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Where technology meets magic

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Advanced enough technology is indistinguishable from magic, a legendary author once said. At Disney World, the two have been combined in a dazzling way, writes ARTHUR GOLDSTUCK.

The location is Disney World in Orlando. The scene is the World of Avatar, the newest major attraction at the theme park, based on the most successful movie ever.

Avatar lends itself to superlatives.

We are entering the most realistic fantasy world yet created as a theme park ride, the Na’vi River. Here, luminescent vegetation brushes our boat, glittering creatures bound past us, and the elusive Na’vi people lurk in the background.

“I helped create that sentry,” says my traveling companion, pointing to a magnificent, eerily real Na’vi guard that watches over the boats that brave this river. Even with this reminder of the manufactured nature of the scenery, the illusion persists.

“Arthur C Clarke one said that any advanced enough technology is indistinguishable from magic,” says my guide, Ron Martin, referring to the great science fiction author who wrote, among other, 2001 A Space Odyssey. Ron himself is something of a specialist in mixing technology and magic. He is vice president and director of the Panasonic Hollywood Laboratory, which has consulted on some of the great science fiction movies of our times.

This division of Panasonic has collaborated closely with movie-makers in the research and development of visual image processing technologies. It also works with cinemas in cutting edge projection technology. This legacy was brought strongly to bear on the World of Avatar and the planet Pandora.

“Our projection technology enables this lifelike imaging on the Na’vi River,” says Martin. “We sat down with Disney Imagineering, we listened to their creative vision, and we applied technology that satisfied that vision. We don’t move them to what we want, we make technology that enables the creative vision. It’s what I call technology under creative control.

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“Anywhere you see something non-physical, a projected image, that is our projection technology. All the physical elements, the lighting, the plant life that is illuminated, are built by Disney. But the characters and animals you see moving, and the multi-layer environment that creates the illusion of depth and looking deep into the jungle, is all Panasonic projection technology.”

The end-result is, as intended, both other-worldly and visually compelling. It is designed to elicit both oohs and aahs at the dazzling visual feast, and a sense of wonder at the exquisite detail, complexity and richness of the alien environment.

The biggest surprise of all is the extent to which the technology behind it is entirely invisible. It stands in stark contrast to “traditional” Disney rides like Pirates of the Caribbean, where decades-old animatronics – in effect robots programmed with limited movements – are used to bring pirates and their  environment to life.

Or, at least, a semblance of life. The creaking technology is all but visible, as the characters make their stilted and jerky movements.

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“The key is that we don’t want to be pushing technology for technology’s sake, but for the story’s sake,” says Martin. “If we achieve that goal, the guest is going to respond, gasping for joy, rather than saying. ‘Gee, that looks fake’. Everything we do in this arena is to that end, to not being a distraction, to make the story the thing.”

The World of Avatar is simultaneously evidence of how realistic ally a movie world can be replicated as an experience, and the beginning of a new wave of immersive theme park attractions. This year Disney World will open Toy Story Land, in which the visitor appears to have been shrunk to the size of a toy. Next year, it will debut Star Wars Galaxy’s Edge, which will be the theme park culmination of Disney’s acquisition of the Star Wars franchise.

“More and more, that level of entertainment is media-driven, so what we want is media that fulfils the creative vision,” says Martin. “It includes issues like resolution, brightness, and colour imagery, so that imaging blends into environments precisely. In a theatrical story-telling environment, precision is everything. When we come in and blend that into a physical  environment in a theme park, everything must blend in and complete the story rather than be a distraction from the story.

Ron Martin, vice president and director of the Panasonic Hollywood Laboratory.

Ron Martin, vice president and director of the Panasonic Hollywood Laboratory.

“Projection will continue to feature heavily in this process. These are contributory technologies to the idea of taking the cinema world and turning it into physical worlds you explore. The evolution of projection has to go forward, and brightness and colour accuracy and colour reproduction are a big part of the competitive nature of what we want to achieve.”

Having worked on ground-breaking titles like Avatar and Gravity, Martin is no stranger to both the imagination and technology it takes to create new worlds. He won’t go into detail on the specific technology that is used, but is happy to elaborate on his work on the original Avatar movie.

“The Panasonic Hollywood Laboratory worked very closely with James Cameron’s Lightstorm Entertainment in the development of the 3D imaging systems for Avatar, both on the cinema in terms of the specifications for the 3D cinema and for home video and the production of 3D Blu-ray and 3D televisions.

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“We’ve worked very closely with many film-makers. Much of the movement in home video in particular and in theatrical presentation was done through some of the work of Panasonic through research and development at the Hollywood lab.”

Martin is a personal friend of Cameron and has worked with him since the making of the record-breaking Titanic movie, but is reticent about elaborating on his personal role.

