A Look-back at Tech 2019



Artificial Intelligence everywhere

Anyone would be forgiven for being heartily sick of hearing the term Artificial Intelligence. But over the whole of the past decade, AI has grown to already being something that impacts our lives everyday. Very soon it will be threaded through everything like DNA and we will stop noticing it, just as we don’t notice how electricity is part of daily life. Deep Learning, which when a computer system is fed a big amount of data to recognise patterns much faster than human beings can also goes on to arm itself with knowledge humans didn’t know. We use more simple AI and in many ways everyday — it’s right on your phone and in your smart speakers and you’re probably a part of the datasets being analysed by many algorithms for different purposes.

If you want to remind yourself of the speed of AI, play a song and just ask Google or Shazam to identity it. It takes a few seconds. That’s the speed with which an algorithm can pick one sound pattern from among millions and serve it up to you. With the same speed if not faster, AI and Natural Language Processing have shown how they can combine to translate languages to become almost real-time. Translators are right to worry about their jobs. If you want to see this at work on a phone, pick up the app Dictation for an Apple device. Turn on Airplane Mode and speak into the app. The transcribed speech will appear as you speak quite as if by magic. And that’s without the data even going up to some server because your phone is offline. That’s the kind of technology disrupting many industries right now.

Some of the biggest AI and ML stories of 2019 included how an algorithm could tech itself the rules of a complex game like Go to the point where the world champion has given up and opted out of being pitted against machines. Another disruptive and disturbing trend has been that of ‘deepfakes’ and the developments around this. Voices can be reproduced, faces can be conjured up, words can be put into the mouths of people who never said them — and worse. Fake news, which has become a household name, can be produced in unimaginable volumes by AI and it’s difficult for the reader to tell the difference. Facial Recognition, which has become a really contentious issue of late, is also aided by AI so individuals and all their data can be picked from millions in seconds.

Artificial Intelligence that goes through vast amounts of data and gathers patterns also predicts outcomes, which is how it’s being put to use in healthcare now. The prevention of disease has always been an almost impossible challenge but AI systems can put together patterns that let them present the percentage of likelihood that an individual will get a certain condition based on current facets, including images. This is now expected to help doctors save time and money and get down to the next step with patients. Healthcare is one of more hopeful applications of AI, which has already started being used in banking, manufacturing, the auto industry and even mining. There are barely any industries that are remaining untouched by AI now.

In the coming year and beyond, it’s the working together of humans and machines — the benefit of humans — that will take centre stage as will ethical considerations and guidelines, security and privacy issues, and the very real problem of lost jobs from automation and artificial intelligence being able to do a task faster and perhaps smarter than people can.

Voice assistants speak up

Amazon certainly used 2019 to expand its Echo family of smart speakers making them add up to 13 products in India. There are several, like the Echo Buds, which aren’t in the country yet, but at a guess, will make their way here sometime. The Alexa assistant was opened up to other companies as well so that she can now be embedded in TVs, headphones, speakers and on phones.

From the 2019 line-up, we have two Echo Show devices that added rectangular screens to the speaker for at-a-glance information and even some video or movie watching from YouTube or Prime. Another notable Echo is the Studio which is bigger, heavier speaker with a focus on sound quality. Most unusual from the line-up is the Echo Flex which is more or less like a plug not really meant for outright music listening, but a tiny space-saving device that extends home smart home control to more spaces in the house. Without a doubt we’ll see more Echo products and Alexa in unexpected places like toys or lamps.The possibilities are endless. One aspect that Amazon has worked on carefully is localising the Alexa assistant both in terms of how she speaks (in Hindi, English and combinations of the two) and with locally relevant ‘skills’ created by local developers.

The ecosystem of products that work with Alexa have expanded right up to 100,000 and counting, and many of these work with Google Assistant and Siri as well. And now because smart home products have increased so much, just recently Google, Apple and Amazon have decided to work together to make these products easier to use rather than face compatibility issues. This is just one indicator of how important and large the smart home market is becoming.

Now that smart speakers are increasing their footprint in the market, users are waking up to what they see as the associated dangers. Specifically, users are worried about being snooped on and being listened to by the companies that make these products. Admissions by the tech giants that they do listen to at least partial conversations and interactions between users and the smart speakers because they need to develop the technology to work better have only furled these fears, more so with Alexa and Siri though the Google Assistant is actually ubiquitous with its permanent residence on all Android phones. Occasional stories such as a recent one where a woman asked a question about the heart and was asked by Alexa to stab herself. What could have happened is that the answer was recorded wrong by mistake or by mischief in the first place. But just the thought of what children could be exposed to via smart speakers is scary enough to give pause.

