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SA takes to global VR stage

A brother and sister team from South Africa has showcased the country’s talents in virtual reality production at the world’s biggest animation festival, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

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Imagine finding yourself submerged in a world of magical sea creatures, talking mushrooms and forests of impossible trees. Imagine you can travel through this world, experiencing more fantastical sights as you go.

This is the virtual reality (VR) world of The Lost Botanist, created by a brother and sister team who were raised on a farm near the tiny town of Kokstad. That would be remarkable in itself, but Ree and Rick Treweek startled the VR industry last month when The Lost Botanist became the first VR production from Africa to screen in competition at Annecy, the world’s most prestigious animation festival, held annually in France for the past 60 years.

The creation was produced jointly by Rick’s Johannesburg-based technology research and development studio, Eden Labs, and Ree’s creative studio, Tulips & Chimneys, in Cape Town.

Just nine VR experiences were selected for VR@Annecy, from 90 submissions made from around the world. The projects included some of the biggest names in the industry, including Gymnasia, from the Emmy-winning Felix & Paul Studios; It’s All Over, based on a Neil Gaiman book, Doctor Who: The Runaway, and the overall winner, Gloomy Eyes, narrated by Colin Farrell.

“It put us slap bang on a global stage,” says Rick, talking in his Johannesburg studio this week. “Being selected for VR@Annecy was our biggest accomplishment yet, especially against films with huge budgets and massive directors, the giants of the industry, and here comes a little South African crew no one had heard of.”

Rick says the full name of the studio, Eden Labs Africa, was deliberately used with Africa attached at the end to highlight the potential of the continent in the world of technology creativity.

“I believe the skills and talent of this country and of Africa as a whole are completely unknown. We’re often a forgotten territory and having something like this at Annecy, especially with big players in the game, was so important.

“We believe the big future of VR is education and immersive learning. We talk of digital leapfrogging, but the mistake everyone makes is that if someone is not used to computers, the hardest thing is teaching them to use a computer and mouse, whereas VR removes that completely. You don’t have to be technically skilled to consume VR content. Even with YouTube, to get to that video, you have to have the fundamentals of using a computer. That goes away with VR.”

Rick has worked with world-renowned South African artist William Kentridge, whose foundation, The Centre for the Less Good Idea, invited Eden Labs to bring its creative technology to the work of 12 artists working in traditional media.

He had previously been a developer of mobile games and apps, and worked in Singapore for eight years, focusing on 3D printing. There, he immersed himself in the “maker” movement of shared knowledge in creativity.

“The maker movement is whole new mindset of learning that says, when you learn something new, you ask if anyone else in the community is interested. In Singapore, 3D printing was amazing, but everyone was using it for privileged stuff like making robots. My big belief was that using it in Africa, we could create disruptive tools.

“With my long experience in developing apps, VR was a short jump for me, but the 3D printing side was so exciting, I moved back to South Africa and joined the Tshimologong precinct. What Prof Barry Dwolatzky was doing there was in line with what we wanted to do, with the ‘tech can save Africa’ approach.”

Pic: Arthur Goldstuck

Eden Labs is taking its homegrown philosophy a step further. While it is not reinventing VR headsets, it is certainly recreating them. The Treweeks have designed cases that turn Oculus Go VR headsets into elaborate and beautiful masks with handles that allow them to be used without having to be strapped around a head. The masks are artworks in themselves, and integrate almost seamlessly into the world of The Lost Botanist.

“We noticed that at conferences and shows, it’s often quite dark and gloomy and people don’t want to put on headsets,” says Rick. “So we wanted The Lost Botanist headset to look like a part of the project; the outside is as important as the headset. It’s designed as an owl and really makes everything feel a lot more playful.”

In further testament to his commitment to both VR and 3D printing, the masks were designed in virtual reality, using the Oculus Medium 3D sculpting package. Eden Labs has also developed a version of the VR headsets for business use, with a handle attached for quick viewing. It is currently being manufactured in China.

Rick has collaborated with Johannesburg artist Mary Sibande, who uses painting and sculptures to explore identity in a postcolonial South African and to critique stereotypical depictions of women. Appropriately, he built a VR headset mask in the form of Mary’s face, allowing viewers to experience an exhibition of her work almost through her own eyes.

