Monthly Archives: September 2017

September 27, 2017

AR Still In The Starting Blocks


With the dust finally settling on Apple’s launch of iOS 11, a clearer picture is beginning to emerge regarding the new operating system’s support for Augmented Reality. And – truth be told – the picture is that not only were those “disappointed” first impressions right, but that if anything the Cupertino giant’s offerings in the AR world are even more underwhelming they seemed at first.

One critic described the results as “demoware” and implied that they were more form than substance. Describing them as “cute” he warned of a high churn rate among early adopters. Another critic asked if sharks swimming in the living room even had any useful purpose – as entertainment or otherwise.

Now of course, we have to be careful about dismissing new technology. When television was first proposed – and even after it was invented and demonstrated – there were critics who questioned whether it had any value. And Harry Warner, of Warner Brothers, is famous for the quip: “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?” In fairness to Harry Warner, he was not dismissing sound accompanying movies altogether, only suggesting that the audience wanted to hear music rather than dialogue.

But the problem is that AR today is very much like the laser was when it was first invented: a solution looking for a problem.

That might explain, why despite iOS 11 and ARKit (for AR developers), the AR features of the iPhone 8, iPhone Plus and iPhone X were comprehensively played down at the launch of the phones, which also saw the announcement of a standalone Apple Watch.

Not many AR apps are available for the iOS just yet and the few that are, seem gimmicky and bug-ridden. Those who have seen the recent movie Kingsman: The Golden Circle, will remember a couple of scenes in which one character’s field of vision becomes overlaid with flying butterflies. However, iPhone AR isn’t actually there yet, as you would have to view this overlay not in your full FOV in a headset, but on a five inch screen.

Worse still, it appears that even these minimalistic AR apps are a monumental drain on the phone’s battery. And the Apps have also been criticized for being hard to understand and equally hard to interact with.

This plus the wide gulf between the pre-launch hype and the post-launch reality, has led to a deep sense of disappointment. It seems that the old adage that it is better to underpromise and overdeliver than to overpromise and underdeliver has been completely disregarded by a company that ought to know better.

This may be, simply because these are the first apps out of the starting blocks and have evidently been rushed to market to test the waters. No doubt, more serious contenders are playing their cards close to their chests while they design, develop, code and – most importantly – test their AR apps before releasing them. It is, after all, only three months since iOS11 was even launched. While this may not address the battery drain problem, at least it offers light at the end of the tunnel for those seeking better quality AR games.

Even the battery drain problem may be an exaggeration, as the negative reports have come from those running AR games on older phones that have been upgraded to iOS 11, but lack the punch of the iPhones 8 and X hardware. It remains to be seen whether the new iPhones can deliver the energy longevity and processing power to run these apps.

And it also remains to be seen whether the major players in software development can deliver the AR apps that provide the user experience that customers actually want.

September 26, 2017

5 Best Accessories for the Oculus Rift

No matter how good computer and gaming hardware is, it can always be improved with the right accessories and peripherals. This is as true of Virtual Reality headsets as any other electronic gadgetry and as true of the Oculus Rift as any of its competitors.

So in this review, we take a look at the five best accessories for the Rift, including a spare sensor, a headset stand, foam implants for the facial area, a ceiling-based cable management system and a tension clamp for attaching the sensor to a shelf or door.

As with any cross-section of useful accessories and add-ons, we have tried to give you a fair assessment of the pros and cons. There is no one, single perfect solution for any of the problems that these accessories seek to address. But we have found them to be good overall and believe that in all the examples below, the positives outweigh the negatives.

Oculus Sensor

Oculus Sensor

Oculus Sensor

This is a third sensor for the Oculus Rift that offers 360 degree and room-scale tracking. It requires an additional USB 2.0 port or higher, however the makers note that these features are experimental and “not all experiences may work as expected.”

It comes with a 5 meter USB extension cable (although it appears that some customers have complained of not receiving the cable with it). It is identical to the sensors bundled with the Rift, but some customers have complained that it is screwed onto the base rather too tightly and not easy to unscrew.

As an additional sensor it works well, enhancing the gaming experience as you move around. It eliminates blind spots and facilitates a larger playing area, or “room scale tracking” as it is called (sometimes shortened to room scaling).

