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Tech gets in touch with human – and animal – needs

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The annual IFA tech expo in Berlin delivered both the usual cut and paste slew of copycat devices and some truly new technology, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

One of the standout features of the annual IFA technology trade expo in Berlin, Germany, is how much effort brands make to stand out. The result is that many of the big launches happen two or even three days before the main event, to avoid getting lost in the noise.

As a result, the likes of Huawei, Sony, Acer and Lenovo had all made their big announcements well before the crowds began arriving on Friday morning.

Huawei in particular stood out, with its most aggressive assault yet on the high end of the smartphone market. Until recently, it was best known for its network infrastructure, from base stations to 3G and 4G wireless Internet devices. As Glory Cheung, chief marketing officer of Huawei’s Consumer Business Group, put it, “We have base stations as far north as the Arctic Circle and as high as the Himalayas. The smartphone is the human extension of what we do.”

Huawei unveiled its new Mate S, a 5.5-inch device that packs in every gram of the company’s innovation in an effort to demonstrate that it is no copycat manufacturer. There were numerous cut-and-paste phone and TV makers at IFA, with one very average brand plastering its stand with the overused and meaningless slogan “Game changer”.

Huawei-Force-Touch-Huawei-ForceTouch-Technology-Huawei-IFA-Berlin-Mate-S-Smartphone-602471

For Huawei, if the game is about positioning it alongside the market leaders like Apple and Samsung rather than the entry-level copycats, the Mate S does indeed change its own game.

It introduces several new and enhanced features around touch and control of the device, starting with what may be the best fingerprint recognition technology on a phone today. Dubbed Fingerprint 2.0, it allows the fingerprint pad on the back of the phone to be used not only for quick and accurate biometric identification – and therefore secure mobile payments – but also as an additional control and navigation mechanism. This means that it becomes a trackpad on which the user can swipe down or across to activate various functions.

More impressive but still a feature in search of a function is a technology called “force touch”, which makes the screen pressure sensitive – to the extent that it can be used as a scale to weigh small items.

And then there is Knuckle Control 2.0, which appears to combine the knock code of LG phones with the drawing function of Samsung Note devices, and then takes it to a new practical level. With a knuckle, the user can draw a crop line around any shape in a photo – whether a shoe or a ship – and crop out only that shape, rather than be confined to the usual geometric shapes. The knuckle can also be used to activate shortcuts by drawing, for example, a C for Camera or W for Weather.

Huawei’s slogan for the launch, “Touch. Made powerful.”, was one of a handful that did not come across as mere hype.

Another brand that has tried to keep pace with the smartphone leaders through its own innovation, Sony, also got in ahead of IFA to launch its new Xperia range in Berlin. Its direct competitor to the Mate S, the Xperia Z5 Premium, is a world first. It is the first handset to feature 4K display and recording – linking the phone to the current high-end in TV display.

Translated into numbers, that means 3840×2160 resolution. Translated into English, it means a dazzlingly sharp display that is almost outrageous in its visual quality.

The handset features a 5.5-inch screen and 3400 mAh battery, addressing Sony’s consumer research finding that battery life is currently the number one concern of phone buyers. Sony also launched a standard Z5 with 5.2-inch display and a Z5 Compact, with a 4.6-inch screen that is likely to retain the enthusiasm that the similarly sized Z3 Compact generated in the market.

But Sony and Huawei showed off the latest iterations of their wearable technology, joining Samsung, Garmin, Fitbit, Runtastic and Withings, among many others, in the race for attention.

Once again, Huawei surprised, taking a leaf out of Apple’s marketing book by calling its new device simply the Huawei Watch. But it was also no cut-and-paste job: the watch has an elegant, round face that gives it the appearance of a regular fashion watch rather than a geek tool.

Under the surface, though, it pushes the Android Wear standard for wearables to the limits. It’s not only a full activity tracker – with 6-axis motion sensor – and heart-rate monitor, but is also compatible with both Android and iOS devices. That’s a first for a major smartphone manufacturer.

While the big names compete for share in such intensively competitive segments, new niches are also emerging within these segments. For example, health-monitoring

One of the most intriguing is activity tracking for dogs and cats. A company called Tractive used IFA to showcase its GPS pet tracking device. While the initial focus was on locating lost animals, it raises fascinating possibilities, like solving the mystery of where cats go wandering in the course of a day. Some of the Tractive devices also measure body temperature, warning the owner when the pet needs water, shade or rest.

It’s a great example of technology getting in touch with more than just human needs.

* 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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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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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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