Augmented reality

The Informer’s been in San Diego this week at Qualcomm’s Uplinq developer event, where he’s been augmenting, if not his reality, then at least his understanding of the areas of investment that the firm has identified as essentially cutting edge.

July 2, 2010

11 Min Read
Augmented reality

By The Informer

The Informer’s been in San Diego this week at Qualcomm’s Uplinq developer event, where he’s been augmenting, if not his reality, then at least his understanding of the areas of investment that the firm has identified as essentially cutting edge.

Augmented reality is one of those areas. It’s on its way to buzzword status but it is very much in its infancy and, to a degree – and like so much that has gone before it – is an answer looking for a question. Qualcomm is focusing on the visual form of AR, which relies on the feed from the video camera on a mobile phone to provide the backdrop reality which is to be augmented. The other strand of AR relies on GPS and compass technology to identify location and the direction the user is facing to feed information about the user’s immediate surroundings.

But the principal problem with visual AR is that it drains the battery like a thirsty tramp with a bottle of fortified wine. It’s hugely processor intensive, said Jay Wright, Qualcomm’s director of business development, and is equivalent to filming a video and playing a 3D game simultaneously on the handset. It is also unsuitable for the kind of geographic based applications that GPS/compass AR is focused on because of the current limitations on image recognition.

Pointing a phone at a building in a bid to retrieve information based on the image would require the image to be very close to the one stored at the database. With changes in light and season, day and night, there’s a pretty slim chance of this happening.

It occurred to the Informer that it might be possible to create an environment where every time a building, for example, was viewed through the handset camera, it was automatically uploaded to the image database, creating a real-time evolving store of images that would ease the problems described above. Alas it turns out the Informer is not the first person to have had this idea and, according to Wright, “it is being actively researched”.

So for the time being Qualcomm at least is focusing its research efforts on near field applications that use printed boards for gaming applications, or posters for information, or even newspapers for rich media solutions. The most useful type of application the Informer heard mentioned was the “how-to” category. A befuddled consumer unable to work some piece of consumer electronics, for example, could point their phone at the offending item and receive instructions as to how to operate it. But what if it’s the phone you can’t work?

This goes back to the birth of AR, which apparently developed out of a need for aircraft engineers slung in harnesses to superimpose wiring diagrams on the mess of cabling they were trying to fix so they could see which wires to connect.

The problem with all this as far as the Informer can see it is that it might just end up with everyone viewing everything in their life through their mobile phone screen. Just imagine if someone released a Karma Sutra AR app that had nervous lovers regarding one another through their handset display as they followed instructions as to which bits to slap and tickle. Where’s the romance?

Eventually, presumably, the whole thing will collide with bio-engineering and we’ll be able to have corneal implants that allow us to overlay the real world as we see it with strata of augmented utility as and when we see fit. By the time this comes around, the Informer will probably be going into hospital for a cataract operation. Perhaps he could get both procedures done at once.

Imagine combining this technology with social networking and facial recognition. You could point your phone at someone and get all this information about them (volunteered of course). Word on the street this week is that Google is revamping its social media strategy after the poor adoption of its earlier attempts. Wave doesn’t seem to have turned into a tsunami, Buzz is more of a low hum and Orkut is very much rooted in Asia and Latin America. So can Google Me succeed where other have failed? Yes, the Informer knows it sounds like a desperate line thrown out by the lonely gent at the bar as the recent focus of his interest prepares to leave, but if there’s any substance to the rumour then Google is preparing to launch a competitor to Facebook using all that lovely personal info it has gathered to flesh out its offering. So coming back to the augmented reality theme you could perhaps point your phone at a potential mate and as well as get their volunteered personal info, perhaps some relevant advertising, you know, for florists, local restaurants or bondage equipment.

Now it’s well known that Google’s relationship with China is rocky to say the least, but that hasn’t stopped Android making its way into the market. Well, in a way. Local behemoth China Mobile contracted a software development firm called Borqs to assimilate the Android OS and turn it into the OPhone (no the Informer doesn’t know where that name came from either) and version 2.0 of the platform made its debut in Beijing this week on the Samsung Oscar I7680.

The world’s largest carrier initially announced the OPhone platform in September 2009, with the first handsets hitting the market at the end of last year. China Mobile has reportedly signed up more than 20 vendors to develop handsets based on the platform and a total of 20 models are expected to launch during 2010, including devices from Lenovo, HTC and LG as well as Samsung.

The appeal to operators is understandable. A level of control over handset specification is something that is seen as a benefit as they fight to position themselves to remain relevant in the mobile value chain and Android enables operators to develop a handset ‘experience’ in the same way that vendors do.

That ‘experience’ however, doesn’t always turn out to be a good one. Microsoft this week abandoned its Kin in the face of such evidence. No that doesn’t mean the Redmond Giant upped and left its wife and kids but rather that it pulled the plug on its portfolio of social handsets the Kin One and Kin Two, after the devices failed to prove hip and trendy enough to lure the hip and trendy target demographic. Instead the Kin team will be rolled into Windows Phone 7 to help that side of the family in mobile development.

There was a similar story being told over at Israel-based Emblaze, which in November of 2009 was making a big hoo-ha about its Linux-based user interface called Else Intuition. Eight months later the firm has failed to find a partner to deploy its first Else device and has canned the hardware in favour of licensing the UI platform. The Informer still has a little egg speaker and a USB stick on his desk from the launch event emblazoned with the phrase “Prepare for something Else,” which he supposes will become the last surviving bits of Else memorabilia. Instead, the Informer is preparing for something else.