Buentek VR Stand, Universal VR Headset Holder & Cable Organizer

Buentek VR Stand

Buentek VR stand

When you have a car you want a guaranteed parking space. If you buy a guitar, you like to put it on a guitar stand when not in use. And when you have a VR headset you also also want to store it somewhere that it is safe, but easily accessible.

That’s what the product is for. It is stores the headset in a way that leaves it easily accessible to you. And it also provides space for organizing the cables. Made of ABS plastic - the same material that lego bricks are made from -  it is not exclusively for the Oculus Rift, but can - as the name implies - store any of the major VR headsets.

It arrives in pieces and must be assembled. However you will probably have to figure out how to assemble it yourself as the instructions are not clear. Once assembled, you will find that it is designed to sit on a suitable surface, like a shelf or a desktop. It cannot be wall-mounted.

The design is “cool” and stylish. But the plastic is not all that strong. It is not designed to handle rough treatment. It does however carry a 12-month manufacturer’s warranty.

As a headset stand it is quite good, but it has nowhere to put the controllers. Also, the cable management that it offers is not that great. You might find it more convenient to use it just as a headset stand and let the cables dangle at the back. This is good from another point of view because when you wrap the cables on it along with the headset, it has too much weight on the front and can even overbalance and fall.

Oculus Rift Facial Interface / Foam Replacement

Facial Interface / Foam Replacement

Facial Interface / Foam Replacement

These PU foam leather foam replacement masks are designed to offer the user a comfortable alternative to the material inside the headset and also to offer better hygiene. The hygiene comes from the fact that the masks can be easily wiped down with an antibacterial wipe - or indeed a damp,soapy cloth. It is also soft and reasonable comfortable, with air holes that allow the skin to “breathe” - a concept that James Bond creator Ian Flemming exaggerated somewhat in Goldfinger.

The package consists with a solid frame to hold the foam inserts, two PU leather foam inserts themselves and a machine washable cotton cover. The hygiene element can be enhanced by using different foam replacements for different users. The machine-washable cover has the advantage of absorbing sweat, which tends to increase when using the PU leather, as compared to the default Rift headset on its own. If you sweat a lot when wearing the headset, you will be grateful for the added option of the cotton cover. Unfortunately the cotton cover doesn’t wrap around properly except near the proximity sensor, which it then activates. (That’s why it’s called a proximity sensor.)

The inserts are of different thicknesses, with the thinner already attached. This is just as well as the thinner one is a bit more comfortable than the other, which feels just a bit too big.

Midwec 6 Packs Cable Management 

Midwec Cable Management

Better Cable Management Improves Experience

The dangling cable - with its feeling of constant tugging at the back of the head - has been the bane of VR headsets since the first hit the market. It will continue to be so until the manufacturers implement a wireless solution. This shouldn’t be too difficult in this age of Wifi and WiGig. But it seems like there may be a trade off with battery life. At any rate, VR headsets still use cables.

So what do you do when you want to move around and get the full VR gaming experience? The current solution is a cable management system, that holds the cables up by the ceiling. That’s because your feet move around on the floor. You’re more likely to trip over cables on the floor than get strangled by them on the ceiling, so hanging the cables from the ceiling is a logical solution - albeit a compromise.

This this system uses retractable cable holders that can be adjusted to the weight of the cable. The system comprises 6 hooks attached to peel-away stickers (that can be stuck to the ceiling), 6 retractable lanyards and 6 carabiners. The adhesive is strong.

The system works well, with the tension just about right to keep the cables from dangling without the feeling that it is still tugging at the back of your head. But you have to make sure that the hooks and lanyards are not placed too close together, otherwise the cable may get tangled up.

The supplier has excellent customer service and have shown themselves ready to give refunds if customers are dissatisfied. But very often it’s a case of exaggerated expectations. There is no ideal solution to the cable management problem. But this ceiling mounted system works well if used correctly.

Hyperkin VR Clamp Mount

Clamp mount

Hyperkin VR Clamp Mount for HTC Vive/ Oculus Rift

If you want to attach your Oculus Rift sensors to high shelves - instead of having them on stands - these clamps are for you. They have an adjustable ball joint, giving vertical and horizontal freedom. The sensor itself attaches via a one-inch mounting screw. The clamp can expand to a maximum of about 6.5 cm. That’s enough to fit on a door! And of course it’s very easy to release and move to a new location until you’re satisfied that you’ve positioned the sensor in the ideal location.

