MediaTek adds momentum to 5G mid-tier with Dimensity 800 launch

After launching its assault on the premium market in November, MediaTek has unveiled its Dimensity 800 Series 5G chipset for mid-tier devices.

The 5G euphoria is of course very exciting, or at least we have been told to be enthralled, but in reality, it means next to nothing without the devices to connect the data-frenzied consumer to the freakishly-fast digital super-highway. MediaTek’s announcement is a step in the right direction.

Announced at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, the Dimensity 800 Series 5G chipset is MediaTek’s answer to the Qualcomm Snapdragon 765; a product for mid-tier smartphones, the segment critical to fuelling mass market adoption in the 5G world.

“MediaTek already launched its flagship 5G smartphone solution, the Dimensity 1000, and with the 800 series 5G chipset family, we are bringing 5G to the mid-tier and mass market,” said TL Lee, head of MediaTek’s wireless business unit.

“Everyone should have access to great technology. The Dimensity 800 Series will power the New Premium segment for 5G, bringing consumers flagship smartphone features and performance at midrange price points.”

While most people in the developed markets would turn their nose up at the prospect of buying a mid-tier smartphone, such are the eye-watering prices of today’s 5G-compatible smartphones, few would consider the small loan which would be needed to purchase one. 5G compatible, mid-tier devices will be crucially important in fuelling momentum towards mass-market adoption of 5G smartphones.

The chipset supports two carrier aggregation for, what MediaTek claims offers, 30% wider high-speed layer coverage and improved handover, as well as both stand alone and non-standalone sub-6 GHz connectivity. Four big Arm Cortex-A76 cores operating up to 2 GHz, have been paired with four power-efficient Arm Cortex-A55 cores operating at up to 2 GHz to improve performance for intensive applications such as mobile gaming.

While this chipset might not have the horsepower of the flagship Dimensity 1000 Series, it is not supposed to. This is a product which is designed to accelerate the launch of devices in the mid-tier market, a critical area to drive through widespread adoption of 5G data connectivity.

5G threatens to crack mass market with affordable devices

As it stands, 5G is not a democratised technology, but that could change as a swarm of affordable devices promising to hit the market in 2020.

This week sees tens of thousands of shade-dwellers hit the Nevada desert for the annual Consumer Electronics Show (CES), and in-between the quirky, faddy and ridiculous product promotions, there might be a few announcements worth keeping an eye on.

Starting with the distractions on show, CES 2020 certainly delivers.

Ivanka Trump will be on the keynote stage, diluted the male-dominance of the conference agenda, but perhaps ignoring the better-equipped, albeit less-celebrity attraction, women of Silicon Valley. Bathroom specialist Kohler is showcasing an Alexa-enabled showerhead with embedded speaker and microphone. PantryOn wants to automate your shopping-list. Tombot has a robotic Labrador puppy for those who want a companion without the messiness of real-life. And Manta5’s Hydrofoil e-bike allows users to glide on water for a mere £5,800.

While all these products are quirky, and likely to be forgotten within weeks as there is no basis in reality, there are still some interesting announcements which could have a much more material impact on the connectivity landscape.

TCL Communications has not been hitting the headlines over the last couple of months, but it has stormed to the front-page with the announcement of an affordable 5G device. As it stands, 5G is not an inclusive technology. Devices have been designed for the wealthy as few would dream of paying the obnoxiously high prices which have been attached to the devices.

The TCL 10-Series features three devices, including the companies first attempt at incorporating 5G connectivity. The TCL 10 5G will make use of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 7-Series 5G SoC, as well as feature all the add-ons which have become commonplace on a smartphone. Most importantly, this device will launch in North America in Q2 2020 for less than $500.

“Our TCL-branded smartphones and mobile devices will be an important focal point for the larger TCL ecosystem moving forward, and with these powerful and accessible devices coming this year, we feel TCL is well-prepared to compete in any market around the world,” said Kevin Wang, CEO of TCL Industrial Holdings.

The price is the most important aspect of this announcement. This is one of the first affordable devices to hit the market. There will be more over the next few months, most device launches are reserved for Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, which will be critical. 5G will only succeed if there are compatible devices in every tier of the smartphone market.

Qualcomm has been making a lot of noise over the last few months, especially when it comes to 5G chips which have been designed for the mid-tier smartphone market. The Snapdragon 765 might not have the power of other designs, but it has 5G compatibility embedded and is affordable for mid-tier ranges.

