Bose joins the connected craze

Premium audio brand Bose has become the latest business to attempt to cash in on the promised, but yet to be realised, riches of the augmented and virtual reality world.

The new product, Frames, is claimed to have the ‘protection and style of premium sunglasses’, and ‘the functionality and performance of wireless headphones’, with the team positioning the product as the world’s first audio augmented reality platform.

“Bose Frames are both revolutionary and practical,” said Mehul Trivedi, Director of Bose Frames. “They look and act like classic sunglasses – until you turn them on. And then you’re connected to your phone, contacts, the web, and all its audible content, just like headphones. There’s nothing else like them – they’re a breakthrough you have to see, wear, and hear to believe.”

An acoustic package is set in each arm’s interior to produce discreet sound for the user. For touch and voice control, a microphone and multi-function button are embedded on the right temple for power and pairing, while also allowing the user to interact with Siri and Google Assistant, make calls and commands, or to pause and skip songs. For example, when paired with the user’s phone, Google Maps can rely directions, while the glasses can also rely information about whatever the user is looking at.

After shipping 10,000 pairs of the glasses to AR developers in 2018, the product is now available for pre-order, at a reasonable $199, with consignments to be made in the New Year. One of the questions many in the industry has been asking is whether the AR and VR will emerge from the niches and penetrate the mainstream market; with a well-known and respected consumer electronics brand pushing the case, the segment has a genuine opportunity.

While the industry has struggled to date, new research from IDC suggests there has been a bit of a rally over the last three months. Over the last quarter, IDC estimates shipments for VR headsets reached 1.9 million units, up 8.2% compared to Q3 in 2017. More competitive pricing and a broader number of options are credited for the boost, with Facebook’s Oculus Go and Xiaomi’s Mi VR (the same product branded for local markets) proving to be the most popular standalone products by a wide margin.

“The VR market is finally starting to come into its own,” said Jitesh of IDC. “On the consumer front, the combination of lower prices and increased content is beginning to resonate with users. Meanwhile, commercial adoption is also on the rise for a range of use cases, including training, design, and showcasing.”

With Bose entering the market, new momentum could be generated.

While the likes of Xiaomi and Facebook have brand awareness around the world, this reputation is not tied into consumer electronics and hardware. This might be an issue for mass market penetration for AR and VR devices, as consumers are generally quite fickle. They buy from companies and brands which they trust. Bose making moves in this market not only opens the segment up to new audiences but validates the technology in the eyes of the consumer.

It is too early to suggest AR and VR have made it, but the more companies like Bose who join the craze, the more normalised the products become in the eyes of the consumer. Trends are certainly heading in the right direction for a sluggish segment which is yet to gain genuine traction in the world.

Huawei makes a Beeline for Russian 5G

Holographic calls have become the hot 5G use-case so Huawei teamed up with Beeline to do one in Russia.

VimpelCom-owned Beeline rented out the Moscow Museum for this demo designed to show how great 5G is. It came soon after Vodafone tried a similar move in the UK, as the telecoms industry searches desperately for ways to capture the public imagination about a technology that, initially at least, will mainly just provide agility and efficiency to operators.

The quality of this demo seemed like a distinct drop-off from the Vodafone one as it involved ‘mixed reality’ headsets rather than a free-standing holographic projection. As a consequence people were treated to the far less impressive spectacle of a bloke in a suit fumbling blindly around a room while talking to himself.

“This May 2018, Beeline and Huawei signed an agreement to pursue the joint development of 5G in Russia,” said Aiden Wu, CEO of Huawei in Russia. “Our cooperation has been extremely productive, which today’s demonstration has quite clearly shown. We will continue working together to bring the implementation of a new communication standard closer to becoming a worldwide phenomenon and speed up the process of creating new technologies and services based on this standard.”

“The rapid development of modern technologies sets a precedence for operators to provide subscribers with high-quality mobile communications at high speeds,” said Vasyl Latsanych, CEO of PJSC VimpelCom. “That’s why Beeline is already preparing its network infrastructure and is conducting research on how to make a rational transition to 5G technologies.”

Huawei was keen to stress that this demo was done using its gNodeB commercially available 5G base station over the 27 GHz band. It also listed a bunch of other kit, but you get the idea. No bandwidth claims were made but it used MIMO 64×64 tech. There was talk about how great this sort of thing will be for virtual experiences that save you having to leave the house.

Apple looks set to get into the augmented reality glasses game

Gadget giant Apple has acquired a startup that makes a glass technology which can display holographic AR images.

