BBC Blue Room at IFA 2019
For BBC Blue Room
This September, the BBC Blue Room visited Berlin for the Europe’s largest consumer electronics trade show — IFA. We were tasked with investigating the latest trends, and to separate the marketing hype from genuine innovations that may come to matter most to the BBC, or its audiences.
The views expressed in this report are the personal views of the authors, Colin Warhurst and James Hand, and they should not be taken as the views or policies of the BBC.
The Blue Room once again returned to Europe’s largest consumer electronics trade show, IFA. Set in the enormous campus of the Messegelände ExpoCenter City in Berlin, this event is a counterpart to the world’s biggest technology trade fair, the Las Vegas held CES which occurs each January.
Attending IFA allows us to take the pulse of the consumer technology industry at this current moment in time. In comparison to the global fanfare and technology promises made for the year ahead at CES, September’s IFA also allows us to review what has, or has not, been delivered during the year so far. Finally, IFA is also an opportunity to explore which trends resonate stronger in Europe, whose priorities and audiences have their own needs and expectations.
The Blue Room sent Strategy Manager Colin Warhurst and Senior Technologist James Hand to investigate. This report details their findings, their opinions on what trends are of interest to the BBC or its audiences, and also specific products or vendors that they believe are of interest.
- 8K: Way too early. Screens too big. Lack of genuine or convincing demo content. Claims of AI upscaling… are smoke and mirrors.
- Operating System: The assimilation of the TV by Google-Android continues.
- Creator Modes: At last! Though, there are still too few vendors with similar initiatives, and actually too many “AI optimisation” features which do the opposite (i.e. ruin your picture or sound).
- Dolby Atmos: May make binaural audio much more mainstream. BBC has lots of potential in binaural — of interest to Object Based Audio/Media teams and BBC MPEG-H work.
- Personalised Hearing: Finally! “Personalisation” features that are useful, and that are not obsessed with “content recommendations”. One to pursue!
- Big Screens: Whether they fold or stack — it’s about real estate.
- Multiple Launches: Phones stole the show. Amazing developments in cameras. This was more “Mobile World Congress” than IFA.
- Bigger Presence: Mainstream retroactively acknowledging the massive games industry, and the money to be made there.
- What cameras? See: Phones
- Computer Vision: Strangely lacking in comparison to CES 2019. What is going on? European privacy?
Misc. Trending Down
- M.I.A.: More or less non-existent at IFA 2019; Smart Fridges, Augmented Reality, Virtual Reality, 360 Cameras, HDR “Wars”, High-Definition Audio, Robots
- VOICE EVERYWHERE: Envisioning voice assistants inhabiting multiple bodies, some of them wearable. Preparing for the Ubiquitous Voice.
We last visited IFA in 2017 — we unfortunately missed the 2018 event as the Blue Room was running it’s second ever “AI & Society Conference” in London at the same time. This year, our conference schedule and IFA 2019’s dates allowed for a small gap in which to visit the event and to conduct one of our Blue Room reports.
Even though it had been two years since our last visit, we both felt as though IFA 2019 was quieter in every way. The headline technologies and product launches seemed to lack a little showbiz than in previous years. The numbers of exhibitors and visitors felt just a little understated. The much-loved networking event, Showstoppers (which takes place the evening before IFA’s official opening, exclusively for members of the Press) definitely had less vendors in attendance than in 2017. So what was going on?
We have all become accustomed to asking “what’s new this year?” But technology innovation does necessarily honour an annual PR schedule, and so reality means that there are years in which new “big things” simply are not ready to launch — though the marketing teams will do their very best to convince us otherwise. IFA 2019 felt like one of those years — and so we’ve had to take the tack of simply listing what feel like smaller trends and things of interest that may prove significant much later on.