“It’s a collaborative effort when we sit down with directors and cinematographers and post-production teams, to determine work-flows, colour correction systems and presentation systems, transmission systems to get the data out to the theatre, or out to the home user, whether in packaged media or streeaming services. This is part of Panasonic’s broad reach of technology in the entertainment sector.”

Ultimately, the technology will go beyond movies and theme parks, spilling over into destination resorts, museums and the like. But don’t expect an overnight revolution, Martin advises.

“Technology moves at a slow developmental incremental pace and, the smarter we can be about that evolution, working with creative companies, whether it’s on the theatrical cinema side or the theme park side or the home video side, it’s an advantage for us to be part of that.”

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

Inside Pandora

The World of Avatar, an expansion of Disney World’s’s Animal Kingdom, sees a recreation of the The Valley of Mo’ara on the planet of Pandora. The back-story is that the valley is undergoing a rebirth long after a destructive mining operation known as the Resources Development Administration (RDA) ceased operation. In other words, the theme park attraction is a sequel to the Avatar movie, which ends with the shutting down of the RDA operations.The company provided the following highlights of what visitors can see:

* The iconic floating mountains in the Valley of Mo’ara – there are 22 – peak at about 130 feet above the valley floor. Sharp-eyed adventurers will see Pandoran Stingbats nesting in the mountains.  A team of more than 60 artisans from the U.S., Peru, France, Portugal, Japan and Ireland contributed to creating the art-scape of the floating mountains.

* On Pandora, a diverse ecosystem is rebalancing as a variety of colorful plant life flourishes.
Plants have names like Puffball Tree, Dapophet, Vein Pod, Scorpion Thistle, Episoth and Flaska Reclinata.

* Many plants are bioluminescent, with internal lighting or material that makes them glow. Plants are interactive. Guests can see and sense the energy of the plants that moves in waves.

* No matter where guests go in Pandora, they will feel the presence of many animal species: The pack hunter, the Viperwolf with six legs and opposable thumbs;  the Direhorse, a six-legged domesticated riding animal; Mountain Banshees, with wingspans averaging approximately 45 feet.

* At Avatar Flight of Passage, 48 guests at a time can enter a state-of-the-art theater and board mountain banshees as avatars for the ride of their lives across Pandora.
Immersion in the world of Pandora is complete thanks to a projection screen 69 feet wide and more than 97 feet high.

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Worldwide ICT spending poised to hit $4.3-Tn in 2020

Worldwide spending on ICT will increase by 3.6% this year over 2019, with commercial and public sector spending accounting for well over half the total

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A new forecast from International Data Corporation (IDC) predicts worldwide spending on information and communications technology (ICT) will be $4.3 trillion in 2020, an increase of 3.6% over 2019. Commercial and public sector spending on information technology (hardware, software and IT services), telecommunications services, and business services will account for nearly $2.7 trillion of the total in 2020 with consumer spending making up the remainder.

Serena Da Rold, program manager in IDC’s Customer Insights and Analysis group, says: “The slow economy, weak business investment, and uncertain production expectations combined with protectionist policies and geopolitical tensions — including the US-China trade war, threats of US tariffs on EU automobiles and the EU’s expected response, and continued uncertainty around the Brexit deal — are still acting as inhibitors to ICT spending across regions. On the upside, our surveys indicate a strong focus on customer experience and on creating innovative products and services driving new ICT investments. Companies and organizations across industries are shifting gears in their digital transformation process, investing in cloud, mobility, the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, robotics, and increasingly in DevOps and edge computing, to transform their business processes.”

IT spending will make up more than half of all ICT spending in 2020, led by purchases of devices (mainly mobile phones and PCs) and enterprise applications. However, when combined, the three IT services categories (managed services, project-oriented services, and support services) will deliver more than $750 billion in spending this year as organizations look to accelerate their digital transformation efforts. The application development & deployment category will provide the strongest spending growth over the 2019-2023 forecast period with a five-year compound annual growth rates (CAGR) of 11.1%.

Telecommunications services will represent more than one-third of all ICT spending in 2020. Mobile telecom services will be the largest category at more than $859 billion, followed by fixed telecom services. Both categories will see growth in the low single digits over the forecast period. Business services, including key horizontal business process outsourcing and business consulting, will be about half the size of the IT services market in 2020 with solid growth (8.2% CAGR) expected for business consulting.

Consumer ICT spending will grow at a much slower rate (0.7% CAGR) resulting in a gradual loss of share over the five-year forecast period. Consumer spending will be dominated by purchases of mobile telecom services (data and voice) and devices (such as smartphones, notebooks, and tablets).

Four industries – banking, discrete manufacturing, professional services, and telecommunications – will deliver 40% of all commercial ICT spending in 2020. IT services will represent a significant portion of the spending in all four industries, ranging from 50% in banking to 26% in professional services. From there, investment priorities will vary as banking and discrete manufacturing focus on applications while telecommunications and professional services invest in infrastructure. The industries that will deliver the fastest ICT spending growth over the five-year forecast are professional services (7.2% CAGR) and media (6.6% CAGR).

