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Monthly Archives: July 2017

Apple Side-Steps Smart Speaker

Apple raised the curtain on HomePod, its upcoming smart speaker, during Monday’s keynote presentation at its Worldwide Developers Conference.

The company also announced some desktop OS features for the iPad, and revealed its plans to become an augmented reality powerhouse.

“Just like iPod reinvented music in our pockets, HomePod is going to reinvent music in our homes,” Phil Schiller, Apple’s senior vice president for worldwide marketing, told an enthusiastic crowd at the San Jose Convention Center in California.

HomePod, which will sell for US$350, is slightly less than 7 inches tall and is covered with a seamless 3D mesh fabric which, Schiller said, has “incredible acoustic properties.”

Inside the speaker, there are seven tweeters, each with their own driver, that give sound precise directional control. HomePod also has a 4-inch woofer that uses dynamic software modeling to eliminate distortion as the volume is cranked up.

The “smarts” of the speaker is from an Apple A8 processor.

“It’s perhaps the biggest brain ever in a speaker,” Schiller said.

The HomePod will be available in December.

Heat on Sonos and Bose

The processor, which can be found in older iPhones, allows the speaker to do real-time acoustic modeling, audio beam forming and multichannel echo cancellation.

“You don’t have to know what any of that is,” said Schiller. “Just know that it sounds incredible.”

There are six microphones in HomePod, so it can handle voice commands — even when it’s playing music — through Apple’s digital assistant Siri.

“We really believe it’s going to take your home music experience to the next level,” Apple CEO Tim Cook said at the event.

Although the smart speaker market is dominated by Amazon and Google, Apple appears to have set its sights on other players in the speaker market.

“It’s going after Sonos and Bose sound systems in the home,” noted Tim Bajarin, president of Creative Strategies.

“This is a powerful home audio speaker first that also supports Siri,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Focus on Music

Apple is positioning HomePod more as an audio device than a smart home interface, said Jonathan Collins, a research director at ABI Research.

“The focus looks to be more about competing with Sonos and supporting Apple’s Music service than its HomeKit efforts,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“The price tag is notably higher than both Amazon and Google’s smart home offerings,” he pointed out, “and while it will no doubt appeal to Apple fans, there is little to suggest — at least from the initial details — that this will directly compete against those Echo and Home devices.”

More iPad Muscle

In addition to announcing a new 10.5-inch iPad Pro, Apple revealed a number of features in iOS 11, which will be released in the fall, that give the tablets desktop operating features like drag and drop, an expanded dock for quick access to favorite programs, and support of a file system, including baked in support for popular third-party apps like Dropbox and One Drive.

“Those are the features on the Mac that most of us have been wanting on the iPad for at least three years,” Creative Strategies’ Bajarin said.

“Now the iPad is very similar in experience to the Macintosh,” he added. “That tells me that Apple believes that the iPad is the future form factor for mobile computing.”

The iOS 11 features were needed if the iPad Pro wanted to live up to its “pro” name, maintained Kevin Krewell, a principal analyst at Tirias Research.

“Without a file manager, you really couldn’t use it as a professional tool,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“Now the iPad is much more functional for a professional who’s used to using a file manager in their work,” Krewell added. “This is a big step up for iOS.”

AR Powerhouse?

Apple also introduced to developers a new AR kit that it believes will make the company a leader in the augmented reality domain. “With AR kit, iOS 11 becomes the world’s largest augmented reality platform,” Cook said.

What Apple introduced with AR on mobile is significant, maintained Bajarin.

“They’ll dominate the AR space in mobile almost overnight,” he said. “The AR kit will create a level of innovation within their software developer community that is going to result in an amazing amount of new apps.”

While there may be lots of new apps, whether or not there will be a lot innovation remains to be seen.

“They’re not adding any hardware,” Krewell noted. “They’re just using the existing iPhone platform for AR, so it’s a limited version of AR — a better version of Pokemon Go.”

Xbox One X

Microsoft earlier this week announced the next version of its Xbox line of gaming consoles, ahead of E3 2017, now ongoing in Los Angeles.

The new Xbox One X, which goes on sale Nov. 7 for US$499, is slimmer than previous models and packed with power.

With a 6-teraflop Scorpio engine, the One X has 40 percent faster graphics performance than its chief rival, Sony’s PS4 Pro.

The custom Scorpio engine in the Microsoft box burns chrome at 1172 MHz — a 37 percent increase over its predecessor, Xbox One, and 28 percent faster than PS4 Pro.

