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When the invisible is the most revealing

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The standardised physical appearance of new devices showcased at the IFA expo in Berlin this week belies the innovation lurking ‘under the hood’, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK

The annual IFA expo in Berlin, drawing to a close this week, has always been Europe’s poor relation to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. Where CES kicks off the year by playing host to the biggest array of product announcements at any technology event in the world, IFA tends to wrap up the year by bringing many of those same products to market.

The result is that many observers tend to yawn about the seen-it-all-before sense they get from IFA.  However, there is a vast difference between what is seen and what is experienced. Many of the products on display may look like variations on what has gone before, but their capability or functionality has advanced dramatically.

In other cases, new technology is not of the dazzling, stand-out variety, but seamlessly and surreptitiously integrated with existing technology.

The best example is the smartphone, which offers little room for superficial innovation. The last big shift in format came 18 months ago, when Samsung introduced the curved screen to its Edge devices.

This year LG launched a “modular” phone with a slide-out bottom to allow the battery to be replaced by the likes of camera and sound modules. Lenovo followed up with a razor-thin Motorola Moto Z handset that allows sound, battery and projector “Mods” to be clamped to the rear.

However, the emphasis on the physical shape of the devices – and the recent absence of format innovation from a market leader like Apple – has meant that the innovation happening under the hood has largely gone unnoticed.

The best case in point from IFA 2016 was the new flagship smartphone from Sony, the Xperia XZ with 5.2” screen. Along with Huawei and Alcatel, Sony was one of the few manufacturers to use IFA for the launch of a major new smartphone.

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Predictably, casual visitors to the Sony stand primarily saw a more sleek design and little else. Those who picked it up and played with it may well have got a sense of the fast and dazzling clarity provided by the phone’s camera. This is made possible by a 23MP rear camera and a dedicated shutter release button, which means going “from standby to capture in 0.6 seconds”, as Sony put it.

The electronics giant rightly claims that its new new models, including a 4.6” trimmed down version of the flagship called the Xperia X Compact, feature “one of the most advanced cameras in a smartphone”. Along with an already powerful image sensor, it includes two additional assisting sensors that add up to what Sony labels “triple image sensing technology”.

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“This allows you to capture beautiful images in motion with true to life colours in virtually any conditions,” according to the company’s announcement of the new phone.  “The technology is comprised of Sony’s original Exmor RS for mobile image sensor, which provides a powerful blend of high quality image and autofocus (AF) speed, combined with Predictive Hybrid AF to intelligently predict and track subjects in motion for blur-free results.

“Added to this is the Laser AF sensor with distance sensing technology, which captures beautiful blur-free photos in challenging low light conditions. And …  true to life colours thanks to the RGBC-IR sensor with colour sensing technology which accurately adjusts the white balance based on the light source in the environment.”

That combination of technical and marketing speak does add up to one truth: this is probably the most complex camera system yet built into a smartphone. Manual settings for shutter speed and focus control add to the sense of this being a photographer’s phone.

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But an even more remarkable innovation is built into the handset. Drawing on a legacy of image stabilisation developed for Sony’s Handycam camcorders under the SteadyShot brand, the technology has been enhanced on the XZ with “five-axis stabilisation”. This means it compensates for movement in any direction, allowing for smoother videos when filming while walking. Video can also be shot in 4K – currently the highest resolution that can be displayed on any but the most advanced displays in the world.

The front camera is also one of the best in the smartphone market, with a 13MP and 22mm wide angle lens. High light-sensitivity up to ISO 6400 allows for exceptional low-light performance.

For Sony – and many other smartphone manufacturers – the real problem with such innovation in the mechanics of a device is that it has to be experienced to be believed. The device has to prove itself in the field rather than in the showcase.

When word of mouth eventually kicks in and the world wakes up to inner beauty, such invisible innovation will come into its own.

 

  • 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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CES: Most useless gadgets of all

Choosing the best of show is a popular pastime, but the worst gadgets of CES also deserve their moment of infamy, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

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It’s fairly easy to choose the best new gadgets launched at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas last week. Most lists – and there are many – highlight the LG roll-up TV, the Samsung modular TV, the Royole foldable phone, the impossible burger, and the walking car.

But what about the voice assisted bed, the smart baby dining table, the self-driving suitcase and the robot that does nothing? In their current renditions, they sum up what is not only bad about technology, but how technology for its own sake quickly leads us down the rabbit hole of waste and futility.

The following pick of the worst of CES may well be a thinly veneered attempt at mockery, but it is also intended as a caution against getting caught up in hype and justification of pointless technology.

1. DUX voice-assisted bed

The single most useless product launched at CES this year must surely be a bed with Alexa voice control built in. No, not to control the bed itself, but to manage the smart home features with which Alexa and other smart speakers are associated. Or that any smartphone with Siri or Google Assistant could handle. Swedish luxury bedmaker DUX thinks it’s a good idea to manage smart lights, TV, security and air conditioning through the bed itself. Just don’t say Alexa’s “wake word” in your sleep.

2. Smart Baby Dining Table 

Ironically, the runner-up comes from a brand that also makes smart beds: China’s 37 Degree Smart Home. Self-described as “the world’s first smart furniture brand that is transforming technology into furniture”, it outdid itself with a Smart Baby Dining Table. This isa baby feeding table with a removable dining chair that contains a weight detector and adjustable camera, to make children’s weight and temperature visible to parents via the brand’s app. Score one for hands-off parenting.

Click here to read about smart diapers, self-driving suitcases, laundry folders, and bad robot companions.

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CES: Tech means no more “lost in translation”

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Talking to strangers in foreign countries just got a lot easier with recent advancements in translation technology. Last week, major companies and small startups alike showed the CES technology expo in Las Vegas how well their translation worked at live translation.

Most existing translation apps, like Bixby and Siri Translate, are still in their infancy with live speech translation, which brings about the need for dedicated solutions like these technologies:

Babel’s AIcorrect pocket translator

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The AIcorrect Translator, developed by Beijing-based Babel Technology, attracted attention as the linguistic king of the show. As an advanced application of AI technology in consumer technology, the pocket translator deals with problems in cross-linguistic communication. 

It supports real-time mutual translation in multiple situations between Chinese/English and 30 other languages, including Japanese, Korean, Thai, French, Russian and Spanish. A significant differentiator is that major languages like English being further divided into accents. The translation quality reaches as high as 96%.

It has a touch screen, where transcription and audio translation are shown at the same time. Lei Guan, CEO of Babel Technology, said: “As a Chinese pathfinder in the field of AI, we designed the device in hoping that hundreds of millions of people can have access to it and carry out cross-linguistic communication all barrier-free.” 

Click here to read about the Pilot, Travis, Pocketalk, Google and Zoi translators.

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