Google has another run at the AR world

Google is taking another crack at the growing augmented reality segment with the launch of Glass Enterprise Edition 2.

While the first enterprise product has seemingly trundled along without fanfare, Google will be hoping the segment is ripe enough to make the desired millions. Although this is a technology area which promises huge prospects in the future, sceptics will suggest society, networks and the supporting ecosystem isn’t quite ready to make this dream a reality.

“Over the past two years at X, Alphabet’s moonshot factory, we’ve collaborated with our partners to provide solutions that improve workplace productivity for a growing number of customers – including AGCO, Deutsche Post DHL Group, Sutter Health, and H.B. Fuller,” said Jay Kothari Project, Lead for Glass. “We’ve been inspired by the ways businesses like these have been using Glass Enterprise Edition.

“X, which is designed to be a protected space for long-term thinking and experimentation, has been a great environment in which to learn and refine the Glass product. Now, in order to meet the demands of the growing market for wearables in the workplace and to better scale our enterprise efforts, the Glass team has moved from X to Google.”

This is a massive step for any Google idea. Graduating from the moonshot labs to be listed as a genuine brand in the Google family is a sign executives think there are profits to be made now, not in the future. Over the last couple of months, we’ve seen the likes of Loon and Fi make their way into the real world, and now it is time for Glass to hit the big time.

Google Glass was first brought to the market in 2013, though this wasn’t exactly a riveting success. Perhaps it was just a sign of the ecosystem and society at the time; people just weren’t ready for this type of innovation. However, Google is a company which often demonstrates innovation leadership and it was never going to completely give up on this idea. The products were taken back to the labs and refined.

What you have now is an enterprise orientated product which has the potential to run into the mass market. This makes sense for two reasons; firstly, there are more immediate usecases for the enterprise world, and secondly, businesses have more money to spend on these types of products than the consumer.

What remains to be seen is whether Google has any long-term interest in the hardware space or whether this is a game-plan to generate momentum in an embryonic segment.

When you look at the smart speaker segment, Google was always set to make more money in software and services than the hardware space. As soon as the traditional audio brands got the idea, its products were going to come up short. However, selling the hardware cheap to gain consumer buy-in while simultaneously demonstrating market appetite to the traditional brands was an excellent move.

Now there are more mainstream brands starting to develop their own smart speakers, Google can create partnerships to ensure its virtual assistance is exposed to the consumer and make money through means which are embedded in its corporate DNA; third-party relationships and online advertising.

Google might well have ambitions to take a leadership position in the AR glasses space, but you can also guarantee it has bigger plans to make profits through the supporting software and services ecosystem.

Is the VR market primed to pluck?

For all the promise of virtual reality (VR) the consumer appetite remains as somewhat of an unknown. Theoretically the technology could revolutionise the entertainment space, but we’re currently in a bit of a waiting game.

HTC is ready to gamble the consumer appetite, supporting ecosystem and product portfolio has evolved to such a position to provide the fuel for a subscription-based library of premium VR content.

“We have built a new model for VR that shines a light on the great library of VR content this industry has developed and gives users a reason to spend more time in headset than ever before,” said Rikard Steiber, President of Viveport.

“At the same time, we’re increasing developer reach and potential revenue as more developers can monetize a single Infinity user. We believe this model matches how consumers want to experience VR”

In pursuit of simplicity, Viveport is effectively a ‘Netflix for VR’. Customers can either pay $12.99 a month or $99 a year to access a VR content library with more than 600 titles already listed. As with other subscription models such as Netflix for content and Spotify for music, customers will have unlimited access to all content hosted on the platform.

However, you still have to answer the question as to whether the VR segment is ready to deliver the much-anticipated riches.

For the profits to be made, three criteria have to be satisfied. Firstly, is there an ecosystem which is creating enough volume of content, wide enough variety and immersive enough experiences. Secondly, is the hardware priced to allow the opportunity to generate mass market penetration. And finally, is there enough demand from the consumer.

With 600 titles already listed on the platform, this would suggest there is a large enough ecosystem in place to create the content. HTC is promising more titles, as well as some co-ordinated launches such as ‘Angry Birds VR: Isle of Pigs’. Secondly, the price of VR headsets has been coming down recently, and while it is still expensive, it is not prohibitively so. Consumers can spend thousands at the top end, but then again Google Daydream View can be purchased for £69. The breadth of products is now available to make this segment potentially viable.

The final criterion is the consumer appetite. This is incredibly difficult to gauge without launching a product, but as long as there are early adopters it is a good time to launch. Let’s not forget, Netflix was not an immediate success, it took time to develop the monstrous subscription base it has today, but it steadily attracted more and more thanks to it being first to market, while also offering an affordable (and very good) experience. Much of this was done through word of mouth.

Another lesson which HTC will have to learn is that enough is never enough. Netflix has maintained it position as the leader in the content world because it is constantly driving for more. Last year, the team spend almost $8 billion on content acquisition and creation, a number which will drastically increase this year. Not only is Netflix funding bigger-budget productions, but it is also expanding the local content libraries around the world. With Viveport, HTC could do the same, but it needs to ensure it is constantly expanding.

