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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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The myths of microwaves

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We all know microwaves make cooking a breeze and it helps save those minutes, we rarely have enough of these days. However, some people do have those lingering doubts about whether microwaving food destroys nutrients or that it emits harmful radiation. However, the truth is a lot more comforting and positive.

“The microwave makes life so much easier,” says Tracy Gordon, Head of Product – Home Appliances at Samsung South Africa. “It’s human-centred technology at its most helpful. The Samsung Hotblast for example, has revolutionary functions, which are tailor-made to create fast, tasty and healthy meals in minutes.”

A recent article by Harvard Health Publishingclaims stated that “microwave ovens cook food using waves of energy that are remarkably selective, primarily affecting water and other molecules that are electrically asymmetrical. Microwaves cause these molecules to vibrate and quickly build up thermal (heat) energy.” The article debunks two common myths about microwaving food.

Myth 1: Microwaving kills nutrients

Whether in a microwave or a regular oven, some nutrients, including vitamin C, do break down when exposed to heat. However, the fact is, cooking with a microwave might be better when it comes to preserving nutrients because it takes a shorter time to cook. Additionally, as far as vegetables go, cooking them in water robs them of some of their nutritional value because the nutrients seep out into the cooking water,” states the report by Harvard Health Publishing. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), food cooked in a microwave oven is as safe and has the same nutrient value, as food cooked in a conventional oven.

Myth 2: Microwaving food can give you cancer

The American Cancer Society (ACS) says that microwaves do not make food radioactive. Microwaves heat food but they do not change the chemical or molecular structure of it. In fact, there is absolutely no evidence that microwaves pose a health risk to people when used appropriately, the organisation added.

With those myths well busted, it’s comforting to know one can make full use of the convenient kitchen appliance. And when the time comes to use a microwave to heat up a tasty meal in no time, one can trust the Samsung Hotblast to do the job. The HotBlast has multiple air holes blowing out powerful hot air, which reduces cooking time. Samsung claims the Slim Fry technology ensures that food is perfectly crisp on the outside and delicious and juicy on the inside. Additionally, this versatile microwave has a wider grill, making it easier to brown food fast and evenly. The turntable is wider, measuring 345mm, making it possible to prepare bigger portions of food. And with its Eco Mode power, it significantly reduces energy consumption with its low standby power. Its intelligent features and stylish design makes it very useful and as we now know – a safe, healthy way to enjoy a meal.

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New BMW 3-series ushers in autonomous future

The new BMW 3-series is not meant to be an autonomous car, but it is so close, ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK discovers.

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It was not meant to be a test-drive of an autonomous vehicle. But the Driving Assist button on the steering wheel of the new BMW 330i was just too tempting. And there I found myself, on Sir Lowry’s Pass near Cape Town, “driving” with my arms folded while the vehicle negotiated curves on its own.

Every 10 seconds or so, yellow or red lights flashed to alert me to put my hands back on the wheel. The yellow lights meant the car wanted me to put my hands on the wheel, just to show that I was in control. The red lights meant that I had to take over control from the artificial intelligence built into the vehicle.

With co-driver Ernest Page, we negotiated a major highway, the bends of Sir Lowry’s pass, and the passes of Hell’s Heights (Hel se Hoogte) above the Cape Winelands.

As the above video of the experience reveals, it can be nerve-racking for someone who hasn’t experienced autonomous driving, or hasn’t been dreaming of testing it for many years. For this driver, it was exhilarating. Not because the car performed so magnificently, but because it tells us just how close true autonomous driving really is.

There was one nervous moment when the autonomous – or rather, Driving Assist – mode disengaged on Hell’s Heights, but fear not. A powerful sense of responsibility prevailed, and my hands hovered over the steering wheel as it took the curve. Assist disengaged, and the car began to veer towards the other side of the road. I quickly took over, and also sobered up from the giddiness of thinking I was already in the future.

In reality, Driving Assist is part of level 2 of driving autonomy, as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers. A presentation on the evening of the test drive, by Edward Makwana, manager of group product communications at BMW Group in South Africa, summed up the five stages as the driver having Feet Off, Hands Off, Eyes Off, Mind off, and finally, only being a Passenger.

However, the extent to which the hands-off mode of Driving Assist mimics self-driving, and easily shows the way to eyes-off and mind-off, is astonishing.

Click here to read about the components that make the Driving Assist work.

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