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.”

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.

Nokia and StarHub boast of completed 5G NR trial Singapore

Nokia and the Singapore mobile operator StarHub conducted an outdoor pilot of both industrial and consumer use cases on 5G New Radio (NR).

The two companies made another claim for Singapore’s “5G first” drive with this outdoor 3GPP compliant trial on 3.5 GHz. Two use cases were demonstrated to their staff, industry partners, and enterprise customers. The first one for industry was a simulated manufacturing environment, where businesses can use 5G-based video analytics to optimise efficiency and reduce errors. The use case for consumers was a 5G-based VR immersive video experience of live sport events. The trial was done in non-standalone (NSA) mode, with Nokia’s 5G AirScale radio access overlaying on top of StarHub’s 4G core networks. The third-party that supplied the consumer VR terminals has not been identified.

“This successful pilot with Nokia showcases the readiness and possibilities of 5G to enhance consumer services and boost efficiencies for enterprises. It aligns with StarHub’s goal to support and accelerate Smart Nation initiatives in Singapore,” said Chong Siew Loong, Chief Technology Officer of StarHub.

“Nokia is able to offer customers such as StarHub a pre-integrated and ultra-optimised network using its 5G Future X end-to-end architecture to accelerate the launch of 5G. Leveraging this technology, customers such as StarHub can achieve greater operational efficiencies and higher performance as they begin to deliver enhanced mobile broadband services,” added Tommi Uitto, president of Mobile Networks at Nokia.

Singapore is expected to be among the first countries to switch on commercial 5G networks. With its competitor Singtel busy trialling 5G and claiming its own “firsts”, StarHub must have felt the heat to not to be seen left behind. as industry momentum towards 5G NR is gathers momentum. After more than 40 companies signed the agreement in March 2017 to accelerate 5G NR development, much progress has been made on both the standardisation and the implementation fronts. Both the standalone (SA) and non-standalone variants of the 5G NR standards were completed and approved before the original deadlines.

Facebook unveils latest attempt to take VR mainstream

Facebook has had a fair few cracks at creating the perfect VR headset, but the Oculus Quest looks like a product which could take Virtual Reality (VR) into the mainstream market.

This has been the problem with VR to date, the reality has not lived up to the expectation. Cheaper devices have not delivered the experience the masses were expecting, while those on the top-end have but pricing has meant mainstream penetration was out of the question. To date, the virtual experience has been limited to specialist venues, hardcore gamers and pioneering industrial applications. Oculus Quest might just be able to break these limitations should the stars align perfectly.

Oculus Quest is what Facebook describes as its “first all-in-one” VR system, which will be available for purchase from Spring 2019 for $399. Oculus Quest comes with Touch controllers, while there will also be 50 games available at the time of release.

“So this thing is just wonderful,” said Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg during the Oculus Connect 5 event. “Some of the experiences are just really amazing. You can play tennis, we have a tennis court set up [at Oculus Connect 5] so you can have one person on the court and another in the living room, so you can see how the experience scales up and down nicely with the amount of space you have available. You’ll see the ball coming and you’ll run towards it. You move your hand to hit it and you get haptic feedback. It’s just awesome.

“With Oculus Quest we will complete our first generation of VR products. There’s Oculus Go, the most affordable way to experience VR for the first time, there’s Oculus Quest, the all-in-one VR experience that we’ve been waiting for, and there is Rift, for experience which need a PC to push the edge of what is possible.”

Each of these devices will form the future of the VR business at Facebook, with Zuckerberg highlighting a platform and ecosystem will be built around each one. In other words, consumers can buy the newest bit of hardware, as and when Facebook make upgrades, but everything which has been designed for the previous generation will still work on the newer devices. With these three devices, the market is open for Facebook; Go could be viewed as for the cash conscious, Quest is for the mainstream and Rift is for the high-end, hardcore gamers and industrial applications. While there will be a role for each one, Quest is what could take VR out to the masses.

Firstly, it’s affordable. $399 is expensive of course, but it is not prohibitively so, and comes with all the necessary specs to deliver the experience people have been promised through countless years of buzz and futuristic TV programmes which hyped-up the technology. The devices contains 64 GB of storage, has display resolution of 1600×1440 per eye and has six degrees of freedom built in to allow for specified movement around the physical world.

The six degrees of freedom is an interesting one, as it offers more freedom during the experiences, allowing the user to move and reach new places. Some might be worried about walking into a wall or smashing a shin on the coffee table, but Facebook has built in software called Guardian, which allows the user to set boundaries in the real world. Should you stray too close to these boundaries with the headset on, notifications and visual barriers will appear to let you know.

Although we haven’t had the opportunity to test out the headset, this does sound like a product which can open VR up to the mass market. However, there are a few questions which remain. Firstly, can the ecosystem support the expectations in terms of content, and secondly, can the infrastructure meet the data demands of the experiences?