Staying on the topic of chipsets for mid-tier devices, MediaTek has also announced the launch of Dimensity 800 Series 5G chipset. This has been billed as a rival to the Qualcomm products, targeting mid-tier and mass market devices, while also supporting carrier aggregation and dynamic spectrum sharing. MediaTek has said these chips will be available by the end of H1 2020.

“Now that networks are deployed and gradually rolled out, affordable smartphones is the single most important piece of the puzzle that is still missing,” said Dario Talmesio, 5G Practice Leader at analyst firm Ovum. “Pricing are going down really quickly, the challenge will be to have affordable 5G phones with acceptable specs, and there’s work to be done for that yet.”

Over the course of the next 12 months, Ovum estimates 5G subscriptions to exceed 63.4 million worldwide, rising to 250 million by 2021-end and 687 million by 2022-end. Ovum data takes into account all SIMs connected to the network, irrelevant as to what the device might be, with the team also forecasting 4G connections to continue to rise through to 2022-end, before the decline starts to set in.

TCL Communications might have stolen the headlines here, but it would be perfectly reasonable to expect numerous announcements around the $500 price-mark prior to and during MWC in February.

Another interesting product launch took place over at Lenovo.

This might not be the most affordable of laptops, but Lenovo is claiming the Yoga 5G is the first of its kind to have embedded 5G connectivity. If you happen to be one of those individuals who likes spending $1,499 on a laptop and who also happens to live in one of the few areas where 5G coverage is a reality, this might be the product for you.

Although this is an interesting development, perhaps the team is jumping the gun. 5G is one of the simplest ways to attract buzz to a product, though as 4G-enabled laptops would not be considered the norm nowadays, perhaps a step is being skipped. That is not necessarily a bad move forward, though it does make the price-to-entry considerably higher.

CES is not the traditional launching ground for devices, but the TCL news is very encouraging for the accelerated adoption of 5G adoption. Top-end devices might be what everyone wants, but the question is what the market can afford.

LG joins the virtue-signalling crowd with AI standardisation plug

LG is the latest technology company to humbly join the ranks of technology disciples preaching standardisation and, of course, its idea is better than everyone else’s.

The Consumer Electronics Show (CES) is in full-swing in Las Vegas, and in the midst of a swathe of technology announcements, LG found some spare time to lecture the room on the importance of a standardised approach to artificial intelligence. That is, of course, before being joined on stage by a partner to talk about how it has developed its own framework, adding to the growing wave of fragmentation.

The technology industry is one which elects to stretch the definition of certain words and phrases to such a degree many will wonder whether the dictionaries are thought of as ancient artefacts to be revered but never given attention. In the ‘C’ section, LG President and CTO I.P. Park might find the word ‘contradiction’, and it might offer some insight to read the definition.

Looking around the world, the European Commission has put together a group to create an ethics framework to guide the development of AI, Facebook has backed a German initiative called the ‘Institute for Ethics in Artificial Intelligence’, the UK Government has formed its own AI Council, the US has launched the ‘American AI Initiative’, Google created ‘DeepMind Ethics & Society’ and there are countless others.

Each of these parties are aiming to develop a standardised approach for the development of AI, weighing up the commercial ambitions of industry alongside privacy issues, the risk of bias and the preservation of fairness in a currently lop-sided digital economy. Each party is attempting to ‘own’ the space, dictate the conditions of the playing field for the benefit of its own interests.

This is where self-righteous executives preaching the benefits of standardisation have to be taken with a pinch of salt. The more frameworks which are in place simply heightens the risk of fragmentation. In this case, LG is pursuing its own agenda, implementing a framework to achieve its own aims under the guise of enhancing co-operation and standardisation.

These statements reflect badly on LG, but everyone in the industry is doing exactly the same. The European Commission, the White House, Downing Street, Google, Facebook or whoever. These standardisation frameworks are all slightly different because they serve the aims of the puppet masters.

From LG’s perspective, AI is the future. This is a company where the heritage is in consumer electronics but is positioning itself to capitalise on the growing interest in ‘intelligence’ and embedded connectivity in everything and anything. LG’s robot vacuum cleaner will not only recognise patterns, but also collect data to learn from previous mistakes, such as getting stuck in gaps and corners.

This of course is not a new idea. Embedded ‘intelligence’ and the ability for products to learn and adapt, has been discussed at length for years. LG is perhaps behind the trend, though as the industry is yet to achieve mass market adoption, there is still time for it to catch up. However, whenever someone talks about standardisation, be wary.