The tension is very strong and it can support its own weight combined with the weight of the sensor even when upside down.

One minor gripe is that the rubber has a strange smell. That might be due to the type of rubber and should not be a cause for concern. You only notice it when you are close to it - and if you mount the sensors high, then that would only be rarely.

There is also a screw handle for tightening the angle ball-bearing, but in some positions, your fingers are obstructed by the rest of the clamp handle to which it is attached.

The Final Word

None of these five accessories is perfect. But they all perform at least one useful function. Compared to the price of the Oculus Rift itself, their prices are low. You wouldn’t buy expensive cutlery and crockery only to eat cheap food, would you? We believe that these accessories enhance the value of your Oculus Rift and for this reason we give them our recommendation. As always, we welcome user feedback.

Happy gaming!

September 26, 2017

VR Exercise – Fighting Fit with VR

VR exercise games

The concept of combining visual imagery with physical workouts isn’t altogether new. For years we’ve had large video screens in front of treadmills so that people can imagine that their jogging down a country lane rather than in a gym. Similarly, we’ve had physical combat games that involve throwing punches. The Nintendo Wii had a very popular boxing game. But now gyms are installing virtual reality systems that can be used in conjunction with their exercise equipment. And at the other end of the scale, home exercise systems including VR are also being developed. So VR exercise games are here.

Some of these are downright risible, like Drunkn Bar Fight (soon to be available for Oculus Rift and HTC Vive) in which is invited to smash up a pub in the name of exercise (shades of Carrie Nation). Already available for the Vive, Rift and PlayStation VR is Fruit Ninja, in which the user is expected to chop flying fruit with a Samurai sword. It is, by consensus, one of the most energy-demanding games out there.

There is also a game called Sound Boxing (available for the Vive and Rift) that combines features of both of these. Like Fruit Ninja, the targets are flying objects. But like Drunkn Bar Fight, one uses one’s fists rather than a Samurai sword. The “sound” in Sound Boxing comes from the fact that there is background music to accompany the action.

Then there is Holodia, a Swiss venture that makes VR imagery to accompany cycling and rowing. While the Icaros is a gyroscopic machine that facilitates full-body workouts, in the context of a muscle-taxing VR game. These unit have been installed in some 200 gyms already.

September 26, 2017

Actually it’s Sony leading the VR pack

Sony PlayStationVR

Newsfeed - London, September 25, 2017

While the pundits have been debating who’s the king of the castle in VR wars - and Apple sets out its stall in the AR market with its ARKit for iPhone developers, one veteran company has been quietly taking the lead and resolutely keeping it with little public fanfare. That company is Sony, the innovative giant of the second half of the 20th century that was once seen as cutting edge, but is now very much part of the establishment.

Sony’s VR headset has been outselling the Vive and the Rift, at a lower yet still profitable price, but HTC is making a loss on the Vive and Facebook not doing much better with the Rift.

Yet Sony is strangely uncomfortable with its market leader position. In an interview with Reuters, Andrew House, the chief executive at Sony’s Interactive Entertainment Inc subsidiary, said:

“I‘m not entirely comfortable being the market leader in VR by such a margin that seems to be happening right now,”

He went on to explain that his concern was not that Sony was the market leader per se, but that the extent of that lead and the fact that their main competitors were struggling, did not bode well for the state of that sector of the industry. He felt that it would be better for the industry as a whole - including Sony - if the industry as a whole were in a healthier state.

Given that Sony is not just a maker of hardware, but also  major content provider, House’s attitude is certainly understandable.

The CEO added that “With such a brand new category you want a variety of platforms all doing well to create that rising tide and create the audience.”

Technically, Samsung is ahead of Sony in VR market share as a whole - or at least was in the second quarter of 2017. However, in the VR headset market, Sony - with sales of half a million units in the April to June quarter - had a clear lead over HTC and Facebook (owners of the Oculus Rift). The fact that their VR headset is more affordable than the competition, and is tightly-integrated with the PS4 platform, is key to Sony’s market lead.