None of the tech giants plan to make money by selling the pieces of hardware that are smart speakers today. Nor will much revenue be made by controlling smart home devices. That will not be viable even in the short run. Instead, the plan is to channel more and more services through the assistants. That’s why Amazon is making Alexa more family-inclusive and gradually becoming involved in everything from paying bills to bringing up entertainment to trying out the beginnings of participating in family conversation — an “Alexa, change the subject” skill is being explored to help flagging dinner table talk or perhaps even stop an argument. Voice assistants are also being given a layer of emotion recognition and gesture recognition so that they really will be more human-like — except, of course, they aren’t.

New phones everyday

Almost every week a new phone has been launched in India over 2019. It’s been a remarkably prolific year for smartphones. But, you might say it really hasn’t been that much of a year for ‘flagships’ as it has for all other categories, all of which have now become really blurred. With devices under Rs.40,000 giving so much of what the more expensive ones over ₹60,000 do, the tendency has been to refer to these as ‘premium’ phones. But then, smartphones under Rs 30,000 or even ₹25,000 have been arriving with features that were premium not long ago and so they too are often referred to as premium. The divisions have become nicely mixed up but what has emerged out of this dynamic market is that great features have made their way down the price ladder.They’re so good that if you were to buy a 2019 phone now instead of waiting for next year’s crop, you really would be just fine. Unless you’re very keen on maximising your phone, no matter what.

At the top end, we’d recommend the Samsung S10+ (or any of the S10s), Samsung’s Note 10, or the iPhone 11 (which, would depend on your disposable income) or the OnePlus 7T Pro (if your hands are big and strong) as these have been the best of the year. The Huawei P30 Pro and Mate 20 are also still available but a question mark hangs over security updates.

Going down into the ‘flagship killer’ segment we have the OnePlus 7T, the Redmi K20 Pro, Realme X2 Pro, Oppo Reno 10X Zoom and the Asus ROG that all offer fantastic options. Further into the budget segment the choices are almost limitless but phones from Xiaomi’s Redmi line, from Realme, Vivo and Samsung come with great value for money.

Although one still shouldn’t go by the megapixel count, photography has improved on affordable phones across the board. Multiple lenses make for more creative and interesting possibilities and AI is being used to do what hardware cannot. If we were to speak of innovations the smartphone industry, a number of them have been in the camera department. The Google Pixel has tended to bring the most interesting use of software for photography though we don’t get to see the 4th gen here in India so far. The P30 Pro has had some remarkable camera innovations as have others such as Asus’s 6Z with its interesting flip camera. Designs have also become more colourful, a fact that at least young people welcome.

But if one looks back at the year to pick out the most innovative smartphone, it’s the Samsung Galaxy Fold that comes to mind. Though more fragile than the regular everyday smartphone, the very fact of it’s being a different format caught the fancy of tech enthusiasts. It isn’t certain just how many of the Galaxy Fold actually sold, but it’s clear that the foldable form factor will be experimented with more than ever in 2020. There have already been images of another Samsung foldable phone and other companies all have their own foldable plans. Exciting as these are, their real-life use will reveal whether they’re here to stay.

Hearables and wearables

Nothing very dramatic has happened with smartwatches over 2019 except perhaps the ‘medicalisation’ of the Apple Watch and others that followed suit. Apple,with the introduction of Series 4 and Series 5 of their watch brought in features like the ECG, menstruated cycle tracking, and maintaining of health data to bring the device into the doctor’s clinic more seriously. It’s from this year on that a user has enough data to take to the clinician for discussion, whether that’s on cardiac health or recordings of blood sugar. The Apple Watch is so obviously on its way to becoming a little health hub, in partnership with the iPhone, that some have dubbed it the gadget of the decade. For iPhone users looking for a smartwatch there are many options because the ones that are available for use with Android work with the iPhone as well, but if the company’s push into health related areas is to be leveraged it’s best for users to opt for the Apple Watch that will then be able to tap into the features available in the health app on the phone. The safety features such as fall detection and international emergency calling or detection of the presence of atrial fibrillation are not going to be available if one is using any other watch with the iPhone.

For Android users, there are a lot of options but they span from very basic fitness bands to the high-end Samsung Galaxy Watch and Watch Active2. In India every new variant of the very Mi Band has been popular for those on a budget. The Honor Band 5 has been a recent hit with Indian users as well. Fitness trackers from FitBit, Garmin and the Samsung Gear Fit have been moving off the shelves in 2019 as well. So have Amazfit watches from Huami, which actually also makes the Xiaomi Mi Band. Watches from Microsoft, OnePlus, and Google are thought to be in the offing for 2020.