Sticking with handsets and the (now obligatory) iPhone story of the week, the rumour mill is suggesting that a CDMA version of the Apple device is in the works and will launch on US carrier Verizon Wireless’s network in 2011. A spurious story if ever there was one, and Informa’s Paul Lambert agrees: “The picture isn’t as simple as that. The global market for a CDMA iPhone is not as healthy as the top-line figures suggest. The majority of CDMA operators are in emerging markets where demand for the iPhone is already being met by the WCDMA version,” Lambert says.

“The approach required to launch a CDMA iPhone would go against Apple’s phenomenally successful strategy of producing high-margin, high volume products that differentiate on design, software, usability and the unique application of existing technology.

“Apple would essentially need to redesign the current iPhone to incorporate CDMA technology. It would need a separate new team to do this. A CDMA iPhone would require dedicated supply and production lines. Apple would need to strike a completely new set of agreements for CDMA intellectual property, and with a new set of rights holders. It would also require new solutions to enable certain iPhone features, such as Visual Voicemail.”

Meanwhile over in Blighty, the UK’s smallest mobile operator, 3 UK, is trying to start a price war over the iPhone 4. The Informer says ‘trying’ to start a price war because it’s become apparent that the UK has sold out of the things. Still, 3 is allowing users to register their interest on site, and will let consumers known as soon as it has devices in stock. On paper, the pricing looks like it will be attractive to consumers and may even spark some competition, given that almost every carrier is now offering the iPhone 4.

3 appears to be subsidising the cost of the device more than the other players on a 24 month contract, charging just £99 for the 16GB device on a £30 or £35 per month tariff, £169 on a £35 per month tariff and giving it away at £45 per month. The company is also bundling 1GB of mobile data usage with all its service plans, one upping the competition in most cases, as well as beefing up the bucket of minutes to 2000 across its higher end offers.

3 UK CEO, straight talking Kevin Russell, was also on hand to say that he expects the FaceTime video calling app to fail, and to join the campaign against “unlimited” data offerings. “From the beginning of July, we’re going to stop using the word unlimited. We won’t be reducing how much customers get (many of your will have got used to looking for the * and the fair use policy) – we’re just making it simpler to understand,” he said. Three is also moving to fix misleading marketing of tariffs that offered “unlimited” data but only gave users 500MB in the Ts&Cs by upping the base allowance to 1GB of data.

Like many others, Telekom Austria is looking ahead to LTE to divert the flood of data, announcing the successful trial of a high definition videoconferencing platform in Vienna. Telekom said technical engineers on in a bus in Vienna´s 21st District made LTE calls to their counterparts in the provincial capitals of Graz, Klagenfurt, Linz, Salzburg and Innsbruck using a telepresence videoconfering system, which supports life-size images with an ultra-high-definition video signal.

Hannes Ametsreiter, CEO of Telekom Austria Group said that the firm’s mobile network has registered a 250-fold increase in its monthly data volumes over the past five years. Meanwhile, mobile broadband customers have reached more than 500,000 subscribers, which represents a seven-fold increase since 2006. The LTE trial will sit alongside HSPA+ and the company’s fixed net infrastructure to help Telekom effectively work with an increased surge in traffic volumes and multimedia and data-hungry applications.

“We expect data volumes to continue to surge going forward,” Ametsreiter said. “Such sharp rises in data traffic will only be able to be managed by combining the latest mobile and fixed net technologies based on so-called air-to-fibre solutions. LTE will meet the significant future capacity requirements of mobile usage. “AirToFiber” enables the transfer of large data volumes most efficiently,” he said.

Service providers hoping to use WiMAX to fulfil that role in India may have another think coming however, after Qualcomm CEO Paul Jacobs confirmed that the firm’s recent spectrum purchase in the Indian Broadband Wireless Access auctions was a deliberate bid to block the progress of the alternative 4G technology in favour of LTE.

India had been seen as the last significant opportunity for WiMAX and Jacobs said this assessment was justified. “I really believe that [the BWA] spectrum was all headed for WiMAX,” he said. “Our big bet is on LTE and we wanted to make sure that there was a place for LTE in India. We were concerned that if both of those bands had gone to WiMAX it would have helped to reinvigorate that ecosystem,” he said.

Jacobs said that there are no other markets or regions where Qualcomm’s management feels motivated to make similar strategic spectrum purchases. The size and growth potential of the Indian market made it unique, he said, especially when the relative paucity of the spectrum auctioned by the Indian Government was taken into account.

Moving onto the US now, where there may be another spectrum auction on the horizon as President Barack Obama outlined a plan to free up and release 500MHz of spectrum for wireless broadband. Obama said the government would collaborate with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to make available a total of 500MHz of federal and non-federal spectrum over the next ten years, suitable for both mobile and fixed wireless broadband use, to be licensed and made available for shared access by commercial and Government users.

“This new era in global technology leadership will only happen if there is adequate spectrum available to support the forthcoming myriad of wireless devices, networks, and applications that can drive the new economy,” said Obama. “To do so, we can use our American ingenuity to wring abundance from scarcity, by finding ways to use spectrum more efficiently.  We can also unlock the value of otherwise underutilized spectrum and open new avenues for spectrum users to derive value through the development of advanced, situation-aware spectrum-sharing technologies.”

What he really means is: “We can make a shed load more money for the treasury by reclaiming spectrum being sat on by broadcasters and auctioning it off.” Swelling the coffers with spectral real estate? Now there’s a real world example of augmented realty.

Take care

The Informer

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