September 22, 2017

5 Best accessories for the HTC Vive in 2018

BestVR.Tech does a tour of the accessory shops to find the best accessories for our HTC Vive headset

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a hardcore gamer in possession of a good VR headset must be in want of a few accessories.

However little known the views or feelings of this gamer may be on his first purchasing a Virtual Reality headset, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the purveyors of VR hardware, that he is considered as the rightful customer of some one or other of their products.

To a large extent, the reason for this is that the makers of VR headsets vary in their generosity when it comes to accessories. The Virtual Reality market is still far from mature and most of its customers are hardcore, dedicated gamers. One thing the market knows about hardcore followers of anything is that they are ready to pay top dollar to indulge their desires. That’s why tickets to major sporting events or rock concerts command a premium price. And that’s why VR and AR hardware products are so expensive.

For that same reason, the makers of such products follow a policy - at least in some cases - of not bundling those little extras that make the experience of using their products a great experience but rather let it remain merely a good one. In some cases, they develop the accessories and peripherals in-house but sell them as optional extras, knowing full-well that there is nothing “optional” about it to a hardcore gamer! In other cases, they leave the development of the accessories and peripherals to others.

As HTC tends towards the less generous end of the spectrum when it comes to the policy of bundling accessories, we have decided, in this article, to take a look at some of the best accessories available for the HTC Vive.

Deluxe Audio Strap

 Deluxe Audio Strap

Deluxe Audio Strap

This audio strap, with its adjustable earphones, provides 360-degree surround sound. It has interior padding for comfort and an easy-to-use adjustment dial to ensure the right fit. This makes it very easy to switch between users. You can vary both the height and angle. The adjustment dial is also useful for taking off the headset when you’ve finished. In fact it is important to turn the dial and loosen the headset before removing it. Otherwise the act of pulling it off can loosen the screws at the back.

The cable management system with this audio strap is much better that the default version, so you no longer feel like you’ve got a pigtail that some irritating kid behind you keeps tugging. The cable path can also be altered to the side. An added benefit of the audio strap is that it facilitates better weight distribution. However, there’s still that little bugaboo of a Velcro top strap.

But the greatest strength of this accessory is of course the audio itself. Instead of the Vive’s ear buds that had a tendency to fall out - and that offered mediocre audio quality even when they stayed in - this set, with its on-ear phones, makes this deluxe audio strap the perfect accessory for a truly immersive experience.

Another good feature is that the audio strap can be used as a duplicate for the sound so that a second person can hear what the player is hearing. This is done under Settings, by selecting the “Mirror audio device” option and then selecting the device from the drop-down list.

This headset is not completely perfect. The rear section that covers the back of the head is not adjustable and may not suit every head shape. Thus, one can adjust the angle of the earphones but not the headset as a whole. Also, it is somewhat annoying to think that you still have to shell out an extra 100 for this accessory. Even after the latest price reduction, the Vive commands a high price and it’s like buying a luxury car for a goodly price only to be told that you have to pay extra if you want comfortable seats.

Protective Frame & Silicone Protective Case

2 Packs Protective Frame and Silicone Protective Case for HTC VIVE Controllers

2 Packs Protective Frame and Silicone Protective Case for HTC VIVE Controllers

Let’s face it. We all drop things from time to time - some of us more than others. (And yours truly more than most.) Furthermore, it is precisely in the heat of an action game you’re most likely to drop things. And given the nature of the activity, the thing you’re most likely to drop is of course the game controller. So a shock protector for your game controllers is really a no-brainer when you think about it - if that’s not a contradiction in terms.

This pair of shock-protectors feature all the attributes that you’d expect: shock absorption (obviously!), anti-scratch, anti-slip grip and shatterproof construction - at least in the course of normal usage. The flexible silicone protective cases slide on and off easily and the rigid protective frames screw on with a finger operated dial.

This protective arrangement reduces the risk of damage from dropping the controllers without significantly interfering with the interaction between the controllers and the sensors. I say “without significantly” because it does marginally interfere. For example, if the controllers are held very low, the sensors seem to struggle to locate them and may drift slightly. Adjusting the angle of the sensors can alleviate this problem. The problem becomes more noticeable if a controller with these protectors on moves into a spot covered by only one of the sensors. This can happen even when using the sync cable.