The Blurred Edges of Things
This time, we have also decided ‘blur’ the device categories that we normally look at. We realised that most of the interesting trends occur when one type of thing begins to take on the properties of another. For example, when Radios load the same content as Mobiles, when Mobile phones become Gaming platforms, or even when Headphones become Voice assistants…
The transformation of “things” at the blurred-edges is not new, but they’ve been happening at such a glacial pace, that we perhaps have not stopped to pay attention to some of their possible end-states.
In the conclusion of this report, we will show how we think this blurring of “things” is increasing and that it will be VOICE that truly unites them all devices.
The sneak peek for this eventual endpoint, was to be found in the most innocuous of devices — the humble pair of headphones.
Once Voice Assistants inhabit our smallest and most intimate devices, they will never be far from our beck and call — for better, or for worse.
The image quality in televisions may finally be reaching a plateau, as their quality in some areas has actually gone beyond what the human eye can perceive. In recent years, Ultra High-Definition with High-Dynamic Range (UHD-HDR) was the source of hype from vendors, but also something content-makers and consumers could see benefit in. Those features are now firmly last year, and marketers need something else to fill the promotional space as TV’s “next big thing”. That feature is 8K.
As we saw at CES in January, vendors are promoting this feature many years too early, and with very little certainty that it will become a practical reality for most consumers. Vendors would have us believe that 8K is the absolute future in image quality.
However, the real game-changing features that are transforming televisions have absolutely nothing to do with the image quality at all. The real transformation lies in two areas; the operating system, and voice assistants.
In other words, with the addition of a newfound voice on top of its recently added brain, 2019 is a turning point in the continuing evolution of the television “thing” into becoming a new form of computer “thing”.
The Television OS
The TV-as-computer does not mean becoming a replacement ‘personal computer’ though it has over time gained many of the same properties as desktops, laptops and even mobile phones.
When purchasing a TV, consumers tend to think their budget is about buying a bigger and better picture — but it also means buying into a better set of computer chips to power a “better brain”, a faster and prettier piece of software (plus content apps) for us to interact with.
Though we are many years into this evolution of the TV’s interface, it has happened so slowly that we have almost taken it for granted, and so we overlook where this journey is still taking us today.
Today, when we buy a computer we broadly ask, “Windows or Apple?” Buying a phone means asking, “Android or iOS?” What then will buying a TV come to mean in the near future? How does having just a few (or even just two) powerful operating systems controlling every TV in the world affect content makers, distributors and consumers of the future?
A field that was once chaotic, is now stabilising around a few key vendors; Android TV (Google), Tizen (Samsung), WebOS (LG) and Roku being four of the top platforms. There are a few more — but that circle is shrinking. Increasing numbers of TV vendors who had previously made sub-par interfaces, now opt-in to installing one of these other systems, such as Android TV.
Browsing IFA this year, this very much seems to be the case — Android TV was bigger than ever before. This is due to partnerships with brands all across the pricing spectrum. Android and/or Google appears on TVs from bigger brands (Sony, Philips, etc), Chinese vendors, and also mass-market vendors known for selling white-label TVs direct to supermarkets. TVs of all types, and for all budgets.
The result is an increasing number of televisions being shipped and bought around the world that will have Android/Google at their very core. Whilst there are still many TV operating systems out there for now, the influence and growth of Google cannot be avoided, and the advance of Android TV is only set to increase once we begin to talk about Voice-for-TV…
Voice for TV
Our CES 2019 report detailed how Voice in television, particularly Google’s Assistant, heightens the issues content makers and broadcasters have around access, search and discoverability. The impact and importance of Voice in defaults, prominence, cross-platform searches, discovery, deep-linking and attribution should not be a surprise by this point. The situation remains unchanged at IFA 2019, and the major players who still appear to be the most “voice ready” are still Netflix, Amazon Prime and the Google Store.
At IFA we saw that broadcast television barely gets a mention, accessing national or regional content barely gets a mention, tuning into live events or news barely gets a mention — and that is all before we imagine a Voice layer being put in front of everything.
