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The incredibly disappearing gadgets

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Remember when you bought software in a box off the shelf? Then came the Internet and it all disappeared into the background. Now gadgets may go the same way, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

Do you remember when software was something consumers and small businesses bought in a box off a shelf in a store? Today, that sounds like a quaint way of packaging something that will live out its useful life on a computing device.

But now, even the device itself may go away. Or, at least, the device as we know it, as a large box on a desk or a mobile device that only just fits into a pocket or handbag.

Anything that relies on a display, on a connection to the Internet, or on data storage, can potentially be reduced to a computer chip with projection capabilities.

The best clue to that came last month at Lenovo Tech World in San Francisco, when CEO Yuanqing Yang, together with actor Ashton Kutcher, unveiled the new Moto Z phone and its family of snap-on add-ons called Moto Mods (reported in this column during June).

One of these Mods was a snap-on projector called the Insta-Share Projector, which projects a screen onto any surface, and picks up finger gestures in order to make the display interactive.

Today, the Insta-Share can project anything from a virtual keyboard for the phone to a 70” wall display, more than big enough to watch movies. In future, it may provide even bigger displays from a smaller device.

Add this to the a new device launched by Sony at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona earlier this year, the Xperia Projector, which projects an interactive display onto any surface, and you start seeing a trend emerge.

And then add to these the comments made by Google CEO Sundar Pichai in his “Founders’ Letter” in April, and you have a revolution in the making: “…the next big step will be for the very concept of the ‘device’ to fade away. Over time, the computer itself—whatever its form factor—will be an intelligent assistant helping you through your day. We will move from mobile first to an AI (Artificial Intelligence) first world.”

The Xperia Projector had already signalled this shift.  Right now, the Projector is an object the size of a small PC tower. But, with the rapid advance of miniaturisation, it’s easy to envisage it shrinking dramatically.

Once you can cram its intelligence into a keyring, pendant or even a ring, for example, it could be the end of the smartphone as we know it. In a restaurant, all you’d need is a serviette on which to project the interface of the “phone”. In a few years’ time, then, it could be a good idea to invest in serviettes, but certainly not in smartphone hardware.

“Today we are dependent on our phones, but as the communication paradigm shifts to new forms of communication, we want to be at the forefront of new ideas,” said Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai at a media briefing in Tokyo. He envisaged a company that would focus on building greater intelligence into devices and services, rather than focusing exclusively on the hardware.

“At Sony we have a lot of different technology and a lot of great products that push the boundaries of communication intelligently,” he said.

On the other side of the world, at the EMC World conference in Las Vegas in May, the flip side of this vision emerged from a keynote address by Dell founder and CEO Michael Dell, in explaining why his company had paid a record $67-billion for storage leaders EMC.

“It all begins with the modern data centre,” he said. “Once, the data centre was used to manage the back office and make it more efficient. Now, it has to support the business as the business becomes more digital. Every company has to become a software company to compete and succeed.”

He outlined an even more vigorous vision than Hirai’s: “The future will be defined by technology that is so powerful, it will be difficult to comprehend. 2001 was the beginning of a new model for computer delivery. Today those marvels seem like relics from a museum. Processing power increases 10 times every five years. Think 15 years from now, to 2031. We’ll have a 1000-fold increase over what we have today.”

This will mean less and less dependence on storage on devices and premises. In the same way software and the Internet became invisible as it evolved, so will storage.

And if all you need is the interface to a computer, rather than the computer itself, even tablets and computers will become invisible.

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Money talks and electronic gaming evolves

Computer gaming has evolved dramatically in the last two years, as it follows the money, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK in the second of a two-part series.

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The clue that gaming has become big business in South Africa was delivered by a non-gaming brand. When Comic Con, an American popular culture convention that has become a mecca for comics enthusiasts, was hosted in South Arica for the first time last month, it used gaming as the major drawcard. More than 45 000 people attended.

The event and its attendance was expected to be a major dampener for the annual rAge gaming expo, which took place just weeks later. Instead, rAge saw only a marginal fall in visitor numbers. No less than 34 000 people descended on the Ticketpro Dome for the chaos of cosplay, LAN gaming, virtual reality, board gaming and new video games. 

It proved not only that there was room for more than one major gaming event, but also that a massive market exists for the sector in South Africa. And with a large market, one also found numerous gaming niches that either emerged afresh or will keep going over the years. One of these, LAN (for Local Area Network) gaming, which sees hordes of players camping out at the venue for three days to play each other on elaborate computer rigs, was back as strong as ever at rAge.