Another minor gripe is that the silicone protective case isn’t cut perfectly. The top part of the cutout should be just a tiny bit higher (2 mm at the most) to leave unobstructed access to the top button. It might be that one should just to push the silicone up to the top really hard, but the trouble is, even if you do, it tends to slip down slightly.

A further complaint, is that the “ears” of the trackers do extend outside the cage. This might be because the makers assume that because of the "bent" shape of the trackers, these “ears” are unlikely to come into contact with a hard surface, even if dropped. To which I say, if dropped onto a flat surface like the floor maybe. But if dropped onto, say, a desk with things on it, the shape of the frame may fail to protect them. This may seem like a petty complaint, but it is worth mentioning.

2 Packs Protective Frame and Silicone Protective Case for HTC VIVE Controllers

2 Packs Protective Frame and Silicone Protective Case for HTC VIVE Controllers

Focitec Studipro - 2 x 7'6" Light Stand 

Fovitec StudioPRO

Fovitec StudioPRO

These stands are basically photographers lighting stands that can also be used as stands for your HTC Vive sensors. They are 7’6” high, use a standard tripod-base support and mini-ball head mounts, giving them three degrees of freedom. The three section columns above the tripod can also be adjusted for height from 2’9” to the 7’6” maximum. And they come with a carry bag.

Whilst the Vive requires that the base stations be set at least 6” high - making the 2’9” minimum irrelevant - there is no reason why they should not be set higher. This kit allows you to set them 18 inches higher than the required minimum. And also, with this kit, you are not forced to mount the sensors on a wall. This gives you greater flexibility.

The stands are spring loaded for easy opening, however this is a liability with the Vive lighthouses as the lighthouses tend to vibrate and the vibration is then passed on to the spring where it is exacerbated and becomes noisy and disconcerting (though not in any way damaging).

Also, they are somewhat fragile. Although they can easily take the weight of the lighthouses, they can break if handled roughly. And some people can rough-handle parts like this without even realizing that they’re doing so.

Lastly the bag is not of top quality. It can early show signs of wear quite quickly. Also, it can only be hand carried. This lack of a shoulder strap can be a bit of an inconvenience.

Fovitec StudioPRO

Fovitec StudioPRO

Memory Foam Face-Foam Replacement

HTC Vive Memory

HTC Vive Memory

These foam face replacements offer a better field of view than the originals, but at the price - it has to be said - of comfort. Indeed, this is always the trade-off and one cannot shy away from acknowledging the fact.

However, aside from the FOV advantage, these replacements have other significant points in their favor. Coming, as they do, from virtual reality hygiene specialists, they are easy to clean and prevent the buildup of bacteria. The foam is made with polyurethane leather which is easy to clean with a wipe of an antibacterial cloth. This is important for users who share their headsets with others.

There are two pads, so you can swap them between users. However, you do not have to do even this. Just put in one pad and be sure to clean it between users and the problem is solved. However, it’s good to have the extra pad.

Aside from cleaning by wiping with an antibacterial cloth, you also have the option of washing it with dishwashing soap on a wet cloth. It is best to rinse it under running water after that, as wet cloths themselves sometimes harbor bacteria. Then let it air dry.

The problem is that these replacements are too wide for the headset and actually have to be bunched up somewhat to fit. This is even visible from the picture itself. This gives them a somewhat uncomfortable feel against one’s face, almost as if one is being pinched. It also undermines, somewhat, the advantage of them being thinner than the originals.

The synthetic polyurethane material also causes sweating, despite the pores on the surface. But as we said at the start of this review, it is a tradeoff between comfort and field of view - also between comfort and hygiene.

HTC Vive Memory

HTC Vive Memory

MDW VR Cable Management

MDW VR Cable Management

MDW VR Cable Management

This is essentially a hook-and-eye based, ceiling-mounted cable management solution. And boy was that a mouthful to say. And that pretty much sums up the nature of the solution. It is quite a "dramatic" solution for the cable management problem.