And we really do mean everything — as we will get to later in this report, the march of Voice seems unstoppable, and also targeted. There is a definite strategy to move Voice into the devices and areas of our lives where it will feel the most natural, and eventually, indispensable. Each singular voice-enabled device contributes to the use of the greater whole. The use of Voice-for-TV will be driven by Voice-for-Headphones, Voice-for-Car, Voice-for-Watches and more…
So, though our usual messages about the importance of Voice defaults, search, access, discovery and the rest may stay the same, we think the urgency and volume of those messages needs to be increased. Any content provider who is not working with, or adapting to, Voice search right now, will have a very limited amount of time left before they can course correct or change strategy.
Each broadcaster or content-app owner will have to determine their own strategy and preference for opening up their individual assets to a voice search (at the risk of losing brand prominence and defined user-journeys) versus the traditional walled-garden approach. The former moves with the times but risks granting more power to the Voice and TV OS platforms, the latter is risky for all but the biggest content providers.
Where might we see some of this play out? In the US the number of VOD content applications is set to explode before the end of this year. The alliances, deals, preferences and defaults that will be set across Apple, Amazon, Google, Netflix, Disney+, Warner, HBO, Hulu, ESPN, CBS and more… will make the politics of Game of Thrones look simple in comparison.
Here in the UK, our relatively small number of national broadcasters will be up against the larger US companies, whose apps and resources have enabled them to become “voice ready” much faster than the competition.
Most of the voice searches and demonstrations performed at IFA (and CES) point to Netflix, Amazon Prime or Google store. Whole new methodologies of user-discovery will have to be invented in order to place UK content (broadcast or apps) at the forefront of these search queries. It will be a challenge, as not all UK content providers have the resources to compete.
8K is the term used to refer to a screen containing an awful lot of pixels (7680 x 4320 if you are counting) that in turn should provide an increased amount of image resolution. If a rather simplistic “more pixels” means “better TV” then yes, 8K sounds great — on paper. But we know things are not that simple…
…It has been proven time and again that there is distance relationship between the human eye and what can be perceived on a screen. Long story short — 4K detail is almost indistinguishable from 8K unless you are literally inches away from the screen, or if that screen is big.
The privilege of being able to go to a trade show is to test some of these claims with your own eyeballs — and these 8K truths made themselves repeatedly clear to us. Bar a few notable examples, the 8K demo material that we watched offered nothing extra to our humble eyeballs beyond what a 4K image would provide — even when we did get our noses to the screen.
Of the 8K screens offered from virtually every vendor, we did not find anything smaller than 55”. Most of us think that we want a gigantic TV, but both cost and the practicality of the room sizes that most of us live in, make the idea of purchasing such monster televisions increasingly unlikely.
There is also the rather obvious hole in the 8K pitch — content. Despite assertions from a few vendors that 8K content is out there and being made, it certainly is not enough to sustain an ecosystem or drive demand at the moment. In the UK, we haven’t got the demand and supply right for UHD/4K yet…
We are also calling out any supposed “AI upscaling” technology as hokum. We saw too many displays where the 4K “comparison” picture quality appeared to be deliberately lowered and tampered with, so as to make the “upscaled 8K” look better. This is a poor marketing trick, and we saw straight through it. AI (or if you are cynical, “magical”) upscaling of 4K content to 8K is not going to fill this content gap.
Televisions are unique amongst other devices in that so much of their innovation, marketing and hype revolves around just one key feature each year; HD, 3D, a curve, UHD and so on… But we don’t expect our phones, laptops or audio devices to be marketed in such a way. In those devices, we want improvement across a range of features. Television evolution and marketing is treated with an all or nothing approach, for better or worse.
To conclude — don’t be seduced by the pixels. As mentioned above, we think the real story is not in the evolution of television’s image, but in the evolution of its new Brain, and its new Voice.
Medical, Touch, 8K + 5G, Cameras
8K + Slow TV
We find this idea of particular interest. A large number of audience complaints about picture or sound issues actually end up being because the user’s device has incorrect (or less than ideal) settings in place. Vendors calibrate their devices for maximum impact in showrooms, and those same settings used in the store rarely perform as well once back in our homes.
