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.

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.

Snap set to have another crack at the specs market

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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