HTC has crafted itself a leadership position in the VR world, and the raw materials are currently in place to make this a profitable segment. Add improved connectivity with fibre penetration increasing and 4G constantly improving to the above three criteria, and HTC could be onto a winner.

Who knows, maybe in a few years’ time we’ll be referencing Viveport as the heavyweight of the entertainment space, not Netflix.

RAN and AR app revenues forecast to increase rapidly

In its preview of MWC 2019, analyst firm Ovum has forecast that revenues for both radio kit and augmented reality mobile apps will increase significantly in the next few years.

Ovum anticipated what it thinks will be the major themes of this year’s show and, unsurprisingly, 5G dominates. Monetization, device hype, mobile video and enterprise are all aspects of 5G that Ovum reckons will be extensively debated at the Barcelona telecoms fest. While there are still plenty of unanswered questions at this early stage on 5G, Ovum seems quite bullish about its commercial prospects.

While the RAN kit market is forecast to slightly decline this year, it’s expected to bounce back and start growing rapidly by 2021.

Ovum RAN forecast

On the back of all this lovely extra bandwidth augmented reality apps are also forecast to become a lot more popular. While revenues from that segment fell in 2017, they’re expected to increase by around $2 billion per year for the next few.

Ovum AR app forecast

Other major themes anticipated in the report include: consumer AI, data privacy, IoT and RCS.

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.”

Going under the hood of Qualcomm Snapdragon 855: plenty to like

More details of Qualcomm’s first 5G chipset have been released, bringing all-round improvements, and a 5G chipset for PCs was also announced.

On the first day of its annual Snapdragon Technology Summit, Qualcomm announced its 5G chipset for mobile devices, the Snapdragon 855, but released limited specs. On the following two days more details were disclosed. An SoC for 5G-connected PCs, the Snapdragon 8cx was also unveiled.

In addition to the X50 modem for 5G connectivity (on both mmWave and sub-6GHz frequencies) and X24 modem (to provide LTE connectivity), at the centre of the Snapdragon 855 is ARM’s new flagship Cortex A76 CPU, marketed by Qualcomm as Kryo 485. It contains 8 cores with the single core top performance at 2.84 GHz. Qualcomm claims the 855 is 45% faster than its predecessor 845, though it did not specify what exactly this refers to. More importantly for Qualcomm, the top speed is 9% faster than the Kirin 980 from HiSilicon (a Huawei subsidiary), another 7-nanometre implementation of the ARM Cortex A76.

Also included in the 855 is the new Adreno 640 GPU rendering graphics. Qualcomm has focused 855’s marketing messages on gaming performance, and the GPU is at the core to deliver it. Qualcomm claims the new GPU will enable true HDR gaming, as well as support the HDR10+ and Dolby Vision formats. Together with the display IP, the Adreno 640 GPU will support 120fps gaming as well as smooth 8K 360-degree video playback. Another feature highlighted is the support for Physically Based Rendering in graphics, which will help improve VR and AR experience, including more accurate lighting physics and material interactions, for example more life-like surface texture, or material-on-material audio interaction.

The key new feature on Snapdragon’s Hexagon 690 DSP is that it now includes a dedicated Machine Learning (ML) inferencing engine in the new “tensor accelerator”. The Hexagon 690 also doubles the number of HVX vector pipelines over its predecessors the Hexagon 680 and 685, to include four 1024b vector pipelines. The doubled computing power and the dedicated ML engine combined are expected to improve the Snapdragon 855’s AI capability by a big margin.

The integrated new Spectra 380 image signalling processor (ISP) will both improve the Snapdragon’s capability to deepen acceleration and to save power consumption when processing images. Qualcomm believes the new ISP will only consume a quarter of the power as its predecessor for image object classification, object segmentation, depth sensing (at 60 FPS), augmented reality body tracking, and image stabilisation.

On the OEM collaboration side, in addition to Samsung, on day 2 of the event we also saw Pete Lau, the CEO of Chinese smartphone maker OnePlus come to the stage to endorse the new 5G chipset and vow to be the “first to feature” the Snapdragon 855. Separately, the British mobile operator EE announced that it will range a OnePlus 5G smartphone in the first half of 2019.

On the same day, thousands of miles away, more Chinese smartphone OEMs including Xiaomi, OPPO, Vivo, and ZTE (in addition to OnePlus) also embraced the new Snapdragon chipset at the China Mobile Global Partner Conference in Guangzhou, southern China. China Mobile will also launch a customer premise equipment (CPE), likely a fixed wireless access modem, using the same platform.

Back in Hawaii, on day 3 of the Snapdragon Tech Summit, Qualcomm launched a new chipset for PC: the Snapdragon 8cx (“c” for computer, “x” for eXtreme). This is Qualcomm’s third iteration of chipset for PC, built on ARM v8.1 (a variant of Cortex A76). Similar to the Snapdragon 855, the 8cx also has the X24 integrated cellular modem with for LTE connectivity, and the X50 modem with 5G connectivity can be paired with it. The CPU also has eight cores, with a top speed of 2.75 GHz. The new Adreno 680 GPU is said to process graphics twice as fast as the GPU in the previous generation ARM for Windows chipset (Snapdragon 850) but 60% more efficient in power consumption.