There is a reason this party is not joining an existing group, it probably does not serve its own ambitions the most effectively. Instead, we are probably likely to see the creation of more groups, alliances, councils, think-tanks and boards. Standardisation is the aim, but fragmentation is looking much more likely.

Google unveils Assistant delights at CES

It wasn’t going to be long before Google stole the show with a horde of updates to the virtual assistant. And in fairness, some of them look pretty useful.

Who is leading the smart assistant battle varies depending on who you are talking to, but the importance of this segment is consistent throughout. With more users becoming comfortable with the voice UI, buying power will gradually shift away from the smartphone screen and onto connected devices. Whoever has the best and most prominent virtual assistant will control the relationship with the consumer.

Google might dominant search revenues for the moment, but the smart home and the connected economy are changing the status quo; the Google Assistant is one of the ways the firm will stay relevant. So, what is new?

To kick things off, the team has launched Google Assistant Connect, a platform for device manufacturers to bring the Google Assistant into their products in an affordable and easy-to-implement way. This is an important step for the Google team to take, as it allows for scale. Google’s speakers and smart products will not dominate the smart home forever. Sooner or later, traditional brands will take the lion’s share of spend as the mass market will be more comfortable buying from the trusted, specialised brands. But the ambition for Google in the smart home should be in the software not the products.

Google needs to make it as easy as possible for appliance and device manufacturers to incorporate the virtual assistant. Just as it is with the search engine, scale is everything. The more users Google is interacting with, the more accurate its algorithms become and more money its advertising models can generate.

As it stands, the Google Assistant currently works with over 1,600 home automation brands and more than 10,000 devices. This number will only accelerate as the mass market acceptance of smart home devices and applications becomes more apparent.

Another area which has been targeted by the firm in recent months has been automotive. Back in September, Google was named as the technology partner of the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi alliance, allowing it to embed the Android operating system directly in vehicles. Last year, the alliance sold a combined 10.6 million vehicles in 200 markets across the world. At CES, Google announced a number of new features which would increase the usability of its applications in the car.

One of the updates is to bring the Assistant to Google Maps. Not only will the Assistant help with navigation, but users will be able to use voice commands to send messages to friends, such as estimated time of arrival. The Assistant can also be commanded to search for points of interest or stop-off points along the designated route. It’s a useful little update.

The final update which we like to draw attention to is focused on travel. Before too long, users will be able to instruct the Google Assistant to check them into flights (starting with US domestic flights), and also book hotel rooms at the destination. How effectively this will work remains to be seen, and it will be interesting to see how many hotels the Assistant has to choose from (as well as the price ranges), but again, it is a useful update.

Virtual assistants are not new, but they are becoming increasingly normalised in the eyes of the consumer. The voice UI is starting to make a genuine impact on the technology landscape the sci-fi image of tomorrow might not be as ridiculous as once though. Perhaps if someone nails AR glasses the smartphone screen might become redundant sooner rather than later.

The connected car takes pole position at CES

With the glitz and glamour of Las Vegas, it perhaps shouldn’t come as much of a surprise the connected car is stealing the headlines at the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

Starting with Audi, pairing up with Disney the team has unveiled an in-car VR entertainment system which adapts the content to the movements of the car. The game itself is called ‘Marvel’s Avengers: Rocket’s Rescue Run’ and is based on the journey itself. If the car turns right or accelerates the spaceship in the experience does the same.

While Audi is the parent company, the open platform has been brought to the market through subsidy Holoride. Audi will license the technology to the start-up, which will be made available to all carmakers and content developers in the future.

“Creative minds will use our platform to come up with fascinating worlds that turn the journey from A to B into a real adventure,” said Nils Wollny, Head of Digital Business at Audi, and future the CEO of Holoride. “We can only develop this new entertainment segment by adopting a cooperative, open approach for vehicle, device and content producers.”

Moving across to the mapping side of the connected vehicle, Intel’s Mobileye announced a new agreement with UK mapping agency Ordnance Survey. Although this might not be the most exciting aspect of the connected car space, it is perhaps the most crucial; without the relevant location data, the OS is pretty much useless.

While this data will certainly supplement the Intel offering for the connected car space, Mobileye and Ordnance Survey will use the data to create new customized solutions derived from the location intelligence, to help companies realise the riches promised through the city segment.

“One key, and common, learning is that detailed and accurate geospatial data is a must for the success of these projects,” said Neil Ackroyd, Ordnance Survey CEO. “We envisage this new rich data to be key to how vehicles, infrastructure, people and more will communicate in the digital age. Our partnership with Mobileye further enhances our commitment to supporting Britain as a world-leading center for digital and tech excellence.”