We honestly cannot convey just how incredibly hard content makers and broadcasters (including the BBC) work to ensure pictures and sound are sent to consumers in the best possible quality and in the most consistent manner. All of these collective efforts fail though, if the TV offers the user a ‘magic button’ or mode that supposedly ‘optimises’ (or more accurately, ‘changes’) the picture for certain scenarios.
Regardless of the hype, we can tell you that virtually any and every feature of this type fundamentally breaks the original creative vision of the content makers, and the quality of the file created by the engineers.
So, we welcome with open-arms the idea of ‘Creator’ and ‘Calibrated’ modes being built into devices. These modes would receive some sort of metadata alongside the content, that takes control of the majority of settings in the user’s devices. In short, choosing a calibrated mode offers the user either; the best settings as imagined by the creators, or at least provides them with the most accurate starting place before tweaking for their individual environment or personal preferences.
The world of sound settings in consumer technology can be incredibly daunting to anyone who is not an audiophile. We are so obsessed with screens and image quality, sound on TV is often an afterthought, but the sheer amount of jargon used does not help things either.
Average consumers cannot be expected to know the differences between their Dolby DTS and Atmos, or their 5.1 versus 7.4.1… Things need to be kept simple, else consumers will simply continue to find the path of least resistance; such as using the built-in speakers on their flat screen televisions, or using mobile phones to play music at a party…
However, despite the confusion (and we must confess that even we struggled separating jargon from marketing buzzwords) there were a few developments in audio that caught our eye. None were headline grabbing in themselves, but as we stand back and analyse IFA as a whole, a couple of small trends manifested that may prove of interest further down the line.
We noticed that Dolby Atmos started to appear on all manner of devices. Atmos is at the same time a set of audio technologies for cinemas, home-theatres, mobile phones, gaming, headphones and… it is also a brand name as well. Have a read on Wikipedia and see if it makes sense to you. We’ll wait;
The key to understanding Atmos is in imagining the ability to create “3D” soundscapes, where objects sound as if they are located in a particular direction. This is more complex than just left-speaker or right-speaker. Instead, an audio “bubble” is created, which has front, behind, up and down dimensions as well. For all of this to work, the player-device has to know both what your speaker-device(s) are, and where they are. Once the player has this information, it will know the best way to render and mix the audio signals to create the 3D effects.
For example, if we were watching a film with the sound of a helicopter flying overhead, Atmos would mix the sound very differently for a home theatre with a 5.1 setup, versus a set of headphones.
Theoretically, more speakers will offer greater flexibility and accuracy for Atmos, but headphones can also benefit as Atmos also knows how to render binaural audio — meaning that it is possible to experience sound as if you are in “3D” bubble, with just one speaker on each ear. Atmos therefore provides benefits to groups (more speakers, the better) and individual listeners (any pair of headphones).
The next audio trend we spotted was ‘personalised hearing.’ The idea is that each individual has a unique hearing profile, that can change over time due to a number of factors, such as age or damage. Adapting sound for individuals in a group setting is tricky, but there are multiple ways to tailor headphone outputs for a specific individual.
Mimi is an organisation that has developed a sophisticated set of hearing tests that generate a profile, which they call a “Hearing ID”. Once deployed to a device, the ID contains instructions on how to modify certain frequencies to compensate for the properties of that user. Mimi say their technology goes beyond just personalised EQ changes, as their technology mimics the way a healthy human ear processes sound.
Mimi are working on partnerships and ways to make multiple devices compatible with their Hearing ID. For example, Android devices can apply it at the ‘top-level’ meaning all audio content could have the ID applied (iOS would not work the same). Mimi is also partnering with brands such as Loewe, Panasonic, and Beyer Dynamic to get Hearing ID compatibility into their larger hardware platforms.
Mimi also treated us to a ‘secret demo’ of their latest work which involves adapting the data from their many individual Hearing IDs into variable pre-sets that would provide benefit in certain group settings.