The next step, say the Treweeks, is to raise funding for an extended version of The Lost Botanist, designed specifically for the new Oculus Quest VR headset.

“We think the Oculus Quest is going to be the beginning of VR growing up,” says Rick.

“This is real VR now, with six degrees of freedom so you can walk around.”

Rick believes the market is starved of VR content, and The Lost Botanist will feed into massive pent-up demand. He should know: mobile games created by his first company, Breakdesign, were downloaded more than 16-million times.

“Working in VR now feels a lot like mobile games in 2007; like everything is coming full circle for me.”

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

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Hearables are the new wearables

Earworn devices were among the fastest growing categories of wearable in the last quarter, capturing almost half of the market

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Global wearable device shipments grew 85.2% in the second quarter of 2019 (2Q19) as shipments totaled 67.7 million units according to new data from the International Data Corporation (IDCWorldwide Quarterly Wearable Device Tracker. Earworn devices (hearables) were among the fastest growing categories, capturing 46.9% of the overall wearables market during the quarter, up from 24.8% a year ago. Driving that growth was a slew of new products and consumers who purchased their second wearable, a hearable, to use in parallel with existing watches or wrist bands.

“The growing popularity of the hearables segment is forcing existing brands to reconsider past designs when launching new products, as evident in Samsung’s popular Galaxy Buds, while also attracting new brands to market,” said Jitesh Ubrani research manager for IDC Mobile Device Trackers. “And though it’s still early days, the market is showing signs of emerging subsegments such as hearables dedicated to sports from the likes of Jabra, premium hearables from companies such as Bose, and ones dedicated to hearing loss such as those from Nuheara.”

“What has been driving the hearables market is the experience,” says Ramon T. Llamas, research director, Wearables. “Quality audio is still the hallmark of hearables, but additional features – ranging from adjusting audio to smart assistants and health and fitness – increase their value and utility. As prices come down and more features come on board, this next generation of hearables will become the new normal for earphones.”

Hearable Company Highlights 

Apple led the market for hearables by capturing 50.2% share during the quarter. New products such as the refreshed AirPods and the latest from the Beats lineup helped the company grow 218.2% compared to last year. With the iPhone business facing challenges, Apple’s wearables business, particularly the popularity of the AirPods, is helping the company once again become the de facto standard though this time it’s for hearables.

Samsung, thanks to its self-branded devices and the JBL brand, captured the second position during the quarter. The highly publicized Galaxy Buds were one of the company’s most popular pair of hearables as the pair was bundled with the purchase of Samsung’s latest smartphone. Additionally, the JBL Tune 500BT managed to capture a large share as the low price and wide availability helped move a lot of volume.

Xiaomi’s AirDots (amongst other models) helped the company capture the third position. Though the company primarily sells its hearables in China, Xiaomi has already started to make inroads in other markets such as Europe and the Middle East with its smartphones and wrist bands. IDC expects Xiaomi to follow suit with its hearables.

Bose, a company with a long history of headphones and other audio products, ranked fourth in this market. The company’s long lineage in audio and premium offering has helped set the company apart from the remainder of the pack. The QC35ii and the SoundSport Free were two of its most popular products during the quarter. The latest Headphones 700 and upcoming Earbuds 500 should help the company maintain momentum in the upcoming quarters.

ReSound, the parent company of Jabra, rounded out the top 5 with 5.1% share and 132.9% growth. Jabra’s Elite Active 65t have been extremely popular as an alternative to Apple’s AirPods and have also been promoted heavily on Amazon’s store, allowing the company to pitch itself as a strong consumer brand in addition to its preexisting headset business that is targeted at office workers. At IFA 2019, Jabra announced the next version of the Elite Active series, which helps modernize the hearables and should provide healthy competition for others on the list.

