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No end to the smarts in new phones

How much more can manufacturers do with smartphones? Six new releases offer numerous clues, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK in the first of a two-part series.

Will it bend? Will it float? Will it think? Will it simply disappear?

Smartphone manufacturers wrestle with these and numerous other questions from consumers who believe handset innovation has run its course. The questions do not embody expectations, but rather disbelief that there’s anywhere else for phones to go.

However, the phone makers keep revealing new frontiers and new ways to be smart. The same questions were being asked three years ago when Samsung was planning the Galaxy S6, the first phone with curved-edge screens. And when it was building the “infinity” edge-to-edge display of the S8 this year.

They were being asked before Huawei announced the first dual-rear camera in the P9, and the first artificial intelligence capability in the Mate 9, last year. They were also being asked last year before Motorola unveiled the Mod family of snap-on accessories for the Moto Z, which also happened to be the thinnest flagship phone in the world at the time.

It’s more than three years since LG showed off the first curved-body – and slightly bendable – phone with the Flex. No one has followed suit, because there was no serious use for that functionality. Two years later they came up with a modular phone, the G5, with interchangeable parts. That also didn’t take off, due to the invasiveness of the interchanging process.

Apple, of course, keeps innovating, although it now tends to play catch-up instead of leading smartphone innovation, as it did for at least five years after the 2007 launch of the iPhone. But it was still the first with fingerprint recognition on a phone, with Touch ID on the iPhone 5S in 2013.

Even the now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t Nokia still surprises, introducing two-way selfies – which they call “bothies” – in the Nokia 8 this year.

As these examples show, innovation is no longer about a revolution in gadgetry, but about steady increases in functionality.

Did someone say “performance”? Yes, performance keeps improving, but that’s a given. Every year, when Apple announces that its latest handset is “the best iPhone ever”, many observers grit their teeth at the obviousness of the statement.

The very basis of technology evolution is the ability to put more computing capacity into smaller spaces every year, resulting in the ability of any technology manufacturer to deliver improved performance with every new iteration of any device. If performance does not improve, it’s usually because someone isn’t doing their engineering job.

On that note, we consider the latest devices from Huawei, Samsung, Apple, LG, Sony, and even the little-known phone brand CAT, more renowned for bulldozers and other earth-moving equipment. First, this week, we look at the latter three:

LG V30+: a multimedia dream

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Every year for the past four years, LG has announced a “revolutionary” new phone. Every year, the media have looked, marvelled, and moved on. In most cases, it was more novelty than revolution.

Now, it is allowing the phone to speak for itself. And the new LG V30+ is eloquent indeed.

From the front, with its curved edges, it is easily confused with the Samsung S8. The curve runs through to the back, and both front and back are coated in Corning Gorilla Glass 5, giving it an ultra-smooth look and feel. The edges are made of an aluminum alloy and, with an H-beam construction method for greater tensile strength, makes it more impact resistance than most flagship phones. It is designed for outdoors, rated IP68 for dust and water resistance.

A 3300 mAh battery supports wireless charging as well as Qualcomm’s Quick Charge 3.0 – charging from zero to 50% in half an hour.

The most remarkable aspect of the phone is how light it is. Despite a Quad HD 6” display, it feels like a 5” handset, and weighs only 158g.

The V30+ is claimed to be the world’s first phone with a camera lens aperture of f1.6, meaning it lets in more light than any other phone camera. It marginally edges out the f1.7 aperture of the Samsung S8 range. It carries two rear lenses, with one a 13 megapixel wide angle lens, and the wide aperture lens being a standard angle, 16 megapixel lens using Crystal Clear, LG’s own standard for the first glass lens on a phone.

The front camera has a 5MP wide-angle lens with f2.2 aperture, allowing group “wefies” as opposed to one- or two-person selfies. A function called Graphy brings up pre-loaded sample photos that allow the user to choose a mood or style, and apply it to a new photo being taken.

An additional range of video and audio functions and capabilities – supported by

a Cine Video mode that is claimed to produce movie-quality videos, and Hi-Fi Quad DAC audio, with sound tuning by B&O PLAY – make the phone a multimedia dream.

Sony XZ1: the creator’s edition

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The Sony Z series was legendary for its camera performance, with images outshining those from phones with more megapixels, lenses and shooting modes. With the XZ series, it is doing the same with video.

The XZ1 carries the same functionality as the XZ Premium, unveiled at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona earlier this year. So, for example it uses the Motion Eye camera system, which allows it to records video in 960 frames per second. This, in turn, allows ultra-slow motion video playback function, so that the phone can capture high-speed action and freeze individual frames. That lets the user capture movement that is not usually visible with the naked eye.

The most novel feature of the phone is its ability to create 3D images. By panning the camera round a face, head or physical object, the user creates an image that can be viewed from any angle, and built into 3D environments. It takes practise, but is one of the few phone features on any phone that lives up to the promise of making the user more creative.

It appears, however, that Sony’s heavy investment in time, as well as research and development, on camera capability has come at the expense of design. The boxy rectangular shape has barely changed since the start of the Z series, and makes the phone appear dated alongside the sleek new designs of its main competitors.

However, one can see this as camouflage: it hides capabilities that will make many photographers and videographers weep at the investment they had made into bulky equipment that is often matched in output by a handheld device.

CAT S41: Phone for the field

take-the-plunge

This is the one most people will never hear about, because they are not in the target market. It is built for a category known as rugged phones, with a brand known for its rugged equipment.

CAT is short for Caterpillar, famed for its bulldozers and other industrial equipment. It has licensed the brand to Bullitt Mobile to make phones that are intended to operate in the same environment as its other machinery. In other words, it has to be rugged, durable, and designed with both the nature of field usage and the nature of the environment in mind.

For this reason, its two most important features are its tough shell and its large battery. The rubberised edges take into account the hits the phone will take from being dropped, knocked around and exposed to the elements. It is rated IP 68 for water- and dust-resistance, and can withstand a 1.8 metre fall onto concrete.

The battery is a mammoth 5000mAh, offering 38 hours talk time and no less than 44 days standby time, meaning one can take it where electricity does not follow

For its specific purpose, this is probably the best smartphone in the world.

  • 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.

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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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