Mimi’s approach is software based and involves working across multiple devices and platforms. We saw other examples of personalised hearing profiles at IFA, but most of them took a single-device approach; via specific mobile device, headphone or break-out box.
Skull Candy announced new headphones that stores a profile on board. The profile is generated by their own app. Placing the profile on the speaker (rather than the player) means that the user can listen to a wider variety of audio sources, with their profile always-on.
Sony had a phone demo that claimed to create personalised “360 Sound” after taking a photograph of the user’s ear. We had doubts as to how the technology worked, and if we had just been treated to a generic EQ boost or not. Camera phones are much improved (as we will show later) but we don’t think they are at medical scanner level yet!
Finally, Proton were demonstrating a hardware-based profile built into a box that sits between the player and the speaker devices.
The idea of personalised hearing is fantastic. We just hope that vendors and software developers (we are looking at you Apple) make initiatives like this easier, so that user-preferences can apply to multiple content sources or devices.
The majority of attention at IFA 2019 felt like it belonged to Mobile Phones. We joked that this was actually Mobile World Congress at IFA, as the hype and headline grabbing product launches all belonged to new phones, which meant Huawei, LG, Nokia and Samsung.
The biggest hype at IFA (and the only product with a queue) was for Samsung’s Galaxy Fold 5G. After a few false starts, their much-anticipated folding phone was finally available to hold in our hands — and people responded in droves.
The Galaxy Fold is essentially a mobile phone and a small tablet combined. When folded, it looks like a slightly thicker smartphone, complete with a standard front- screen that acts as expected. But the phone also hinges open just like a book, and within is revealed a flexible double-screen that dramatically increases the useable display.
This ‘Infinity Flex Display’ was impressive, with no obvious indication that the screen had special bending properties at all — everything looks and feels just like a tablet. With a folding body and more space to play with, the Galaxy Fold also has six cameras, meaning all orientations and configurations are covered.
We were shown its ability to open multiple windows in tablet mode, and the OS handled these new features seamlessly. As something that enables multiple windows and apps, we took this as another example of a “phone thing” wanting to take some qualities from desktop “computer things”.
LG also jumped on the real-estate bandwagon with their modular, hinged, G8X ThinQ phone. Instead of one larger flexible screen, it features a dual-screen setup when open, and also has a basic display on the front when closed.
The G8X’s unique feature is that the phone separates, leaving the “back-cover” as a real-phone to be used separately, and allowing the “front-cover” to be used as a bolt-on when a dual-screen is needed.
These two phones felt genuinely exciting, as it felt like real technology innovation was in our hands. We have been hearing about (and consumers seem to have wanted) folding phones for years — and now they have finally arrived!
This could be the start of a new trend and a new set of device form factors — if the price point and the durability of these early devices satisfy consumers and reviewers.
T-Mobile were the only network provider exhibiting at IFA, and they used the show as a launch vehicle to announce the switch on of 5G in a few key German cities, with more to follow in the next few weeks. Some German cities have had coverage since July, from German telecom giants Deutsche Telekom and Vodafone.
Whilst a few 5G phones were announced at IFA, it was actually T-Mobile as a network operator who did a much better job of creating hype and attention to the technology. Their stand was full of fun and quirky demos that showcased the possibilities of 5G; high bandwidth streaming of live video, high-resolution video-calling, shared augmented-reality gaming and more. In comparison, the phone vendors would just stick huge 5G logos or stickers on things and let users try to work it out for themselves. T-Mobile had made a serious effort to get people excited about 5G.
We won’t go into more 5G detail here, but this is a great opportunity to plug our specialist page on the topic, over at our Blue Room Wiki (for BBC staff);
Camera quality is a key feature on smart-phones, yet the laws of physics places limitations on just how much a lens of a certain size can actually do. Bigger and better lenses cannot be installed without making phones themselves bigger. The industry has found two ways around this; increase the number of lenses, and to “fix it in post.”