There was no formal announcement, but Reuters got the scoop and obliged Apple to confirm the move. The startup in question is called Akonia Holographics and, while it has a website, it doesn’t seem to have been very active for a while. Its main technology is called HoloMirror, which seems to combine regular ‘heads-up display’ style AR with holography.

Various other tech companies, including Google and Snapchat, have dabbled with smart glasses over the years, but they have yet to take off as a consumer tech category. Aside from the complications associated with superimposing AR over your regular life, there have been widespread concerns about the privacy implications of glasses that could surreptitiously record whatever the wearer sees and hears.

For some reason the Reuters story cited Pokemon Go as an example of augmented reality, where in fact it mainly just presents digital images on the camera screen without context. True augmented reality offers information and digital interaction with whatever you see through the lens or camera and has the potential to fundamentally blur the boundary between digital and analogue.

If Apple does bring some kind of AR glasses (or even contact lenses!) to market, it will be interesting to see if it manages to do so in a way that both makes them more user-friendly and successfully addresses the creepiness factor. It hasn’t done a great job of getting into other consumer electronics categories recently, so Apple is likely to spend a long time thinking this through before it makes its move.

AR and VR headsets nosedive in Q1

Shipments of augmented and virtual reality headsets have plummeted year-on-year across the first quarter, according to statistics from IDC, as telcos unbundle the kit from premium contracts and handsets.

Despite the poor performance in the first quarter, down 30.5% year-on-year, totalling 1.2 million units, IDC does forecast the segment to return to growth for the remainder of 2018 as more vendors target the commercial AR and VR markets and low-cost standalone VR headsets such as the Oculus Go make their way into stores. The team estimate sales will increase to 8.9 million units in 2018, up 6%, with growth continuing upwards to 65.9 million by 2022.

“On the VR front, devices such as the Oculus Go seem promising not because Facebook has solved all the issues surrounding VR, but rather because they are helping to set customer expectations for VR headsets in the future,” said Jitesh Ubrani of IDC. “Looking ahead, consumers can expect easier-to-use devices at lower price points. Combine that with a growing line-up of content from game makers, Hollywood studios, and even vocational training institutions, and we see a brighter future for the adoption of virtual reality.”

Although bundling has become unpopular for the telcos, it is worth noting the importance of such sales models. Smartphone penetration was incredibly rapid in comparison to other technological breakthroughs, partly because consumers have more disposable income, but also bundling made the process of purchasing a device simpler and more cost effective. It normalised the product, before consumers become more savvy shoppers, exploring data only tariffs and separate purchases of devices. Telcos might not like bundling devices into contracts, but it is a very important factor in the progression of the data and digital economy, and aiding the market penetration of new devices.

Augmented reality is going to be the poster child of the segment for the immediate future, it is far more accessible, though it shouldn’t be too long before virtual reality starts making waves. IDC forecasts virtual reality headsets to grow from 8.1 million in 2018 to 39.2 million by the end of 2022, believing the commercial market to be equally important and predicts it will grow from 24% of VR headset shipments in 2018 to 44.6% by 2022.

AR and VR has certainly been making progress over the last 12 months, admittedly quite slowly, hopefully Q1 is simply a blip in the progress.

Apple demonstrates its conflicted position on smartphone addiction with iOS 12

Gadget giant Apple made its devices more addictive while at the same time offering some tools to help people cope in the latest version of its mobile OS.

The latest version of iOS – 12 – has a bunch of novelty features apparently designed to appeal to children, including adjustable animated emojis, novelty camera effects and shared augmented reality experiences. At the same time it seemed to acknowledge its responsibility for ensuring kids occasionally leave the house and interact with the real world by introducing more tools to help limit smartphone use.

“We’re very excited about the new communications features we’re bringing to iPhone and iPad with Memoji, a more personal form of Animoji, fun camera effects and Group FaceTime,” said Craig Federighi, Apple’s SVP of Software Engineering. “With iOS 12, we’re enabling new experiences that weren’t possible before. We’re using advanced algorithms to make AR even more engaging and on-device intelligence to deliver faster ways to get things done using Siri.”

“In iOS 12, we’re offering our users detailed information and tools to help them better understand and control the time they spend with apps and websites, how often they pick up their iPhone or iPad during the day and how they receive notifications.

“We first introduced parental controls for iPhone in 2008, and our team has worked thoughtfully over the years to add features to help parents manage their children’s content. With Screen Time, these new tools are empowering users who want help managing their device time, and balancing the many things that are important to them.”