More than half of all commercial ICT spending in 2020 will come from very large businesses (more than 1,000 employees), while small businesses (10-99 employees) and medium businesses (100-499 employees) will account for nearly 28%. IT services will represent a significant portion of the overall spending for both market segments – 54% for very large businesses and 35% for small and medium businesses. Application and infrastructure spending will be about equal for very large businesses while small and medium businesses will invest more in applications.

“SMBs are increasingly embracing digital transformation to take advantage of both the opportunities it presents, and the disruption it can mitigate,” says Shari Lava, research director, Small and Medium Business Markets at IDC. “Digitally determined SMBs, defined as those that are making investments in digital transformation-related technology, are almost twice as likely to report double-digit revenue growth versus their technology indifferent peers.”

IDC’s Worldwide ICT Spending Guide Industry and Company Size is IDC’s flagship all-in-one data product capturing IT spending across more than 120 technology categories and 53 countries. This IDC Spending Guide will provide a granular view of the market for IT spending from a country, industry, company size, and technology perspective. This comprehensive database delivered via pivot table format or IDC’s custom query tool allows the user to easily extract meaningful information about various technology markets and industries by viewing data trends, relationships, and making data comparisons across more than three million data points.

The Worldwide Small and Medium Business Spending Guide provides detail on small and midsize business IT spending across 40 technology categories in nine geographic regions and 53 countries. Spending details are also provided for four company size categories: 1–9 employees, 10–99 employees, 100–499 employees, and 500–999 employees. Unlike any other research in the industry, the comprehensive spending guide was designed to help IT decision-makers to clearly understand the direction of SMB spending today and over the next five years.

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Hackers hit SA with fake VPN

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Kaspersky researchers have detected an unusual malicious campaign that uses phishing to mimic a popular VPN service. This helps spread AZORult, a Trojan stealer, under the guise of installers for Windows. The campaign, which kicked off at the end of November 2019 with the registration of a fake website, is currently active and focused on stealing personal information and cryptocurrency from infected users. This shows that cybercriminals are still hunting for cryptocurrency, despite reports that interest in the currency has died down. AZORult is highly active: in 2019 this malware targeted 78,189 users in Africa, with 16,975 users located in South Africa, 8,165 in Kenya and 1,965 in Nigeria. January 2020 has already seen the continuation of this dangerous trend, with 759 users hit in South Africa, 128 in Nigeria, and 639 in Kenya.

AZORult is one of the most commonly bought and sold stealers on Russian forums, due to its wide range of capabilities. This Trojan poses a serious threat to those whose computers may have been infected as it is capable of collecting various data, including browser history, login credentials, cookies, files from folders, cryptowallet files, and can also be used as a loader to download other malware.

In a world where privacy is heavily fought for, VPN services play an important role by enabling additional data protection and safe internet browsing. Yet cybercriminals try to abuse the growing popularity of VPNs by impersonating them, as is the case in this AZORult campaign. In the most recent campaign, the attackers created a copy of a VPN service’s website, which looks exactly the same as the original with the only exception being a different domain name.

Screenshot of a phishing copy of the targeted VPN service’s website

Links to the domain are spread through advertisements via different banner networks, a practice that is also called ‘malvertizing’. The victim visits the phishing website and is prompted to download a free VPN installer. Once a victim downloads a fake VPN installer for Windows, it drops a copy of AZORult botnet implant. As soon as the implant is run, it collects the infected device’s environment information and reports it to the server. Finally, the attacker steals cryptocurrency from locally available wallets (Electrum, Bitcoin, Etherium, and others), FTP logins, and its passwords from FileZilla, email credentials, information from locally installed browsers (including cookies), credentials from WinSCP, Pidgin messenger and others.

Upon the discovery of the campaign, Kaspersky immediately informed the VPN service in question about the issue and blocked the fake website.

“This campaign is a good example of how vulnerable our personal data is nowadays”, says Dmitry Bestuzhev, head of Kaspersky’s Global Research and Analysis Team (GReAT) in Latin America in Latin America. “In order to protect it, users need to be cautious and be especially careful when surfing online. This case also shows why cybersecurity solutions are needed on every device. When it comes to phishing copies of websites, it is very difficult for the user to differentiate between a real and a fake version. Cybercriminals often capitalise on popular brands and this trend is not likely to die down. We strongly recommend using a VPN for protection of data exchange on the web, but it is also important to closely study where the VPN software is downloaded from.”

Kaspersky detects this threat as HEUR:Trojan-PSW.Win32.Azorult.gen

Read more about this AZORult campaign on Securelist.com.

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