The highest profile phone launches at IFA saw phones with multiple camera lenses announced; Sony’s Xperia 5 and Samsung’s A90 each had three rear lenses, plus a selfie camera. Huawei’s P30 and Samsung’s Note 10 also sport three lenses but throw a depth-sensing lens into the mix too. The Samsung Galaxy Fold wins the race (due to it having much more real-estate) with a boggling six camera setup; three normal lenses, two selfie cameras and a depth-sensing lens too. Each camera serves a specific function, such as acting as a specific wide or zoom lens.
To address some of the optical shortcomings of smaller lenses, there has been lots of innovation in computational photography. This refers to being able to process the image (live, or in post) and manipulate it in such a way so as to add creative features, many of which try to replicate the properties of larger lenses — such as background blur effects.
Both Samsung and Huawei were highlighting what happens when these two areas merge; depth-sensing cameras combined with machine-vision features to enable features like face and body tracking (Samsung) or background-removal without the need for a green screen (Huawei).
When it comes to computational imaging, these developments go to show that size isn’t everything, and that the most exciting innovations in consumer photography seem to be happening in mobile phones, and not in professional cameras.
Gaming was noticeably more prominent than when we last attended IFA in 2017, and almost all of the halls featured a Gaming element somewhere. There were hundreds of loud and boldly designed Gaming-things on display, but also lots of mobile phones in these spaces too. Upon reflection we also noticed that gaming-consoles were almost nowhere to be seen; gaming at IFA meant PCs, Laptops and Phones.
The Gaming Cloud
Cloud gaming is becoming more of a reality and a serious offer. As long as a user has a fast-enough internet connection, and a subscription to the cloud service, gamers can remotely control top-end games through their standard PC, laptop or smartphone, which connects to the high-spec PC owned by the provider. Effectively, users “rent” a top-end PC via remote control, rather than buying one outright
We can see cloud gaming taking more and more of the gaming pie, offering a cheaper alternative to actually purchasing an expensive gaming computer. Google’s Stadia is due in November and is set to make cloud gaming a mainstream alternative.
E-sport’s popularity and exposure has snowballed since our last visit, and it was highly marketed throughout IFA. Fortnite, the hugely popular online cross-platform multiplayer game, was everywhere. We saw a lot of players and observers in various halls, and there was also a League of Legends competition occurring too.
There was also a strong message that E-sport players are a valid type of athlete. As much as the Blue Room admits to championing the seriousness of E-sports, it did make us a little disappointed to see that some companies seem to be taking advantage of certain stereotypes with evidence of a growing market for energy drinks, protein shakes and sport supplements aimed specifically at gamers. We just wish the advertising wasn’t so brazen in encouraging sitting still for hours, encouraging the worst aspects of gaming’s stereotypes.
SMART HOME THINGS (+ AI THINGS)
Computer Vision and facial recognition has attracted some negative press recently. We were however surprised at the lack of exhibitors offering facial recognition for security and making use of computer-vision as a revolutionary technology.
This is particularly odd in comparison to what we found in our CES 2019 report. There, the sheer number of products with computer-vision and the areas in which they were deployed took us completely by surprise — so much so that we made it one of the two main themes in that report.
But at IFA, we could easily count the instances of Computer Vision on just two hands. What is going on? We knew that one of the main CES vs IFA differences is that Europe tends to place a much higher priority on privacy. The idea of cameras that can tag individuals was always going to be a harder sell here, but we did not anticipate the world’s technology vendors to just give up!
As such, we saw only a few instances in Mobile and Television (many of them as “gimmicks”) whilst the handful of more serious implementations of Computer Vision could be found under Smart-Home security.
Security + AI
There were a handful of security cameras that featured face tracking and face-labelling.
Arnoo featured a fully-connected home system with facial-recognition, but ironically, they were not happy with photos of their tracking-camera being taken! They wouldn’t give us answer for their stance, but we presume it was to protect visitors’ data as their images were on the display screens — but we were still perturbed as to why our question was met with absolute silence.