Here are the main things introduced in iOS 12:

  • Faster – Apple chucked out various suspiciously rounded-off percentages to show how much faster everything is when you use the new OS.
  • Shared AR experiences – persistent AR experiences tied to a specific location, object recognition and image tracking are all part of the second generation of Apple’s ARKit for developers.
  • Fun stuff – Memojis are Animojis that you can personalise, just when you thought they couldn’t get any funner. There are also new camera filters and things you can superimpose onto images to make them yet more fun.
  • Group FaceTime – group audio/video calling.
  • Siri shortcuts – suggestions and shortcuts to Siri commands that the Apple AI reckons you might want to use at a given time and place.
  • Saving you from yourself – giving users more power over things like notifications and augmenting the ‘do not disturb’ function to stop people getting in touch when you’re trying to concentrate on stuff.
  • Saving your kids from themselves – Screen Time is the feature that allows you to monitor how much time you or your kids spend on the device and on specific apps. It also allows you to limit the amount of time spent on an app and block access to the whole device at certain times.
  • Privacy – a tweak to the Safari browser are designed to help block social media “Like” or “Share” buttons and comment widgets from tracking users without permission.

“It came as little surprise that Apple introduced a suite of apps to address the growing levels of addiction to mobile devices,” said Ben Wood of CCS Insight. “The tools specifically designed to analyse and manage the amount of time kids spends on Apple devices will be a welcome, but potentially alarming new feature for many parents.”

“Apple’s focus on social responsibility closely followed that of Google at I/O and illustrates a new appreciation among the tech giants of their role in helping people manage their daily engagement with technology”

“It’s a smart move for Apple to reflect the current concerns around security and privacy with new tools to prevent web companies from actively tracking your browsing activity. Although it will be largely transparent to most consumers, it will help further Apple’s efforts to differentiate its products from rivals with strong security credentials.”

These tools are all well and good but if parents are looking to Apple to teach their kids balance and moderation then they might want to consider the extent of their own reliance on devices. A decade after the start of the modern smartphone era people seem to be increasingly questioning their relationship with these ubiquitous gadgets and how insidiously reliant on them we have become. That’s healthy and Apple is wise to accommodate it.

Qualcomm launches first dedicated AR and VR chip

Qualcomm has announced the launch of Snapdragon XR1 Platform, its first chip dedicated to augmented and virtual reality applications.

The platform was unveiled at the Augmented World Expo in California, with Qualcomm proclaiming it as the ‘first dedicated Extended Reality platform’ which also includes optimisations for integrating artificial intelligence into AR experiences such as pose prediction and object classification.

“As technology evolves and consumer demand grows, we envision XR devices playing a wider variety of roles in consumers’ and workers’ daily lives,” said Alex Katouzian, GM of the  Mobile Business Unit at Qualcomm. “By integrating powerful visuals, high-fidelity audio, and rich interactive experiences, XR1 will help create a new era of high-quality, mainstream XR devices for consumers.”

Qualcomm has said the platform integrates the company’s heterogeneous compute architecture, which includes the ARM-based multicore CPU, vector processor, GPU and its own AI Engine. Other features include an advanced XR software service layer, machine learning and the Snapdragon XR Software Development Kit (SDK), as well as connectivity and security features.

With the AI engine integrated into the chip, Qualcomm claims processing can be handled on the devices. This aspect suggests it is designed for standalone headsets that don’t need specialised computers to power the experience, such as the Oculus Go. Should this prove to be an effective feature, it could make the technology much more accessible to the mass market as more affordable offerings are currently powered by mobile processors, limiting the experience. In short, it potentially makes immersive experiences possible without being powered by a PC.

Key announcements from Facebook’s developer conference

This year’s edition of Facebook’s developer conference was always going to be an interesting one, with executives scuttling away from the Cambridge Analytica fallout.

As with every year, it would be fair to expect some blockbuster announcements, but considering the nefarious maze the firm is currently negotiating, fire-fighting privacy concerns should also be on the agenda. So what did we gather from Day One?

Advertising business concedes a little bit of leverage

Personalised and targeted advertising has been a big topic over the last couple of weeks. CEO Mark Zuckerberg got a grilling from US legislators on the topic, while CTO Mike Schroepfer received the same condemnation from a Select Committee of MPs in London. At the annual extravaganza, there was always going to be a nod to privacy enhancements.

The new feature, which will be known as Clear History, will allow users to opt-out of the practice of collecting and monetization of web browsing history through social media plug-ins on third-party websites. This has always been a contentious issue for the social media giant, which denied the practice until 2014, but now it has at least conceded some ground to critics. Others might argue it should be opt-in, but this is at least progress.

