04 Mar

The Six Most Awesome Innovations At MWC 2015

It’s Mobile World Congress (MWC) time again, which for anyone who doesn’t know is the world’s largest trade exhibition for those in the mobile industry. It’s where the manufacturers get to show off what’s new and great in the world of mobile technology. Of course the definition of mobile technology has definitely widened over the years, and the stars from this year’s show are a light year away from the humble mobile telephone, where it all began. Mr Spock, as played by the late lamented Leonard Nimoy, would have been stunned by how far behind the times his communicator has actually become.

Virtual Reality from HTC & Valve

HTC are traditionally known for producing smartphones, but their latest offering on display at MWC, while definitely smart, is anything but a phone! They have produced the Vive virtual reality headset, powered by Valve’s VR platform. Valve dominates the PC gaming market with over 120mm users on the Steam gaming service. The new product will be available to consumers, as well as in a developer edition, later this year.

You wear the Vive virtual reality headset like a mask, and compared to most of the competition it appears to be light and comfortable to wear. You have a HD display in front of each eye, refreshing at 90 frames per second. It envelopes your entire field of vision, and moves with your movement, giving effectively 360-degree views.

It’s secret sauce are the Steam VR base stations, which track your movement, enabling you to physically walk around virtual space, in areas of up to 15 feet by 15 feet. In a game, for instance, you can be walking around as the character you are playing, interacting with the game environment. The base stations create a boundary to your artificial world that recognizes the limitations of the physical world you are operating in.

There are also wireless controllers which can be used in your virtual reality thanks to hand tracking, for example in a shooting game you can use a controller as a gun, although there are undoubtedly many other potential non-game uses as well. One reviewer has described using two of the controllers like gloves to whip a soup in the kitchen of a virtual restaurant.

Why is this important?

Virtual reality has seen unprecedented levels of investment in recent years as companies like Facebook, Sony, and Microsoft have raced to own this maturing medium. No one has cracked it yet. Having a sense of movement in your three dimensional space is imperative to a true sense of immersion. Valve and HTC’s approach is unprecedented.  The feedback from people reviewing the tech is that it was mind blowing or the best tech demo they had ever seen. We may have a new front runner for the Virtual Reality market on our hands…

Metaio Augmented Reality

Now this really is cutting edge technology, still in its infancy, but the possibilities are intriguing. Metaio uses the heat signatures from your fingerprints on physical objects as a way to input information.

metaio-thermal-touchFor instance in one demonstration at MWC they placed an iPhone in a Flir One heat-sensing case, and used their special demo app. They pointed the iPhone at a poster on the wall that depicted a number of album covers. The demonstrator then touched the poster on the album covers depicted. As he touched a particular cover on the poster a track from that album played on the phone. Effectively, the heat-sensing device turned the poster into a giant touchscreen. It can be seen in use here.

They also made demonstrations using the iPhone with heat-sensor as a wearable device. Yes, at the moment they look weird, and you would definitely get some strange looks wandering around the streets wearing it, but it is still early prototype days.

Why is this important?

Google Glass might have been perceived as a failure, but the reality is that it was an early prototype of technology that will become mainstream at some point in the future. Continued improvements in technology miniaturization and valuable technologies like augmented reality, that have a natural and truly useful application in wearables like Google Glass, are the key to the future success of these platforms.

Merging computer vision and thermal imaging allows anything to become a surface. Imagine turning any surface into a keyboard or an interface through Smart glasses!

Immersion Haptic Technology

Immersion took the opportunity of MWC 2015 to announce the Instinctive Alerts Framework. Essentially it is a consistent framework for manufacturers of haptic devices, indicating the levels and intensities of “feeling” that their devices should give in different circumstances.

For instance something like changing the mode on your wearable device would give you a short, light vibration, simply enough to let you know that the change has been registered. At the other extreme an incoming phone call will give a prolonged, strong vibration, to ensure that you definitely know that you are receiving the call.

They have divided activities that would give haptic feedback (i.e. touch feedback) into five categories: Changed This, Review This, Do This, Know This and Now This. These range from the lightest, shortest touch (Change This) to the strongest, longest tactile notification (Now This).