Since the inside of a console can get hot running at those speeds, Xbox engineers kept things cool with a liquid-cooled vapor chamber, a technology used on high octane PC gaming cards.

Performance vs. Features

“It’s smoking,” Jim McGregor, principal analyst at Tirias Research, said of the One X’s performance.

“They went for the most performance they could possibly get out it,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Performance prowess, though, is just one factor contributing to success in the console market.

Traditionally, game content drives the purchase and upgrades of game consoles, explained Brett Sappington, director of research at Parks Associates. Sony leads the console market in exclusive game content, and nothing yet from E3 indicates that advantage to have changed.

“Though there are improvements in power, the Xbox One X does not offer any new differentiating features to drive purchases. Essentially, it is a more powerful Xbox One S,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“The PS4 still offers a variety of features that are not available in the Xbox One X, such as remote play and VR,” Sappington continued, “and the Nintendo Switch differentiates itself with its motion controllers, haptic feedback technology, and TV-connected-to-portable functionality.”

True 4K Gaming

One X has supersampling built into the console, which results in games with more visible detail and smoother edges, as well as more efficient loading times, according to Microsoft.

With 2160 frame buffers, as well as high dynamic range and wide color gamut support, the console is built for true 4K gaming, the company said. What’s more, game clips can be recorded in 4K at 60 frames per second, and screenshots can be captured in 4K.

“This is a true 4K console, whereas Sony is using techniques to approach true 4K,” noted Ross Rubin, principal analyst at Reticle Research.

“In practice, it’s going to come down to what resolution game developers are going to support,” he told TechNewsWorld.

The One X offers an immersive audio experience that can put a player in the center of spatial sound.

Backward Compatibility

Like its predecessor, One X has a 4K UHD Blu-ray player, built-in power supply, three USB 3.0 ports (one in the front and two in the back) and an IR blaster.

The 4K UHD Blu-ray player remains a strength of the Xbox over PS4, observed Michael Inouye, principal analyst at ABI Research.

“The PS4 Pro only includes a standard Blu-ray drive, which did engender some complaints from the Sony faithful,” he told TechNewsWorld.

“Even if the consumer isn’t planning to buy or rent UHD Blu-ray discs,” Inouye continued, “it does complete the picture of a true 4K media player-gaming machine, which speaks to the product’s image.”

All existing Xbox One games, including Xbox Play Anywhere titles, are compatible with the One X. In addition, a number of existing games are being enhanced for the new console. They include Gears of War 4, Forza Horizon 3, Minecraft, Resident Evil 7, Final Fantasy 15 and Rocket League. What’s more, a true 4K version of Forza Motorsport 7 will be available Oct. 3.

Backward compatibility gives the Xbox a feature that PS4 doesn’t have, but that omission didn’t prevent Sony’s console from outselling the Xbox One, noted Parks’ Sappington.

“Backward compatibility eliminates a potential barrier to purchase, but it does not provide an incentive to purchase the Xbox One X over the Xbox One S,” he said.

“Backward compatibility is a nice-to-have feature which resonates with some vocal Xbox users,” said Piers Harding-Rolls, head of games research at IHS Markit.

Still, “it is a value-added proposition and not a system seller,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Online Gaming

Pricing could be a problem for the One X. It’s $100 more than the PS4, and a $50 price break on the Sony console is likely around the time Microsoft’s new console is scheduled to reach retailers, according to Sappington.

“For the mainstream consumers or more casual gamers, the additional power likely won’t resonate with them as much as those more deeply rooted into the hobby,” ABI’s Inouye said. “Plus, if they don’t have a 4K TV, they might feel even less compelled to upgrade, even though there are some benefits for 1080p sets as well.”

The One X’s pricing is OK for the unit’s target audience, maintained IHS’ Harding-Rolls.

“Even if the price point was revealed to be higher than $499, we did not expect this to impact sales of the console at launch,” he said. “Xbox enthusiasts will pay significant sums to get hold of the latest and greatest.”

Microsoft will sell 500,000 One X’s during this year’s fourth quarter, Harding-Rolls predicted.

In addition to its Xbox consoles, Microsoft has Xbox Live — a large online network for playing games. The network uses dedicated servers to enhance performance, speed and reliability.

“I would expect that by now Microsoft would be pushing more for online gaming and streaming, and they’re not,” said McGregor, who is also an Xbox owner.

“They’re still pushing for those hardcore games that are on the device,” he pointed out. “I think they were counting on the bandwidth being there for console-quality online gaming, and it’s not.”

Art and 3D Painting

Seeing a photograph of a famous painting rarely does it justice, but photographs still allow those unable to see the real thing at least to understand the work in context.