Top 5 Wearable Companies, Hearable Devices only, by Shipment Volume, Market Share, and Year-Over-Year Growth, Q2 2019 (shipments in millions)

Company2Q19 
Shipments
2Q19 Market 
Share
2Q18 
Shipments
2Q18 Market 
Share
Year-over- 
Year Growth
1. Apple15.950.2%5.055.2%218.2%
2. Samsung3.310.2%0.910.2%252.1%
3. Xiaomi2.16.5%0.32.8%714.8%
4. Bose1.85.7%0.55.1%288.1%
5. ReSound1.65.1%0.77.7%132.9%
Others7.122.3%1.719.0%310.5%
Total31.8100.0%9.1100.0%250.0%
Source: IDC Worldwide Quarterly Wearables Tracker, September 9, 2019

Note: IDC defines Earwear/Hearables as the wearables that hang on or plug into the ear. The device must operate wirelessly and provide stereo sound while also including at least one of the following features:

  • Track health/fitness (e.g., Samsung Gear IconX).
  • Modify audio, and not just noise reduction (e.g., Nuheara IQbuds).
  • Provide language translation on the device (e.g., Waverly Labs).
  • Enable smart assistants at the touch of a button or through hotword detection even if the assistant is running on another device such as a smartphone (e.g., Apple’s AirPods and Google’s Pixel Buds).

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Phishing attacks hook into iOS

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The number of phishing attacks targeting users of Mac computers, iOS-based mobile devices, and the associated web services ecosystem to lure them into fraudulent schemes has reached 1.6 million in the first half of 2019 (H1-19) – proving that the growing number of users of popular digital devices is clearly attracting more and more cybercriminals!

While the volume of malicious software threatening users of macOS and the iOS mobile platform is much lower than those threating users of Windows and Android platforms, when it comes to phishing – a platform agnostic cyberthreat – things are quite different. 

Phishing attacks rely on social engineering, which means most have nothing to do with software. In fact,  Kaspersky’s recent Threats to Mac Users research highlighted that the number of cases where users faced fraudulent web pages utilising the Apple brand, as a decoy, has increased significantly in the first six-months of the year, reaching 1.6 million. This figure is around 9% greater than attacks experienced during the whole of 2018, when Kaspersky security solutions prevented more than 1.49 million attempts to access Apple-themed phishing pages.

What’s more, some regions had more macOS users hit by phishing than others, for instance, Brazil leads this list with 30.9% of users attacked, followed by India with 22.1% – and while not as prominent as other regions (and in proportion to the number of Apple device users), South Africa still sits at 17.5%.

The research is based on threat statistics voluntarily shared by users of Kaspersky Security Network – a global cloud infrastructure designed for immediate response to emerging cyberthreats.

Among the most frequent fraud schemes are those designed to resemble the iCloud service interface, aimed at stealing credentials to Apple ID accounts. Links to such services usually come from spam emails posed as emails from technical support. They often threaten to block user accounts should they not click the link. 

Another widespread scheme is the use of scaremongering pages that try to convince the user that their computer is under serious security threat and it will only take a couple of clicks and a few dollars to solve those issues. 

“While technically these fraud schemes are nothing new, we believe they pose an even greater danger to Apple users than similar schemes against users of other platforms – such as Windows or Android. This is because the ecosystem around Macs and other Apple devices is generally considered a far safer environment. Therefore, users might be less cautious when they encounter fake websites. Meanwhile the successful theft of iCloud account credentials could lead to serious consequences – an iPhone or iPad could be remotely blocked or wiped by a malicious user, for example. We urge users of Apple devices to pay more attention to any emails they receive, especially those claiming to be from technical support and requesting the user’s details or asking the user to visit a link,” said Tatyana Sidorina, security researcher at Kaspersky.

In addition to a rise in phishing, thereport also revealed other types of threats to users of macOS-based devices. The results have demonstrated some relatively positive tendencies: the most common threats for Mac users proved not to be critically dangerous malware, like banking Trojans, but instead AdWare threats, which are not-necessarily fatal and defined as ‘potentially unwanted programs’. Most are threatening users by overloading their devices with unrequested advertisements, yet some of these programs might, in fact, turn out to be a disguise for more serious threats.

Other findings of the report include:

To keep your devices safe, Kaspersky recommends:

  • Keeping macOS and all your apps and programs up to date
  • Using only legitimate software, downloaded from official webpages or installed from the Mac App Store
  • Starting to use a reliable security solution like Kaspersky Internet Security that delivers advanced protection on Mac, as well as on PC and mobile devices.

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