From an ecosystem perspective, Facebook has said the launch of this headset will accompany the release of 50 titles. This might sound like a lot, but is it? We’re not too sure, your correspondent is not a particularly avid gamer, though the sheer number of titles which are launched for consoles such as PlayStation or Xbox suggests this would have to be beefed up. It doesn’t matter how good or accessible the hardware is, if the breadth and depth of content is not available for the user, the segment will fall flat very quickly.

Secondly, the question around infrastructure is a big one. Internet cafes or specialist gaming venues will have powerful enough broadband connections to allow for these sort of experiences, but considering the low levels of full-fibre connectivity in general, and the suspect nature of 4G connections when using mobile, you have to wonder whether current infrastructure can effectively support VR. This is a vast question, can the segment take-off and survive without the future-proof infrastructure which many telcos are sluggishly rolling out?

Questioning the ecosystem and infrastructure are two valid questions, but that shouldn’t take away from what Facebook is promising to deliver here. The product is affordable and does seem good enough to deliver the promised experience; it could bode well for the slumbering VR segment.

Microsoft gives VR another kick in the teeth

The virtual reality segment might have been gathering some momentum over recent months, but Microsoft’s neglect of VR for its Xbox platform adds another dent into the credibility of the technology.

It’s been a tough week for the VR enthusiasts. IDC research estimated sales declined 30.5% year-on-year over the first quarter, largely thanks to telcos unbundling the devices from premium contracts and handset deals, while a snub from one of the biggest gaming platforms on the planet will not help the situation either.

Speaking in an interview with Gamesindustry.biz, Microsoft’s Chief Marketing Officer for the gaming business, Mike Nichols, confirmed there was little or no work being done for virtual or mixed reality, at least when looking at Xbox.

“We don’t have any plans specific to Xbox consoles in virtual reality or mixed reality,” said Nichols. “Our perspective on it has been and continues to be that the PC is probably the best platform for more immersive VR and MR. As an open platform, it just allows faster, more rapid iteration. There are plenty of companies investing in it in the hardware side and the content side, or some combination therein.

“Obviously on phones, augmented reality is a good scenario as well that’s going to grow. But as it relates to Xbox, no. Our focus is primarily on experiences you would play on your TV, and ultimately we’d like to make those experiences more broadly.”

For the VR community, this could be a very worrying view. The influence of PCs in the consumers life is declining rapidly, while gaming consoles such as Xbox remaining a constant. The PC will never disappear, and should the connected anywhere PC take off there might be a resurgence, but being limited to a dying area of the technology world should not be viewed as a positive.

Looking at the advertising and promotional campaigns for the general public, it is clear the VR community feels TV is a perfectly suitable platform for the technology. Almost every advert you see which has some element of VR in it focuses on the living room, billing the technology as a way to bring families together, but with Xbox not considering the platform appropriate for the technology, prospects are slightly dampened.

VR will have a place in the world at some point, but the road is proving a very bumpy ride right now.

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.

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.

Standardizing VR could be a disaster, but so could free reign

Virtual and augmented reality are two technologies which are promising a lot for the telecoms space, but standardizing the technology could lead to its downfall. Then again, free reign could be anarchy.

So here’s the theory from Jason Thibeault, Executive Director at the Streaming Video Alliance, speaking at one of the panel sessions at Big Communication Event in Austin. VR is a long-term investment and opportunity, but the space is moving incredibly quickly. When it comes to the development of content, or the technology to facilitate delivery, progress is being made meaning any standards would become redundant or possibly restrictive in a very short period of time.

To write rules today means the innovators of tomorrow have to follow them. On one side of the argument, guidelines and rules prevent divergence and the mess which can be created from a lack of interoperability, but this is still a technology in the exploratory phases of development. Fixing any focus down one path might prevent more effective solutions or alternative thinking from advancing, potentially negatively impacting the industry.

It is a complicated place to be. The technology industry has shown on several occasions that it is not responsible enough to be left to its own devices, and who is to say aggressive moves from one of the major players could not bring the space into disaster, but red-tape should be viewed as the enemy here. Big thinkers and innovators like to push the boundaries and explore the dark corners, which is exactly what is needed for VR right now. Can rule markers stand in the way of progress?

While this is a conundrum to ponder, another big question to consider is what is the opportunity is for the ecosystem. Here is where patience is needed, as the promised fortunes of VR are unlikely to be realised for decades. As it stands, basic content might be deliverable over current networks, but this experience is unlikely to be the immersive dream. Another question to ask is whether operators would allow the streaming of such data intensive content without throttling the user. We suspect not.

A lot has to change before the dream becomes reality, including network architecture, content development, consumer behaviour and manufacturing, but this is not a technology which is likely to fail if managed correctly. As Thibeault put it, VR is the next stage of storytelling.