At one end, you have the hooks that fit to the ceiling by adhesive pads. (This of course means that no drilling is required - the adhesive pads just stick, after you peel off the outer backing and push them into place on the ceiling.)  You then attach, to these hooks, stretchable lanyards which can stretch to 90 cm. For the benefit of the physicists among you, these lanyards are essentially springs that obey Hooke’s law (excuse the pun) of elasticity and return to their original 12 cm when the tension is removed from them.

There are a total of ten lanyards and ten hooks. This doesn’t mean you should (or need to) attach all ten to the ceiling. What it does mean is that if you require greater length, you can attach two or more lanyards together. (You don’t need the hooks to string the lanyards together because they have carabiner hooks at one end and circular eyes at the other.)

You also don’t have to worry about the ceiling hooks coming off the ceiling. The adhesive is very strong. But that means that once you have stuck them in place, they are equally hard to remove.

Having said all of the above, the system is still far from perfect. It stops you from tripping over the cable but at the price of getting tangled up in it. It avoids the feel of the cable pulling against the back of your head, but it doesn’t give you the same true freedom of movement that a cordless headset would give you.

But then again, cordless headsets are what we’re all waiting for.

MDW VR Cable Management

MDW VR Cable Management

The Final Word

A good audio headset (or rather component of a headset) is pretty basic when it comes to virtual reality. It should not be subject to an extra charge. And when you’re talking about something like a VR headset - which is pretty expensive to begin with - a customer has the right to expect good earphones as part of the basic setup. Just like a car should have seats and a steering wheel as well as an engine!

That said, it could be argued that leaving the option open to attach alternative peripherals and accessories actually opens the market to third party partners who might actually make better accessories. Audio is, after, all a specialized area. And some of the major players in that area may have more experience than those in the VR field who tend to focus on the visual, for obvious reasons.

But in that case, it would be better if the VR companies were to form partnerships with the makers of audio equipment and then bundle the whole caboodle together. Even if that is reflected in the consumer price that would still be better than selling something second-rate and expecting the customer to leap through hoops trying to upgrade it. Worse still, they should certainly not make their own improved version and expect people to pay more for it. There is a case for selling different versions of a product. But at these prices, the choice should be between a good and a great version, not a mediocre and a good version.

With the other accessories, there is more of a case for leaving something on the field for others to supply the value-added products. Hence the controller protectors, the sensor stands and the face-foam replacements.

The cable management question is a bit more thorny. There is an obvious market for it. But in this age of Bluetooth, WiFi and WiGig, it ought to be unnecessary. If the headset needs a computer to feed it, the mobility requirement of gaming makes wireless a necessity. It’s something that should have been delivered already. In the meantime, as long as cables are used, we need a suitable management system for them.

All of these accessories are worth buying by HTC Vive owners. It’s just a question of how much you’re willing to pay.

September 19, 2017

Will the next generation of Amazon electronics have VR functionality?


Newsfeed - September 25, 2017

Rumor has it that Amazon is working on a VR or AR version of the Echo and/or Kindle

Amazon moved from a product seller into a product manufacturer as far back as the Kindle. Since then we have seen the Kindle Fire, Kindle Fire 8 and Kindle Fire 10.

Then came the Amazon Echo, the smart speaker that hosted “Alexa” - Amazon’s smart assistant. This was followed by the smaller Echo Dot, the video-enabled Echo Show and Echo Show White, that featured a screen. In other words, the Echo has gone to being a purely sound-based system to being a sound-and-vision system.

This was perhaps inevitable, given Amazon’s experience with the Kindle and its descendants. But now the rumor mill is buzzing with gossip that the next generation of Amazon “Alexa” products will combine sound and vision with VR or AR capabilities.

In one version of the rumor, Amazon will sell a pair of AT glasses that can overlay the user’s normal field of view with anything that can be shown on the Echo Show or Kindle. Thus, you can read an eBook, check out the baby monitor, watch video flash briefings, Amazon video content and YouTube, look at photos, see the weather forecast, write a to-do list or shopping list, browse the amazon store itself listen to a song while reading the lyrics - all hands-free and overlaid across part of the your field of vision so that you are not cut off from your real surroundings.

This of course is the non-immersive Augmented Reality version of the rumor. But it isn’t the only rumor

The other rumor is that Amazon is planning a full-blown VR headset, with the emphasis not on gaming but rather on all of the same practical and entertainment functions above. You will be able to experience sitting on a beach in St Tropez or standing atop a Himalayan mountain, while at the same time listening to music, reading a book or even doing practical things like writing or online shopping.