For chipmaker Qualcomm there’s been no rest to check out the shows. While Audi, Ducati and Ford have all been using its tech to run various demos across the show, the team has also teamed up with Amazon’s Alexa to demonstrate in-car artificial intelligence.

“The vision behind Qualcomm Technologies’ automotive solutions is to continuously improve and expand the realm of possibilities for in-car experiences while delivering unparalleled safety-conscious solutions,” said Nakul Duggal, SVP of Product Management, Qualcomm.

“Leveraging Amazon’s natural language processing technology, along with services like Amazon Music, Prime Video, Fire TV and Audible, allows us to offer an exclusive, interactive in-car experience for both the drivers and passengers to leverage the latest innovations in a natural, intuitive way.”

The demonstration makes use of Qualcomm’s Smart Audio Platform to include immersive natural language instructions involving in-vehicle navigation, points of interest outside the car and multimedia services which users will use every day at home with Alexa.

“Our vision is for Alexa to be available anywhere customers want to interact with her, whether they’re at home, in the office or on the go,” said Ned Curic, VP of Alexa Auto at Amazon.

This is of course not the only bit of news featuring Amazon this week, as the team announced a partnership with navigation firm Here yesterday. The tie in gives the Here platform a smarter, voice UI and gives Alexa a useful little foray into the connected car segment, an area Google’s virtual assistant has got a little bit of a head-start in.

Finally, AT&T and Toyota Motor North America announced they will enable 4G LTE connectivity for various Toyota and Lexus cars and trucks across the US, starting at the end of the year. As part of the deal, owners of the relevant vehicles will also receive unlimited data plans from AT&T, while the vehicle will also become a wifi hotspot.

“Cars are the ultimate mobile device. Working with Toyota and KDDI we will bring the benefits of connectivity to millions of consumers,” said Chris Penrose, President of IoT Solutions at AT&T.

“This new technology deepens our relationship with Toyota. And we couldn’t be happier to continue working with them. We’re both founding members of the American Center for Mobility testing facility for connected and automated vehicles, where we will help deliver the future of connectivity.”

Intel looks to maps to fuel autonomous vehicles race

Whoever wins the autonomous car race will make a fortune, so Intel is doubling down efforts. Millions are being directed towards R&D, and building its own mapping database is another good move.

Speaking at CES in Las Vegas, Mobileye (an Intel business) CEO Amnon Shashua said two million cars from BMW, Nissan and Volkswagen will all be fitted with a front-facing camera, which will aggregate location and environment data in the cloud, building high-definition maps with Mobileye’s Road Experience Management (REM) program. It might not be the most exciting aspect of autonomous vehicles, but an extensive mapping database is a good tool to have.

The boring parts of a technology are usually some of the most important, and this is no different. For an autonomous vehicle to work, it has to know what is going on around it. This isn’t simply a case of collecting visual data from the immediate surroundings, but being able to plan a journey at the beginning, or adjusting plans on data which has been collected from other vehicles further ahead. It isn’t the bouncing excitement of AI-processors or super-sensitive cameras, but it is just as (or arguably, more) important.

Aside from the BMW, Nissan and Volkswagen cars, relationships have also been announced with NavInfo and SAIC Motor, allowing the team to collect data in China. Considering most companies who have extensive mapping databases (Google, Uber etc.) have had difficulties operating in the Chinese market, these could be very significant partnerships.

As it stands, there are very few organizations which could answer the calls of the industry for suitably detailed mapping data, but Intel could soon be one of those. Assuming enough vehicles are sold, the database could be extensively populated without specific projects to collect the data, like Uber is doing now or Google has been doing for years. Such a database could make Intel a very attractive company for car brands to work with.

For the moment, this push is seemingly all about mapping data, but assuming the cameras get on enough vehicles, and the team is able to nail real-time data analytics, it would be a very useful database in the future. Intel has said the cameras on ADAS-equipped vehicles are intelligent agents that can also be used to collect dynamic data. Data on hazards, construction, traffic density and weather could be routed to other vehicles to allow for more efficient driving.

Mobileye recently signed a next-step agreement with Volkswagen to formalize the collection and marketing of this data, while there are also relationships the city of Dusseldorf, Spain Directorate-General of Traffic, Gett Taxi, Berkshire Hathaway GUARD Insurance, and Buggy TLC Leasing for the use of this information.