This is not to say Facebook will stop collecting information on where else you go on the internet, but if you opt-out, you won’t be included in any advertiser’s targeting through the platform. Facebook will still collect and store the information, but it will be anonymised and only used for analytical purposes. If you choose to request to have your personal information deleted, it won’t happen immediately. Facebook has stated it will be deleted within 90 days, which doesn’t sound promising, but there are no time limits as it stands.

Cashing in on the online dating craze

Broadcasting whether you’re in a relationship or single has been one of the long-standing features of Facebook, pretty much since its inception, but now it is actually going to do something with that information.

Alongside data privacy plans, Zuckerberg also used the stage at F8 to announce a new dating platform for Facebook. This seems like a logical step for the social media giant, it is after all used to authenticate users on third-party dating apps such as Tinder or Bumble. The data collected from any dating application will sit separately from the rest of the platform, and the team has not detailed how it will monetize such a venture. It would be fair to assume it would be through advertising, as the pay-to-play model isn’t really in the Facebook DNA.

The platform will not necessarily attempt to partner you with people you already know, but work on various different other factors similar to apps which are on the market now, and does present the opportunity to normalize the idea further. While the stigma of online dating has largely been removed, there will still be those who do not trust the idea. Facebook could add credibility.

Facebook is going through a period of scrutiny and criticism at the moment, but it doesn’t seem to have had a massive impact just yet. People are still using Facebook and the #DeleteFacebook hashtag never had any material impact. People like to be enraged to give off the impression they are good people, but who realistically changed their lifestyle.

The online dating industry is worth in the region of $3 billion as it stands, though Facebook could accelerate this figure. And it does appear investors believe so as well. Following the announcement, share price in future competitor Match Group, which owns OkCupid, PlentyOfFish and Tinder, plunged 23% before recovering slightly in overnight trading.

Match Group Share price

VR actually becomes affordable for mass market?

Virtual reality is an area which has been closely watched by Facebook for some time now, though it might have just released a product which can take the segment to the next level.

Oculus Go is now available in 23 countries, starting at $199 for 32 GB of storage and rising to $249 for the 64 GB model. While this would still be deemed expensive, it is getting to the levels which most would consider affordable. This has been the problem for VR to date; it is simply inaccessible to the mass market, finding home for niche gaming communities and commercial applications. Could this be a game-changer?

Two questions remain. Firstly, can the same, premium experience be delivered for this price? And secondly, will there be the ecosystem to support the hardware.

Looking at the specs, a 538ppi 2560 x 1440 WQHD, fast-switch LCD display sounds promising, while the team has also been working with partners like Xiaomi and Qualcomm to optimize performance. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 821 chip will be paired with Facebook’s automatic Dynamic Throttling feature to improve energy efficiency for smoother frame rates, while a built-in lithium ion battery will power about two hours for games and up to 2.5 hours for streaming media and video. The specs are promising.

On the content side, Facebook has said it has more than 1,000 titles to choose including Jurassic World: Blue, MasterWorks: Journey Through History and Space Explorers. The key here will be providing enough content to lure users away from traditional screens, but also to manage the quality of the content. Facebook needs to make the Quality Controller role its own here if VR is going to be a new avenue of profit.

New tools for businesses

In terms of diversification success stories, Facebook has done well to engage the commercial world. While it might not look like much from the surface, creating a platform where all businesses, not just those in the FMCG world, can meaningfully engage consumers was a successful move. Part of this was creating a successful platform for customer services, which has most recently manifested itself in the form of bots.

Facebook has said there are now 300,000 bots on the platform, sending 8 million messages a day. Adoption of the technology should be considered successful, now the Messenger platform is due for another makeover, this time with AR on the mind.

Though it is still in private beta mode, the Camera Effects Platform can now be integrated into Messenger, allowing companies to prompt users into using various filters on their devices. For the shopping experience, this is a great move forward, potentially removing a buyers nervousness at not being able to visualise products. AR is still in the early days, but this is one of the more common usecases discussed over the years.

Snap set to have another crack at the specs market

A FCC filing from Snap indicates the social media firm is set to have another stab at making its connected glasses work, after a tepid response to the first go.