Highly sensitive sensors using the latest Qualcomm Spectra depth sensing technology, will be used to track the user’s hands - and even fingers - making it possible for the user to press virtual buttons or even operate a virtual keyboard. All this will be combined with the next generation of speech recognition and virtual image simulation. In effect, you will be able to interact with a virtual assistant whom you don’t just hear, but also see.

No dates are yet available, and it is unlikely to appear this year, but based on the way markets operate, we expect to see at least one of these products on the market by Christmas 2018. If that’s too long to wait, there are a whole load of Kindle, Fire, Echo, Echo Dot and Echo Show products on the market right now.

And if you’re worried about your purchases this year becoming obsolete, just remember Amazon’s generous Trade-in policy.
September 15, 2017

Apple’s FaceID raises the bar in electronic security + efficiency

New iPhone to have face ID

Apple’s announcement of the iPhone X may not have impressed in the realm of Augmented Reality, but it has certainly made waves in the realm of facial recognition.

Although the facial recognition features aren’t new to the market, they have in the past proved less than secure. Indeed, it was revealed a while back that these facial recognition systems could be fooled by two dimensional pictures. As it is relatively easy to obtain someone else’s picture, this effectively meant that facial recognition was not so much a security feature as a vulnerability just waiting to be hacked.

But it seems that the iPhone X facial recognition system is made of sterner stuff and has won the approval of security experts in the process. Face ID – as Apple has called it – uses the company’s TrueDepth camera system. This combines seven sensors and a proprietary machine-learning algorithm. The user’s facial features are stored in a so-called “Secure Enclave” of the phone (just like the fingerprint data) as a set of mathematical details. All processing to verify the would-be user’s face against the stored digital face map of the authorized user, is done inside the phone itself. At no stage does any of the data or analysis leave the secure area.

The reason why this system cannot be defeated by stolen images is because of the Depth feature in TrueDepth. The system can detect distance by using a “Dot Projector” to project 30,000 invisible dots onto the face. These dots are read by the infrared camera and then converted into mathematical data by the algorithm, using a dual-core neural engine inside the A11 Bionic chip. This processing operation is no mean feat and comprises 600 billion operations per second.

When it comes to activating the phone, the process is repeated and the data from the scan is compared to the stored mathematical model. As this data is from an original 3D scan, it would be impossible to fool with a 2D photo. Apple even tested the system by having Hollywood studios create very realistic masks to ensure that even such masks could not fool the system.

The system even has an extra layer of security called “Attention Aware” – meaning that it only works if the user is looking directly at the camera. However, this Attention Aware feature can be turned off. The reason they made it optional is because it some people might find it hard to stare at the camera and hold it while the scan is being done. But it is probably wiser to keep the feature switched on, as otherwise, someone could gain access to your phone by knocking you out or activating it when you are asleep. Apple uses Attention Aware in other ways too, such as keeping the screen lit when you are looking at it and also lowering the volume of the ringtone and alarm.

However, Apple has added yet another layer of security to FaceID, which can’t be deactivated: a two-strikes and out rule. After two failed attempts, you can only unlock the phone with your passcode. This is in contrast to TouchID, where it only locks after five attempts. And of course, if you don’t want to use FaceID, you can disable it altogether by pressing the side and volume buttons simultaneously. Then the phone defaults to passcode regulated access.

What is interesting, and clever, is that while FaceID cannot be fooled by flat pictures of the user, it can make allowance for a change of clothing or even facial appearance. This is one of the powerful advantages of the machine learning algorithm Thus hats and scarves – or even glasses and beards – can be worn without leading to false negatives. It can also determine if part of the face is being concealed and if so, it can determine if the visible part belongs to the bonafide user.

In the case of beards, the system allows for changes in the face over time. Hence growing hair or a growing beard will be recognized as the changing appearance of the user instead of throwing false negatives and sending you scrambling for your passcode.

Regarding sunglasses, the infrared penetrates most lenses, if not the frames, and can thus build up a picture to compare to the base image.

