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.

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.

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.

Vodafone pulls out a genuinely good 5G demo – get ready for holograms!

While many 5G demos show technical progress, few wow an audience in the same way Vodafone did at its Future Ready press conference, unveiling the UK’s first live holographic call.

After CTO Scott Petty set the stage with a number of impressive announcements indicating Vodafone is perhaps not the cumbersome beast we have come to expect, an underwhelming skit involving a VR headset and England Women’s football captain Steph Houghton led irritable journalists towards a slumber. But with a drop of the curtain, the demo was unveiled in all its glory. And it was incredibly impressive.

5G will enable remote surgery and 4K gaming experiences, though there is little excitement generated through this announcements nowadays. Using 5G technology to underpin the experience, Houghton, who was located in a Manchester studio at the time, appeared in Vodafone’s Newbury HQ as a 3D hologram. The image was sharp, the lag was unnoticeable and all of a sudden the audience was engaged. It was cheesy, as Houghton showed off her skills and answered some questions from 11 year-old football fan Iris, but it was an excellent demonstration of the power of 5G.

“Vodafone has a history of firsts in UK telecoms – we made the nation’s first mobile phone call, sent the first text and now we’ve conducted the UK’s first holographic phone call using 5G,” said Vodafone UK CEO Nick Jeffrey.

What is worth noting is this is not a world first, KT is developing hologram calling as a flagship 5G service and has conducted a test call between Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam and its own CEO Hwang Chang-gyu. That said, this should not take the shine off an impressive demonstration.

Some might look at such an idea and scoff; what is the opportunity aside from showing off what the network is capable of, surely this isn’t realistic for the real world? But why not?

A decade ago it would have been inconceivable to consider video conferencing as a mass market product. In the early years it was reserved for the board room, due to the price of equipment and the software to make it work. Nowadays, Skype calling is as common as a sausage sandwich. We’re not suggesting hologram calling is going to be commonplace over the next couple of years, but who knows what is possible when the price point of technology starts tumbling down.

CTO Petty referred to the famous Bill Gates quote when discussing the potential for a mass market product; most people overestimate what they can do in one year and underestimate what they can do in ten. The mind runs wild when you consider what could be possible; GP consultations from your living room, distance learning would take on a new spin and some sports events, boxing for instance, could take the live audience from tens of thousands to millions by setting up holographic arenas all over the world. Healthcare, education and entertainment could be completely revolutionised.

It’s been a while since a 5G demonstration has genuinely got a room full of journalists excited; well done Vodafone!

 

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.