The hope is that manufacturers will follow this framework, and that users will be able to distinguish different types of alert, simply by the level of urgency in the tactile sensation they feel.

Immersion has brought some of this thinking to life with an SDK enabling developers to bring stickers to life. For example, if a consumer uses a sticker in a chat application, then using the device’s vibration motor, allied with animation and sound, the sticker can give the impression of laughing, pleading, cheering, dancing, sleeping etc. This is definitely a step-up from the normal smiley-face emoticon. You can see, hear, and feel the smiley faced-character laughing!

Why is this important?

Smartphones and wearable technology have put enormous computing power in our pocket, wrist, face, and even in our clothing. They’re ever present in our lives and new methods of machine-interaction like haptics not only allow for more expressive human-like communication by adding another dimension of touch, but they also allow for a subtle communication method in this always-on, increasingly connected, world that doesn’t interrupt the experience of the moment for you or those around you.

Qbo Robotics

With the Qbo series of robots we really do seem to be getting closer to having truly personalized artificial friends.

The key difference with these robots is that they can be programmed to recognize identity. They use a combination of the Festival Speech Synthesis System and the Julius open-source speech recognition engine.

As can be seen below, a very important step for a Qbo robot is to learn to recognize itself in a  mirror.

Once a particular Qbo robot can identify itself, you can then teach it to recognize and distinguish other Qbo robots.

As can be seem the robots have been programmed to recognize identity in a similar way to the way that humans identify each other.

Are these the forerunners of the Star Trek droids? They definitely look a bit like mini-R2D2s, but the speech is definitely more C3PO.

There is even a Robot App Store, where you can buy your own Qbos, either pre-assembled, or ready for you to put together, with your own custom touches. When you’re ready to get your Qbo operating there are a number of apps you can download for self recognition, listening, object recognition, question-answering, and audio control.

Why is this important?

The robot is fascinating in its own right, but the simplification around software based customization through the Robot App Store is an important milestone. As robots become increasingly dexterous, and thus able to interact with the world around them more effectively, it will be, like their human counterparts, their mind that makes them more unique than their bodies. Being able to download new skills to make a robot more personalized to your needs, will be an important step not only in the ongoing development of robotics, but also their relevancy to mass adoption. After all, what was the iPhone before there was an App Store?

Advanced Biometrics

Technically these are our fifth and our sixth innovations, but we’re going to cover them together as their importance is intertwined.

There are a couple of new mobile devices using biometric methods to enhance their security.

The first is the ZTE Grand S3 smartphone. At first you might look at its features and think ho hum, another smartphone … The big point of difference with the ZTE Grand G3 is that it incorporates eye-based biometric security. If you want to authorize mobile payments, unlock the screen or access secure content, you have to prove your identity, by having both your eyes scanned. The system is known as Eyeprint ID and is was developed by EyeVerify.

The second biometric development premiered at MWC is Qualcomm’s Sense ID ultrasonic fingerprint scanner. As it is ultrasonic there is no need for there to be contact between your finger and the actual device, and there is no concern about contaminants on your finger giving a misleading reading (as has been the case with all previous cases of mobile fingerprint technology). The ultrasonic sound waves will break through most contaminants. They can also scan more deeper into your body, giving more biometric data than could be gained from simply rubbing your finger against the surface of your phone. They effectively create a 3D image of your fingerprint’s outer skin layer.

The fact that it can work through glass, plastic and metal, gives phone manufacturers opportunities to utilise the scanners in ways impossible until now. There will be no need for a separate scanner outside the phone’s screen area (like on the iPhone) – the scanning should in the future be able to happen on the screen itself, possibly behind a virtual unlock button.

Why is this important?

The market for biometric authentication systems is projected to grow at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of around 14% until 2020. Traditional passwords are becoming obsolete and advanced security even in consumer devices will become the norm. Technologies like Eyeprint or SenseID are the types of technologies that make this a reality: mobile friendly, simple to use, and easy to integrate into mass market devices and products.

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