Dutch company Amaryllo were showcasing cameras that were free-standing or that could be screwed into existing lightbulb fittings. Their product learns to recognise familiar faces and to store data in a highly encrypted manner. They also claim GDPR compliance, but quite what is done with unfamiliar faces, we are not sure about. They also offer data-mining solutions for businesses, with additional features such as traffic trends, heat and fire detection, real-time people counting and age/gender recognition.
Insta360 have released their smallest camera to date. The Insta360 Go is ‘The twenty-gram steady-cam’. A wide-angle wearable mini camera that shoots 15, 30 or 60 second POV clips, with time-lapse and slow-motion features at the touch of a button. Insta’s FlowState stabilization takes the wobble out of action shots, and their AI-powered FlashCut app uses machine learning to find and edit the best shots automatically.
Babeyes — If you can’t remember what you saw when you were still in nappies, or you wish that you could, French company Babeyes have the answer. Their tiny camera can be attached to a child’s clothing or fixed to a crib to record video memories from a baby’s point of view. The videos are stored locally on the device, which does not use Wi-Fi or Bluetooth, meaning that all the videos are kept local and private.
The Best Cameras…
…Were in the Phone-things!
Insta360 were also showcasing their Titan VR 360 camera, with 8 cameras for up to 11K resolution. But seeing as how 360 as a trend has dropped off the radar, we won’t say anything more about it here.
IFA 2017 featured various instances of augmented reality headsets. Both Lenovo and Microsoft had whole sections dedicated to their AR products, but this time there was almost nothing to be seen. The only device of note was Mirage AR from Lenovo — whose AR game was the result of a partnership with Disney.
Gaming is booming, consumer interest is at an all-time high, and yet the main players in VR or 360 content were non-existent.
Sony’s hall had nothing devoted to their PSVR headset, and their gaming section entirely focused on the capabilities of the latest Xperia smartphones.
The same could be said for Samsung — no promotion of their Gear VR headset anywhere. Facebook-owned Oculus and smartphone giant HTC, the market leaders in high-end VR headsets, also didn’t feature in the hugely popular gaming halls.
Perhaps VR is still too much of a niche market. Costs are still quite high, which means there is a high barrier of entry for consumers. Also, the current trend of massive multiplayer online games forces VR, which is still predominantly a solitary experience, into the back seat.
No Blue Room report is complete without a round-up of the weird and wacky, the audacious and awesome, the ridiculous or robotic ideas that just don’t fit under the other “things” we have to talk about first.
We saw a few instances of eco-awareness in mobile phone accessories. We saw biodegradable cases, some that incorporated pressed plants or herbs to give off a pleasant aroma, and even vendors with schemes to ensure your old phone case can be returned to the compost heap!
BBC Standards folks maybe interested in this. Quiet Mark are promoting the importance of sound on our physical and mental health. They have set themselves up as a testing and certification body, who will test everyday consumer items (including hoovers and hair-dryers) for how loud they are over certain frequencies and time periods.
If a device passes their tests, it receives the Quiet Mark certification, which acts as selling-point for consumers. Their previously exclusivity with John Lewis was proven a success, and now Quiet Mark is rolling out to more stores and devices across the UK.
Children’s safety was a higher trend amongst smaller companies, and we felt there was more of a focus on safety offline rather than online. We found two companies marketing these smart watches as “mobile phones.”
The watches only allow SMS and calls from specific contacts — unknown numbers are blocked. In Spacetalk’s product, parents even select which emojis can be used. There is no access to the internet, no social media and no camera, and it was the GPS tracking of your little ones that was where the conversation was focused.
Parents don’t just get to track your location though, they also have access to the call and SMS logs and even step-trackers. These maybe useful features from a parent’s perspective… but from the child’s perspective Mum and Dad have just become Big Brother.
LO-K-8, followed a rather more ultimate approach, doubling down on the idea that tracking is absolutely for child safety. Their watch is physically locked to the child’s wrist. Supposedly to thwart a genuine threat, separation from a bag or to even outsmart savvier children, this device provoked some uncomfortable discussion.