The filing is protected by various confidentiality requests, though it indicates Snap is working on a ‘wearable video camera’ with ‘spectacles’ branding and ‘model 002’ on the packaging. The product will also be compatible with the 2.402-2.48 GHz Bluetooth and 2.412-2.462 GHz Wifi frequency ranges. While there is still a bit of ambiguity, most would come to the fair assumption Snap is launching a new and improved range of Spectacles.

Perhaps it was a product ahead of its time or the team hadn’t worked out all the bugs, but the first attempt was less than successful (putting it mildly). The product was launched with a notable advertising campaign and promised great things to the industry. Unfortunately hundreds of thousands of products are reportedly sitting unsold in a Chinese warehouse as the product fell faster than a lead balloon.

This was an unfortunate development for Snap and the industry on the whole, as the product has the opportunity to bridge a couple of divides between the digital dream and reality. When the product was initially launched in 2016, connected products were limited. A lot has happened over the last two years to normalise the concept.

Snap has a unique opportunity in the tech space to make some positive waves here. It has a young audience, many of whom are digitally native and therefore more accepting of new ideas, and a direct usecase. You snap the content on your glasses and directly upload to the app. Few other brands have the content platform to build such a logical link, as few other platforms have built their message around user-generated content.

Should the idea of connected glasses take off, new doors are opened for wearables, as well as augmented reality and immersive content. This is where this sub-sector has struggled; normalising the hardware. Perhaps one of the reasons VR and AR have stalled over the last couple of months is because they are asking the consumer to take too large a step forward. Users like to be drip fed incremental advances, as progress can be a scary thought. Asking consumers to go from yesteryears normality to the fully immersive experience, where the user is essentially removed from the physical world, might have been too much.

The industry should be looking at Snap and hoping for a win here. Get the hardware out onto the market and then applications can be built into and on top of it. This is how the smartphone became successful, applications were limited in the early days, but as soon as mass market penetration was achieved all sorts of wonderful ideas, such as online dating and digital banking, became normalised. This might just be the first and logical step for the VR and AR world.

The one question which remains is whether this is an excellent example of the fail-fast business model, or if it is simply Snap throwing good money after bad. Only time will tell.

VR & AR set for £1.8bn in 2018

The virtual and augmented reality industry is set to get a bit of a boost over the next 12 months, with headset and glasses sales expected to grow fivefold to $1.8 billion.

According to research from CCS Insight, sales are expected to exceed 22 million units over the year, while continuing to grow 50% annually over the next five years, taking the market up to $9.9 billion in 2022.

“Virtual reality headsets have been the main source of growth in unit sales to date, and we expect this will continue, particularly headsets that use a smartphone,” said George Jijiashvili of CCS Insight. “However, we expect stand-alone headsets like the Oculus Go and HTC Vive Focus to ignite a new wave of growth that will help broaden the appeal of virtual reality, particularly with businesses and in education.”

Gaming is still the primary use for the technology to date which is unlikely to change. There are other uses starting to make waves, tourism is a good example, but until the price point comes down and normality created around the segment, these are likely to remain a pipedream. In reality, to perfect the technology and develop the supply chain to allow for economies of scale, the best place to start (and continue to concentrate) is a dedicated niche where the users are willing to spend premium prices. Gamers are the perfect guinea pigs for the moment.

The sales of AR glasses might be due a bit of a surge thanks to the adoption of AR is smart phone applications. Whether it is shopping applications or interactive games, this does seem to be proving an effective stepping stone for the consumer into the immersive world. Realistically it is very much a walk before you can run scenario; create smart phone applications, which move onto glasses and then onto headsets. Each step normalises the idea of immersive content one stage further, taking the user on a journey which he/she is comfortable with.

“We’re encouraged by the technology developments in smart glasses for consumers,” said Jijiashvili. “Products such as Intel’s Vaunt glasses are a clear signal of the direction these devices are moving in, with a design little different from a pair of standard prescription glasses. It only takes a big company like Apple to jump into the market and we could be looking at market of millions of smart glasses in no time at all.”

While there has been a lot of promises made in the VR and AR space, and some pretty interesting use cases, mass market penetration is yet to become a reality. This should hardly be considered unusual, few technologies do not play by the bell-curve rules, which might come as a bit of relief for the telcos.

Although there will be opportunities to monetize the new craze, such breakthroughs come with their burdens as well; if you think the networks are under stress now, just wait until the tsunami of data hits the virtual highways. Hype is all well and good, but considering 5G and full-fibre networks are not going to be the norm for some time, a delay in the VR and AR reality could be viewed as a positive. A poor experience for consumers could set back the segment for years; the silver lining of delayed adoption could be the time and space to make sure the networks are actually ready.