For example, most people know what the Mona Lisa looks like even if they’ve never traveled to Paris to see the original in person at the Louvre.

That experience, in fact, is disappointing for many, as the painting is behind thick glass and is roped off. Because the Louvre is one of the most visited museums in the world, few visitors get more than a few seconds to take in this masterpiece.

Many tourists try to snap a photo — but honestly, the postcards in the gift shop tend to be about the best facsimile around.

Given the size of the painting and the distance from which one can view it, a good art book actually could allow a better opportunity for study.

Perhaps in the future VR technology could allow for everyone to take in the painting in ways the museum setting doesn’t allow, but is that what Leonardo da Vinci intended?

Painting itself is something that has changed with technological advances. It has been suggested in recent years that the great masters may have relied on a camera obscura to create such lifelike paintings. Not a camera as we know it today, the camera obscura technique utilizes a natural optical phenomenon to cast a mirror image of the subject on a canvas.

The invention of the photographic camera, in part, inspired artists of the 19th century to gravitate toward the impressionist movement, which featured bold colors but less detail.

Long History of Museum Copies

Like photography, which changed the way paintings were created and appreciated, the ability to make detailed copies of famous museum pieces also has generated controversy. In today’s world, a comparatively large number of people can travel to distant parts of the world and take in the great works of art.

At the end of the 19th century, however, such leisure travel was a luxury enjoyed only by the ultra wealthy. That was one reason Andrew Carnegie sought to bring art to the people. He used his vast wealth to build the Carnegie Museum of Art in his native Pittsburgh.

Of course, even one of the richest men in the world couldn’t buy everything he wanted to share with museum visitors — so he did the next best — and potentially most controversial — thing at the time. He had copies made.

The museum features several galleries, including the Hall of Sculpture and the Hall of Architecture, which feature numerous plaster casts of classical, ancient and medieval works.

At the time, scale copies were common at many museums, but Carnegie commissioned full-sized pieces. The museum currently has almost 140 full-sized cast copies of buildings from ancient Egypt, classical Greece and Rome, and from various Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance structures.

These casts might be considered true works of art themselves, as so much went into creating them.

3D Printing Could Make It Too Easy

Cast buildings are not the only copies that reside in many museums. Most dinosaur skeletons are cast copies — in part, because the real bones are too fragile to be reconstructed for exhibits.

Likewise, history museums may rely on reproduction furniture, clothing and other objects. There are few surviving examples of Roman armor, for example, but what many museum visitors see are reproductions. However, great skill goes into creating those copies.

There is a new technology that could make the rendering of reproductions all too easy, though. It is the 3D printer.

The National Museum in Poznan Poland already has used 3D printing to make copies of antique rifles.

These objects weren’t made to fill a void in a collection, but rather to allow visitors to handle something the exact size and nearly the same weight as the actual 16th century match lock weapon — an object even the most serious firearms collector is unlikely to ever obtain.

However, it still isn’t the real thing, and the skill involved in replicating it is no longer part of the equation, having been replaced in this instance by computer-aided design programs and 3D cameras.

Where is the artisan who forged the barrel and shaved the wood for those rifles? Missing — replaced by a technician who could scan and press copy.

VR and Art

While the technology behind 3D printing makes it easy to copy rare objects, virtual reality has changed the museum experience in other ways.

The British Museum, with the help of researchers from the Universities of Sheffield and York, has created a VR version of a Viking camp.

A museum in Sichuan, China, has integrated virtual and augmented reality to bring the past back to life.

Virtual reality may create a more interesting way to study history, but the question of context and accuracy must be considered. Because few sets of Roman armor survive, those who make copies rely on those pieces — together other evidence, such as reliefs on Trajan’s Column in Rome.

When scanning the remains of a Viking camp, it’s possible to determine some aspects of Viking life, but how much of a virtual exhibit is pieced together from other media, including TVs and movies? How different is experiencing the VR Viking camp at the British Museum from watching the History channel’s Vikings TV show?

VR is little more than a fancy video game, in some ways, but perhaps that is what’s needed to get younger visitors to enter a museum. That may be the tradeoff — namely, accepting technologies that allow objects to be touched, even if they are copies, and embracing technologies that allow visitors to immerse themselves in a virtual experience rather than peer at an old school diorama, or a collection of rusty swords and broken pottery in a glass case.

Perhaps in the future, most museums will be online, and anything on display will be available in the gift shop, with customers 3D-printing their purchases. If so, the questions then will be whether those VR exhibits do the works justice, and whether we can call the 3D copies art.