In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need these products — but we are not in an ideal world. How far should any family feel they have to go to prepare against the ultimate fear? This feels like a sad step too far — but we are not qualified to provide a definitive answer.
The Future of Voice
If the consumer electronic THINGS that we have been used to thinking about are continuing to merge, then a key question becomes; “If X takes properties from Y, and becomes Z, then who stands to dominate in Z?”
The Blue Room (and plenty of other clever people in the BBC) spend a lot of time analysing this question. We have seen how TV linear viewing has slowly shifted to VOD. We have watched as Mobile phones become our de-facto audio device. We are watching Social Media become a primary destination for News. We have just passed through the early years of Voice, as smart speakers supplant traditional radio devices…
And it is Voice that gives us the most pause for thought. Of course, it is no surprise to see Alexa or Google-Assistant continuing to be built-into a never-ending array of smart home devices, and audio devices, and computers, and television screens…
But it was the increased advertising and presence of voice-features on the humble pair of headphones that got us thinking. At first, we just took this as a quick-win for promoting headphones that have microphones built-in. After all, the assistants are actually built-into the connected phones, and not the headphones themselves… yet.
To Colin’s eternal shame (as the team’s Trekkie) it was James that nailed it; “this is all about the Star Trek badge isn’t it?” And of course, he is absolutely right to draw that comparison. Voice in Star Trek starts in a wearable (the badge), but then goes much further — in fact, everywhere. Characters can tap their badge in any location, or tap any surface on the Enterprise, or even just say “Computer” to pretty much anything, and the voice-enabled computer will always answer.
The components that enable Voice are shrinking all the time. One day soon, we imagine Voice assistants will be built-into small devices and wearables such as headphones, without the need for a connected mobile phone.
If we combine that with the fact that all of our technology THINGS are merging and stealing features from one another — then we can easily envisage this Voice-Everywhere environment emerging from the current evolution of our consumer gadgets.
We cannot just look at consumer electronics in isolation — Voice has made that clear. It is not about the transformation of the TV, or the Smart Fridge, or the Voice-assisted touch-screens becoming the Home Hub — they will all become hubs, united equally by Voice.
It is not about a specific device with a far-field mic being positioned in the right place. It is about all devices, being always on, always ready and always willing to answer our every beck and call.
It sounds convenient. It may sound like a technology Utopia — for some. If indeed you trust your Voice providers, and if you feel you have a degree of agency, transparency and consent.
Voice and Trust
But there will be many who would not welcome Voice-Everywhere, and who do not wish to contribute to the continuing digitalisation and monitoring of every facet of human experience. These others would interpret Voice as an uninvited gatekeeper at best, or the enabler of surveillance capitalism at worst.
On one hand, society broadly objects to monitoring and surveillance, but on the other it continues to buy and use devices where Voice provides convenient services. Unless given sufficient reason to mistrust Voice companies, then we will continue to ask them to monitor and log our every interaction.
Once our Voice Assistants become wearable, or accessible through “anything”, they will always be at our command. The convenience and sense of power in that command, issuing instructions to your devices from thin-air, will be like some sort of magic trick — Abracadabra.
But the best stories always say that magic has a price.
In such a magical world, we have to remember that these Voice gatekeepers would not just sit in front of content — this is about so much more. The biggest Voice providers in the world are Amazon and Google, two companies whose reach is already vast, and who already have more than enough data inputs, that we continue to feed.
With Ubiquitous Voice, they will continue to insert themselves across the entire digital services ecosystem — they will be between us and everything that we do, because we have managed to build a digital app or service for almost every part of human existence…
This report was researched and written by:
Colin Warhurst (Strategy Manager) and James Hand (Senior Technologist).
Thanks to Richard Robbins from the Blue Room for additional insights and editorial assistance. Thanks also to Chris Pike in BBC R&D for detail and clarification around binaural audio. Photography by James Hand & Colin Warhurst. — September 2019.