Perhaps the most meaningful change is its memory architecture. The Snapdragon 8cx will have a 128-bit wide interface, enabling it to provide native support for much more software and applications, including Windows 10 Enterprise and Office 365, which clearly is a sales pitch to the corporate IT departments.

Unlike the OEM support garnered by Snapdragon 855, there was no public endorsement by PC makers yet. Lenovo did come to the stage but was only talking about its Yoga 2-in-1 notebooks that have used earlier generations of Snapdragon chipsets for Windows on ARM. On the other hand, Qualcomm does not position Snapdragon 8cx as a replacement for the 850 but rather as a higher end contemporary, with 850 mainly targeted at a niche consumer market.

In general, this year’s Snapdragon Tech Summit has delivered more step change with the new product launches. More concrete industry support was also on show, indicating that, depending on how fast and extensive 5G is to be rolled out, we may start seeing true 5G smartphones in the first half of next year. We may need to wait a bit longer before a reasonable line-up of always-on 5G connected PCs can hit the market.

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 eyes up the connected home space

Facebook has seemingly taken its first steps towards the connected home market with the launch of Portal.

As it stands, Portal is being marketed simply as a video calling product, though with partnerships with various content streaming channels and a tie-in with Amazon’s Alexa, the future could see Facebook enter the fray as a competitor in the smart home hardware segment.

Two products will be released to start with, Portal and Portal+. Portal will feature a 10-inch 1280 x 800 display, while Portal+ is a larger model with a 15-inch 1920 x 1080 pivoting display. Powered by AI, Facebook claims the smart camera automatically pans and zooms to keep everyone in view, while smart sound features minimize background noise and enhances the voice of whoever is talking. How effective the AI remains to be seen, however now the idea of smart communications products have been normalised in the home it won’t be too long before some pretty impressive products will start hitting the market.

Such a venture could prove to be a very useful gander for the Facebookers, as diversification is going to need to happen sooner or later. With younger demographics searching elsewhere for their social media fix, Snapchat and Facebook-owned Instagram benefiting, pressure will soon start to mount on the advertising business.

Shareholders are used to exceptional year-on-year growth figures, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see these flatten; people are becoming less engaged by the platform, therefore spending less time exposed to adverts, while recent figures have shown key markets are not boosting total subscription numbers. Sooner or later a threshold will be hit; only so many adverts can be placed in front of users. Perhaps this is where the Portal products can help.

Unlike the other internet giants Facebook hasn’t really done an exceptional job of diversification. It has added more advertising products (i.e. different ways to engage users on the platform), but this isn’t genuine diversification. If the audience for the core product declines, Facebook’s business suffers; it doesn’t matter how many products there are if no-one is one the other side of the screen to see them.

Google or Amazon however have supported their core business with outside bets. Think of the cloud computing businesses they own, or the content platforms, or ventures into the grocery sectors. These are ventures which diversify enough to ensure negative impacts on the core business do not have a significant impact, however, close enough to lean on the brand and expertise.

With the Portal products, Facebook could make a play for the focal point of the smart home. This has a couple of interesting benefits, one of which will be controlling the gateway and therefore access to the consumer. By operating a window to the consumer, the owner of the window can charge access to gaze through. Partnerships are already in place with the likes of Spotify Premium, Pandora, and iHeartRadio, as well as Food Network and Newsy. This is a business model which could certainly be successful should Portal offer scale.

It is a simple, but effective idea. The window owner would also have the opportunity to launch new services and products which be installed as default, offering an entry-point to the data economy, in the same way Google dominates the mobile OS space with Android.

The focal point of the smart home is still an on-going battle, though Amazon and Google do seem to be winning with their smart speakers. The telcos have a chance with the router, though the proactive nature of the internet players is wrestling the ecosystem behind the speakers. However, today’s generations demand screens. Amazon has been trying to launch its own smart device with a built-in screen for months, though a difficult relationship with YouTube has not helped the situation.

Should Facebook be able to launch a video-orientated product, with high-enough specs, deep connections to the smart home ecosystem and smart enough AI applications, it could make a dent in the market. No-one has really produced a product which grips onto the space, and priced at $199 and $349, it isn’t out of the question for the Portal and Portal+.

Unsurprisingly, Facebook has made a point of security. AI applications are stored on the device, meaning data will be processed locally not transferred to the cloud. It’s almost as if Facebook has accepted it has a terrible reputation for data collection and management, and is offering an alternative to trusting the team with your personal information.

The big question is whether people trust the Facebook brand enough to give the business such prominent influence over so many different aspects of their lives. Even with a physical cover for the camera lens, users might be sceptical, though if there is ambition for additional services, there is a lot of work which will need to be done. The brand is not in a very good position when it comes to credibility and trust.

Another area which might prove to be a stickler for the product is that you have to have a Facebook account for it to work. This might not prove to be an issue at all in the long-run, though considering there will be people who don’t have and don’t want a Facebook account, or people who have intentionally deleted theirs as a result of recent scandals, it might be immediately ruling out a number of potential customers.

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.