The other wearable category, now called hearables, consist of the avalanche of wireless earphones of various types that have flooded the market in 2019, a category that Technophile readers need no introduction to. Each phone manufacturer has entered the space with their own ear-buds including OnePlus, Xiaomi, Realme, Oppo and Samsung. Apple’s AirPods have remained popular through the year and now bring noise cancellation with the AirPods Pro.

True wireless has gone down in price to be available at less than Rs 2,000 this year with some specialisation taking place to make them suitable for either music listening alone or for workouts or travelling. More smart features have been included as has support for all the voice assistants. The upcoming CES will show trends for this category for the coming year.

Televisions

Even before 2019, the trend of really low priced large TVs being available had begun, starting with Xiaomi’s set of Mi TVs. A flood of budget TVs followed. If one were to randomly look to shop for TVs today, leaving aside the top tier Samsung, LG, and Panasonic, you’ll find options such as Mi TV 32 inch for Rs 12,499, Kodak 32 inch for Rs 9,499, Vu 40-inch for Rs.16,999, TCL 40-inch for Rs 15,999 — and so it goes. Even 55-inch televisions, which no one on a budget could have thought of buying just a few years ago, within affordable reach today. The market for budget TVs is so large that there are now countless players. A second trend now is that it is getting difficult to buy a not-smart TV set. TVs now have to be about a platform for as many of the content providers as possible. Amazon’s Fire TV stick plugs into most modern TVs and adds options for content even if there is no partnership between the TV maker company and Amazon. With this, the ease of using the TV’s interface and the experience has become a focus for companies selling TVs. Yet another trend is that the Google Assistant and Alexa are becoming part of the TV viewing experience, searching for shows and playing or stopping a show in response to voice commands.

Samsung’s Wall is larger-than-life TV viewing

Luxury entertainment is raised to another level with a large-format MicoLED display. India’s disposable-income families have a treat in store. Samsung has announced the world’s first modular MicroLED display with 0.8mm pixel pitch technology to be available in India in 146 inch with 4K definition, 219 inch with 6K definition and 292 inch with 8K definition. In whatever size you choose, the picture all but fills the wall. The coverage has only been possible with projectors, though not from a short-throw distance and certainly not with this quality of picture.

The picture is so large viewers are more or less in the picture. It’s much like having your own movie theatre — certainly you’d never need to visit one if you owned a Wall. As room-filling as it is, the Wall can allow you to rill the room with friends and family and feast on movies.

The Wall is actually a modular LED display and if one part were to develop any problems can be hot-swapped for another. Other than just regular movie viewing, the Wall has characteristics borrowed from Samsung’s Frame TV, which means it has amazing wallpapers one can just stare at for sheer meditation or display art on making it look like a giant framed painting. One can even choose background textures to blend into the actual wall in a room. The TV also senses the light in a room and adjusts accordingly, making it usable even in a well-lit room or one where daylight is streaming in. It doesn’t need a darkened room, unless one chooses to view in near darkness. Interestingly, the Wall has no sound of its own and needs speakers to be bought separately.

The TV comes with an ‘M Box” which is a sort of media storage serving up content. You can watch a movie, play regular TV content, make a stunning looking presentation in a corporate setting, or immerse yourself in games. The colours you’ll see are strong, but Samsung says nothing has been over-saturated or tampered with — only brought up to display realistically as part of its AI up-scaling, Quantum HDR technology, peak brightness of 2,000 nits and 120Hz video rate add richness to the visual experience.

It includes a ‘Quantum Processor Flex’ enabled with the AI picture quality engine which delivers optimised picture quality regardless of the original source resolution. Quantum Processor Flex is a machine learning based picture quality engine that analyses millions of image data to automatically calibrate the original low resolution image according to the display. It can be connected to any OS through a physical HDMI input.

The Wall is good for 100,000-hours in its lifetime of its self-light emitting diodes. Samsung says it is designed to never turn off, but to change into a digital canvas best matching the owner’s interior needs and personal mood.

The Wall also comes in a Professional version that is geared toward high-end businesses and retail spaces, and, like The Wall Luxury, is customisable. The price of Samsung’s The Wall will range from ₹3.5 crore to ₹12 crore (exclusive of taxes) for 146-inch, 219-inch and 292-inch variants and will be available in India from December 5, 2019.





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