Data is the new oil in the digital economy, and should Intel be able to horde enough through activities like this, it could turn out to be a very useful revenue stream. All of a sudden, Intel is no longer just a manufacturer of processors, but a lean, mean, data machine which has a business model suitable for the connected era.

Right now, the team has been shouting about Level 2/3 autonomous driving (some self-driving capabilities, but humans will still need to be aware), as well as Level 2+ breakthroughs. Level 2+ is a new one for us, but generally these sorts of claims are when the engineering team is struggling with a breakthrough, but the marketing team need something new to say. Intel isn’t a multi-national for no reason, it has some of the finest PR-minds and spin-gurus in the business.

Intel won’t be able to make money with this information, or at least any serious cash, for some time, but as long as it keeps collecting it will be an incredibly valuable resource once society is ready for the mass market penetration of autonomous vehicles.

Nvidia claims autonomous driving breakthrough, but let’s see

Nvidia has attempted to jump-start the CES PR euphoria, claiming it can achieve Level 5 autonomous driving right now with its Xavier processors.

The chip itself was initially announced 12 months ago, but this quarter has seen the processor delivered to customers. Testing has begun, and Nvidia has been stoking the fire with a very bold claim.

“Delivering the performance of a trunk full of PCs in an auto-grade form factor the size of a license plate, it’s the world’s first AI car supercomputer designed for fully autonomous Level 5 robotaxis,” Nvidia said on its blog.

Hyping up a product to almost undeliverable heights is of course nothing new in the tech world, and Nvidia has learned from the tried and tested playbook. Make an incredibly exceptional claim for a technology which is unlikely to be delivered to the real world for decades.

Xavier will form part of the Nvidia’s Drive software stack, containing 9 billion transistors. It is the product of a four-year project, sucking up $2 billion in research and development funds, with contributions from 2,000 engineers. It is built around an 8-core CPU, a 512-core Volta GPU, a deep learning accelerator, computer vision accelerators and 8K HDR video processors. All to deliver Level 5 autonomous driving.

Just as a recap, Level 5 autonomous driving is the holy grail. At this point, humans will not be needed to interact with the car at any point:

  • Level 0: Full-time performance by the human driver
  • Level 1: Driving assistance of either steering or acceleration/deceleration using information about the driving environment. Human drives the rest of the time.
  • Level 2: The system can be responsible for both steering and acceleration/deceleration using information about the driving environment. This could be described as hands off automation.
  • Level 3: This is known officially as conditional automation. The autonomous driving system will be responsible for almost all aspects of the dynamic driving task. Humans will still need to be aware to intervene in certain circumstances. This could be described as eyes off automation.
  • Level 4: The car will be almost fully-autonomous, though there might be rare circumstances where a human would have to intervene. Aside from the most extreme circumstances, this could be described as mind off automation.
  • Level 5: Full autonomy. You don’t even have to be awake.

During the same pre-CES event, the team also announced AR products, new partnerships and solutions in the gaming space, but Level 5 autonomy is the headline maker. Reaching this level is all well and good, but the technology does not have a foot in reality just yet. Nvidia might be there in terms of technological development, so it claims, but that does not mean autonomous cars will be hitting the roads any time soon. Not by a long way.

Firstly, while the processors might be there, the information is not. Companies like Google have been doing a fantastic job at creating mapping solutions, but the details is still not there for every single location on the planet. Until you can accurately map every single scenario and location a car may or may not end up in, it is impossible to state with 100% accuracy that Level 5 autonomous vehicles are achievable.

Secondly, to live the autonomous dream, a smart city is necessary. To optimize driving conditions, the car will need to receive data from the traffic lights to understand the flow of vehicles, and also any unusual circumstances. To ensure safety and performance, connectivity will have to be ubiquitous. The smart city dream is miles away, and therefore the autonomous vehicles dream is even further.

Thirdly, even if the technology is there, everything else isn’t. Regulations are not set up to support autonomous vehicles, neither is the insurance industry or the judicial system. If an autonomous vehicle is involved in a fatal incident, who get prosecuted? Do individuals need to be insured if they are asleep in the car? There are many unanswered questions.

Finally, when will we accept autonomous vehicles? Some people are incapable of sitting in a passenger seat while a loved one drives, how will these individuals react to a computer taking charge? Culturally, it might be a long time before the drivers of the world are comfortable handing control over to a faceless piece of software.

Nvidia might be shouting the loudest in the race to autonomous vehicles right now, but let’s put things in perspective; it doesn’t actually mean anything.