MWeb provided an 8Gbps line to the expo, to connect all these gamers, and recorded 120TB in downloads and 15Tb in uploads – a total that would have used up the entire country’s bandwidth a few years ago.

“LANs are supposed to be a thing of the past, yet we buck the trend each year,” says Michael James, senior project manager and owner of rAge. “It is more of a spectacle than a simple LAN, so I can understand.”

New phenomena, often associated with the flavour of the moment, also emerge every year.

“Fortnite is a good example this year of how we evolve,” says James. “It’s a crazy huge phenomenon and nobody was servicing the demand from a tournament point of view. So rAge and Xbox created a casual LAN tournament that anyone could enter and win a prize. I think the top 10 people got something each round.”

Read on to see how esports is starting to make an impact in gaming.

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Blockchain unpacked

Blockchain is generally associated with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, but these are just the tip of the iceberg, says ESET Southern Africa.

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This technology was originally conceived in 1991, when Stuart Haber and W. Scott Stornetta described their first work on a chain of cryptographically secured blocks, but only gained notoriety in 2008, when it became popular with the arrival of Bitcoin. It is currently gaining demand in other commercial applications and its annual growth is expected to reach 51% by 2022 in numerous markets, such as those of financial institutions and the Internet of Things (IoT), according to MarketWatch.

What is blockchain?

A blockchain is a unique, consensual record that is distributed over multiple network nodes. In the case of cryptocurrencies, think of it as the accounting ledger where each transaction is recorded.

A blockchain transaction is complex and can be difficult to understand if you delve into the inner details of how it works, but the basic idea is simple to follow.

Each block stores:

–           A number of valid records or transactions.
–           Information referring to that block.
–           A link to the previous block and next block through the hash of each block—a unique code that can be thought of as the block’s fingerprint.

Accordingly, each block has a specific and immovable place within the chain, since each block contains information from the hash of the previous block. The entire chain is stored in each network node that makes up the blockchain, so an exact copy of the chain is stored in all network participants.

As new records are created, they are first verified and validated by the network nodes and then added to a new block that is linked to the chain.

How is blockchain so secure?

Being a distributed technology in which each network node stores an exact copy of the chain, the availability of the information is guaranteed at all times. So if an attacker wanted to cause a denial-of-service attack, they would have to annul all network nodes since it only takes one node to be operative for the information to be available.

Besides that, since each record is consensual, and all nodes contain the same information, it is almost impossible to alter it, ensuring its integrity. If an attacker wanted to modify the information in a blockchain, they would have to modify the entire chain in at least 51% of the nodes.

In blockchain, data is distributed across all network nodes. With no central node, all participate equally, storing, and validating all information. It is a very powerful tool for transmitting and storing information in a reliable way; a decentralised model in which the information belongs to us, since we do not need a company to provide the service.

What else can blockchain be used for?

Essentially, blockchain can be used to store any type of information that must be kept intact and remain available in a secure, decentralised and cheaper way than through intermediaries. Moreover, since the information stored is encrypted, its confidentiality can be guaranteed, as only those who have the encryption key can access it.

Use of blockchain in healthcare

Health records could be consolidated and stored in blockchain, for instance. This would mean that the medical history of each patient would be safe and, at the same time, available to each doctor authorised, regardless of the health centre where the patient was treated. Even the pharmaceutical industry could use this technology to verify medicines and prevent counterfeiting.

Use of blockchain for documents

Blockchain would also be very useful for managing digital assets and documentation. Up to now, the problem with digital is that everything is easy to copy, but Blockchain allows you to record purchases, deeds, documents, or any other type of online asset without them being falsified.

Other blockchain uses

This technology could also revolutionise the Internet of Things  (IoT) market where the challenge lies in the millions of devices connected to the internet that must be managed by the supplier companies. In a few years’ time, the centralised model won’t be able to support so many devices, not to mention the fact that many of these are not secure enough. With blockchain, devices can communicate through the network directly, safely, and reliably with no need for intermediaries.

Blockchain allows you to verify, validate, track, and store all types of information, from digital certificates, democratic voting systems, logistics and messaging services, to intelligent contracts and, of course, money and financial transactions.

Without doubt, blockchain has turned the immutable and decentralized layer the internet has always dreamed about into a reality. This technology takes reliance out of the equation and replaces it with mathematical fact.

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