The system is equally flexible regarding the viewing angle. Even if you are not holding the phone straight, relative to your face, it can still compare the stored and current scans, without throwing up false negatives, as long as you are looking straight at the phone.

Some have questioned whether facial recognition is any more accurate – or convenient – than a fingerprint-based system. But Apple claims that the chance of false positive with FaceID is 1 in a million, compared to 1 in 50,000 for fingerprints. However, there is an exception to that in the case of identical twins. Even with the same DNA, identical twins have distinguishable fingerprints – except in extremely rare case. However, Apple concedes that the risk of a false positive increases if you have a twin hatched from the same egg.

On the other hand, FaceID is limited to one face per device, unlike TouchID which allows for multiple fingerprints – and multiple users – having stored profiles and access to the device.

With such strong security featured, it is not surprising that Apple is using FaceID not only to unlock the iPhone but also to authorize Apple Pay payments.

Rumor has it that Apple “trained” this system with more than a billion face images before they considered it secure and robust enough to go live with it.

Now we’ll see how it works in the field.

September 13, 2017

Apple’s latest launches – bolt from the blue or hype?

Apple's new iPhone

Notwithstanding Craig Federighi’s embarrassment, when a new iPhone failed to unlock, Apple’s new facial recognition ID software is sure to be a hit.

It may not have looked that way – when Apple’s Senior Vice President of Software Engineering swiped the phone and it failed to recognize his face and unlock the iPhone – but Apple’s new facial recognition software is the way of the future. It is not, however, an entirely original feature. The new Samsung Galaxy Note 8 has the same feature.

Where Apple may have an advantage however, over their South Korean rivals, is in the level of security the iPhone offers. Because a web developer called Mel Tajon has discovered a flaw in the Samsung Note 8’s security. He was able to unlock the phone with a picture of himself on another Note 8. He claims that he was also able to unlock the phone with low quality pictures like you would find on Facebook or Instagram. This would mean that it is very easy to bypass the phone’s security and unlock someone else’s phone.

Of course, you don’t have to enable facial recognition on the Note 8. There are other ways to unlock the phone, such as an iris scan, fingerprint or the old-fashioned passcode. These alternatives might appear to make it more flexible than the iPhone X. However, the fact that the easy-to-use facial recognition system is insecure, could put Samsung at a disadvantage, compared to Apple, in the head-to-head battle for sales.

On the other hand, Apple has not escaped the pejorative epithet of “underwhelming” in reference to its much-touted Augmented Reality for the new iPhone (X, 8 plus and 8). This was supposed to be the year of AR for Apple. But all Apple is really offering is software support no new hardware innovations. This means in effect, the ability to superimpose virtual images over real ones on the screen of a hand-held phone. That’s hardly an innovation. Hollywood has been superimposing animated images on screens for the last 60 years (Ten Commandments, Mary Poppins) and that’s in big, cinematic widescreen format – as opposed to a titchy little 5-inch phone screen!

Of course, one can argue that the Apple AR works in real time. But as long as it’s limited to a hand-held screen, it’s going to be seen as decidedly inferior to a worn device. In that sense Microsoft with its Hololens and Google with Google Glass are still the major players – notwithstanding Apple’s inroads in the software aspect of VR.

Apple has, however, struck a major blow by launching a new Apple Watch which has built-in cellular, so that it can be used as a mini smartphone without being tethered to an iPhone. Back in the middle of August, we wrote about rumors of such a product. But now it’s official. Basically, it’s a very small iPhone that you were on your wrist. It can support many of the iPhone apps, plus some health apps that work especially well with an item worn on the wrist. It can even co-exist with your iPhone, having the same number, yet being able to operate on its own, without the phone being nearby.

One of the best features of the Apple phone is the heart monitor. This monitor can not only track your heart rate, it can compare your heart rate at rest to your exercise heart rate and also how quickly your heart rate returns to the rest rate after you have been exercising (this is an important metric of health).

The new iPhones and the Apple Watch can all be charged wirelessly just by being placed its forthcoming AirPower charging mat. And you can charge more than one device at the same time.

However, notwithstanding the launch of five new products – we’ll cover the Apple TV another time – Apple shares were down 4%. Clearly the stock market – unlike its consumer counterpart – is not easily impressed.