The latest developments around Google’s Project Soli, the merits of the fitness tracker and taking a Magic Leap

Posted by Jeevan Jayaprakash

In this issue, we look at what researchers from the University of St. Andrews have achieved with the Project Soli developer kit, whether fitness trackers are as effective as we think and what is the most secretive but potentially the important startup around right now.

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Have a great weekend,

Hi Mum! Said Dad


University of St. Andrews researchers leverage the power of Project Soli

Last year at Google I/O 2015, developers were given a glimpse of Project Soli and how it could redefine the way we interface with wearables and other smart devices. The aim of Project Soli is to do away with physical interaction and to allow users to use hand and finger movements to control devices. For example, imagine using your fingers in midair to interact with a dial, button or a slider on a smart device in your home. One of the other impressive aspects of Project Soli is that the sensor used to makes all this happen is smaller than a US quarter coin — 8mm x 10mm to be precise.

Following I/O 2015, Google released the Project Soli alpha developer kit to a select group of developers in a bid to see where the technology could go. One of the lucky recipients of the developer kit was a group of researchers at the University of St. Andrews.

The team at St. Andrews have moved away from Google’s intentions to some extent and taken the technology to a whole different level by building what they call the ‘RadarCat’ system. RadarCat uses machine learning to identify different objects that comes into the proximity of the sensor. Some examples of real world use cases include helping blind people to identify objects whilst shopping, a coaster that knows when your drink is finished and needs topping up and a phone that can enlarge its on-screen icons when you are wearing gloves. Professor Aaron Quigley, the St. Andrews University Chair of Human Computer Interaction, has confirmed that the university is actively looking to implement this technology into consumer wearables.

We will undoubtedly see more cutting edge ideas like RadarCat as and when Google begins to widen access to the developer kit. We can’t wait to get our hands on it!

RadarCat uses machine learning to identify different objects. Image source: Fast Code Design

Time to rethink the fitness tracker?

We are led to believe that fitness trackers are inherently good things. They serve as a constant reminder of our fitness goals and influence our decision making at important moments throughout our day. However, are we truly aware of the way in which they are influencing our decision making? Anjana Ahuja of the Financial Times recently wrote a very enlightening piece that explored the merits of the ever popular fitness tracker.

She references a study conducted at the University of Pittsburgh by Professor John Jakicic in which 470 overweight adults were given run-of-the-mill advice to diet and exercise more. However, 6 months into their regimes, half of the participants were given a fitness tracker. Conventional wisdom says that the group with the fitness tracker would lose more weight, right? The results after two years seemed to suggest otherwise. Those without fitness trackers lost an average of 5.9kg where as those with trackers only lost 3.5kg. The conclusion made in the Journal of the American Medical Association was that “devices that monitor and provide feedback on physical activity may not offer an advantage over standard behavioural weight loss approaches”.

Possible explanations for such a result include the fact that fitness devices only address one half of the equation — trackers encourage more movement but don’t necessarily encourage eating less, which is crucial for weight loss and ultimately, fitness. More interestingly, there is a suggestion that people may use the readings on their trackers to justify the guilt-free consumption of treats.

Are fitness trackers framing things in the wrong way by counting steps and calories lost?

It’s certainly food for thought.

The FitBit Blaze. Image source: Android Authority

Magic Leap — remember the name.

We have mentioned Magic Leap before in our digest but only in passing. The company most certainly deserves more attention given that it has raised circa $1.4 billion in venture capital with backing from the likes of Google, JP Morgan, Andreessen Horowitz and film makers such as Warner Bros. and Legendary Entertainment. However, it must be added that the company are highly secretive and their public collateral only provides a very high level overview of what they do; just enough to pique your interest.

So, what do we know about Magic Leap?

They are a US startup founded in 2010 by Rony Abovitz. Magic Leap are said to be working on a ‘mixed reality’ headset which superimposes 3D imagery over real objects by projecting an image directly onto a user’s retina. Abovitz claims that Magic Leap “are building a new kind of contextual computer” and that they are doing something “really, really different”.

It must be noted that what Magic Leap are doing is different from AR and VR. AR builds up on what a user can already see whilst VR immerses a user in a completely new world. What Magic Leap are attempting to do is closer to AR but distinct in the sense that their ‘mixed reality’ allows these superimposed objects to interact with a user and the world it inhabits.

The most immediate applications of this tech that come to mind are areas such as gaming and education. Magic Leap have been a lot bolder in their claims though. They see this as the future of computing and early demonstrations are said to have wowed the world’s top investors (their recent C round of investment of $794m, led by AliBaba, is apparently the largest ever in history). Some have even gone as far as saying that Magic Leap represents the next significant technological inflection point after the smartphone.

Words alone don’t do this justice and admittedly this video probably won’t either but we recommend it nonetheless! For those that are interested, this Forbes article gets a lot closer to what is brewing over at Magic Leap.

Emails on your retina! Image source: Idee Bank

Originally written as part of Hi Mum! Said Dad’s Weekly Digest.

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