manufacturers to offer a premium experience for viewers.

Not least, Panasonic’s own devices will benefit from the new specifications. At a press conference on Monday, it unveiled a 2018 line up of eight new televisions using the OLED format, light-emitting technology that allows for thin, flexible and vivid displays. Four of these – the FZ950 and FZ800 ranges, in 65-inch and 55-inch screen sizes – will be the first OLED screens that support HDR10+.

There is a strategic advantage to what seems an esoteric technology enhancement: Amazon’s Prime Video movie-on-demand service already has a catalogue of several hundred hours of HDR10+ content.

Panasonic also claims line honours for another esoteric area of TV display competitiveness: the quest for a better black. The blacker the blacks in an image or video, the more realistic the colours overall. This year, Panasonic’s OLED screens introduce an Absolute Black Filter, which it says helps ensure the purest, most accurate black levels by absorbing ambient light in order to eliminate reflections. This comes into its own in brightly lit rooms, when the level of reflection often makes big screens more of an irritation than a pleasure.

It is perhaps no coincidence that Panasonic has also teamed up with Amazon in a category that is not normally associated with either company: automotive technology.

Panasonic announced on Monday that it is integrating the Alexa voice service with the next generation of in-vehicle infotainment (IVI) systems, it will make allow users to interact with the smart assistant finside the vehicle, with some not needing any Internet connectivity.

At Panasonic’s CES press conference, Amazon’s Alexa Onboard technology was demonstrated with the Panasonic Skip Generation IVI technology released last year.  Drivers and passengers can use their voices to control car features like air conditioning, entertainment systems, communication and navigation.

“When drivers have access to familiar Alexa contextual commands and responses from inside the car, it opens up a new world of experiences,” said Tom Gebhardt, president of Panasonic Corporation of North America.

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

What you can ask Alexa in your car

Alexa Onboard technology integrated into Panasonic Skip Gen technology allows a range of voice functionality for in-car users. Panasonic suggested the following questions that customers can ask Alexa while on the move:

  • Navigation: Say, “Alexa, find the nearest coffee shop,” and instantly get directions using only your voice.
  • Music: Ask Alexa to play music from your select streaming services
  • Smart home: Control your smart home on the go with Alexa. Just ask Alexa to warm up your home while commuting, check if your front door is locked, turn the lights on and more.
  • News: Say, “Alexa, what’s the news?” to hear your daily flash briefings.
  • Ordering: Order a meal delivered before you even arrive home from meal delivery services.

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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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