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.

Could we exist in a world without Apple or Samsung? Maybe…

Some would argue the smartphone is the most important technological breakthrough of the last 50 years, but Google could be creating a world where the device actually becomes redundant.

It all sounds very far-fetched, and of course, there would have to be an incredible change in society for this scenario to exist, but stick with us for a second. Irrelevant as to how unlikely it sounds, it is a perfectly plausible scenario; Google could architect a digital value chain where the smartphone is actually removed.

The story begins with the Google virtual assistant. As the consumer is guided away from the touch user interface and towards the voice, different devices can be used by the user. If, for instance, you want to know the population of China, you could just say it aloud and it would be picked up by anyone of the connected devices which surround you.

If anything can be turned into a connected device with the potential for interaction, is there any need for us to carry a smartphone around? Let have a look at a couple of different ideas. Let’s say you are in:

  • Living room: Your Chromecast TV hear the command and interacts with the user through its own speakers
  • Kitchen: Your Connected Fridge hears the command and pushes the interaction with the user to the smart speaker which you have set up
  • Car: At CES Google announced it has been working with automakers to directly integrate the Google Assistant into the cars infotainment system. There will be no need to ‘tether’ your phone to the vehicle
  • Work: With the lines between mobile and PC applications becoming blurred, there why not have your messaging conversations or video calls through your laptop
  • Street: Another announcement from CES, Google has been working with headphone manufacturers to integrate the assistant’s functionality. Headphones already have the ability to make phone calls know, so why shouldn’t this be the point of interaction between the assistant and the user

There are of course a number of different arguments against the redundancy of the smartphone, but there is a small answer to each. Let’s start with the Google business model.

The Google business model in the mobile world is built on the success of Android as an operating system. For the core Google business to be effective, scale is critical. Removing smartphones does remove Android from the mobile world, however, should Google win its battle against Amazon for virtual assistance dominance, the Google Assistant could replace the Android operating system as the touch point with the consumer.

Another problem is the idea of personalization; a user downloads what he/she wants or needs to their device. A 55 year old taxi driver will probably have different needs from a 17 year old A-Level student. This is where voice recognition could place a role.

In theory, once voice recognition technology has been refined, there is no reason why several people could not use the same device, while also creating a personalised experience. It would recognize person John and pull up the right emails, but then five minutes later be able to tell Emily what is listed in her calendar.

Once a device recognises it is interacting with you, there is very little it cannot do with the power and storage capabilities of cloud computing. Nothing has to be stored locally, meaning there are few limits to how much can be accessed by any number of users. Once you have a device which is hooked up to the web through fibre (speaker/fridge/TV/fishtank), you won’t even have to worry about download speeds, or those pesky mobile signals.

Video is another area which would be a complication. You can’t watch a cat chase a laser pointer on headphones, but you can on all the smart displays and devices which Google is bringing out for the smart home. And if you are sat on the bus, don’t forget about Google Glass. Yes, it was a wonderful failure at the time, but AR has come on leaps and bounds over the last couple of years. Why couldn’t the next breakthrough be a pair of glasses which brought up a screen on one lens when you had an incoming video call, or wanted to watch something on YouTube?

The last one is a bit of a stretch, but why not throw it out into the blue sky. It sounds ridiculous to consider a world without a smartphone, but with voice recognition slowly starting to catch on, what reason do you need a physical device with such a large screen for interaction? Video content or games us probably the reason (we concede we haven’t really addressed that one properly), but the Google assistant could read everything else out to you before too long.

Another reason the smartphone might prevail is because some people will just like having a device on them. This is cultural, and is probably the same argument that was used when detractors said mobile phones will never take off. Who would want to carry those devices around with them? And now we can’t consider a day when we leave the house without a device.

Attitudes change and voice interaction will start to catch-on before too long. Combine the voice UI with adoption of wireless headphones, and people will start to take their device out of their pocket less often. Should there be a suitable AR/Video glasses solution, the device will come out less often again, and then you’ll be able to make components smaller and lighter because the battery won’t need to be as powerful with less screen usage. Once you make the components small enough and light enough, they could be incorporated into the headphones, and the smartphone becomes redundant.

Another area to consider is money. Smartphones are increasingly being used to pay for items, but what about the idea of biometric identification and authentication for finance? You could pay for your pint with your eye; nothing physical needed there.

There might also come a day when you no-longer need substantial storage on the device, or any need to store anything locally. Should Mobile Edge Computer continue its progress, connectivity be stretched to every inch of the country, and the 5G revolution live up to the hype, our whole existence could be cloud-based. The headphones could be made even lighter and streamlined.

Of course, for all this to happen, there would have to be an incredibly, fantastic series of events, which are astronomically unlikely to coincide perfectly. It might be an amazingly absurd notion, but isn’t it something to think of a world where Apple is rendered completely redundant.