Technology

Samsung unveils Galaxy Gear smartwatch accessory

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Samsung has unveiled a smartwatch with a colour screen that can show alerts, be used for voice calls and run apps. The Galaxy Gear had been highly anticipated since the firm is currently the world’s best-selling smartphone maker and has beaten Microsoft, Apple and Google to unveil such a device. Samsung called it a “fashion icon”. However, analysts warned that a decision to limit the watch to working as an accessory to other Galaxy Android devices might limit its appeal. Samsung has previously said growth in the sales of its handsets was slowing, so investors are eager to see if it can find another successful product. It unveiled the watch – which will go on sale from 25 September – at the Ifa consumer tech show in Berlin. “The introduction of the Galaxy smartwatch comes as no surprise to the industry, which has been expecting Samsung to beat the likes of Apple – as well as watchmakers and other consumer electronics companies – to market,” said Chris Green, principal technology analyst at the consultancy Davies Murphy Group. “Consumers might be a bit disappointed to find that the smartwatch is a partner device reliant on being paired with a Samsung Android smartphone or tablet, rather than being the completely autonomous media and communications device many consumers were expecting and hoping for.” The South Korean firm’s approach contrasts with that of Sony, whose forthcoming Smartwatch 2 can be paired with any device running Android 4.0 or higher.

But one industry watcher said Samsung’s decision should not be a surprise. “Samsung is trying to build its own ecosystem, so why do something that brings value to somebody else?” asked Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at tech advisers Gartner. “Although the price of the Galaxy watch is high there’s not going to be great margins as there’s lots of technology going into it.” Samsung says the Galaxy watch will cost about $300. That is the equivalent of £190, although the firm has not announced a UK price yet. However, it is already clear it will cost more than Sony’s £120 device. Start-up Omate is planning to release a watch in October that matches Samsung’s in price, but its device is set to feature a 3G chip, meaning it can make calls and work as a standalone device. Qualcomm has also unveiled Toq, a watch using the firm’s Mirasol colour display technology, which should mean better battery life than its rivals. It also links up to a range of Android smartphones, and will go on sale next month at a suggested retail price of £190.

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Unknown demand

The Galaxy Gear features a 1.6in (4cm) LED display, a 1.9 megapixel camera, a speaker and microphone, has four gigabytes of internal storage and a non-removable battery. Samsung said the watch could be used as a way to make voice calls without having to take the phone it was linked to out of the owner’s bag or pocket. It comes preloaded with 10 different clock options and there will be about 70 apps available at launch including Evernote’s note-taking software, auction service eBay, the social network Path and several fitness programs. Samsung has unveiled a smartwatch with a colour screen that can show alerts, be used for voice calls and run apps. The Galaxy Gear had been highly anticipated since the firm is currently the world’s best-selling smartphone maker and has beaten Microsoft, Apple and Google to unveil such a device.

Samsung called it a “fashion icon”.

However, analysts warned that a decision to limit the watch to working as an accessory to other Galaxy Android devices might limit its appeal. Samsung has previously said growth in the sales of its handsets was slowing, so investors are eager to see if it can find another successful product. The Galaxy Gear is being made available with a range of colourful watch straps. It unveiled the watch – which will go on sale from 25 September – at the Ifa consumer tech show in Berlin. “The introduction of the Galaxy smartwatch comes as no surprise to the industry, which has been expecting Samsung to beat the likes of Apple – as well as watchmakers and other consumer electronics companies – to market,” said Chris Green, principal technology analyst at the consultancy Davies Murphy Group. “Consumers might be a bit disappointed to find that the smartwatch is a partner device reliant on being paired with a Samsung Android smartphone or tablet, rather than being the completely autonomous media and communications device many consumers were expecting and hoping for.”

The South Korean firm’s approach contrasts with that of Sony, whose forthcoming Smartwatch 2 can be paired with any device running Android 4.0 or higher.

Galaxy Note update

Although it may be less groundbreaking, Samsung’s other announcement – the Galaxy Note 3 – is likely to be a bigger seller. The “phablet” – a device bigger than a smartphone, but smaller than a fully-fledged tablet – has a 5.7in screen. That is a tiny bit bigger than its predecessor – but thanks to a smaller bezel around the display, the handset itself remains the same size. It is even slightly lighter than last year’s offering. But the feature that will likely be most tempting to those considering an upgrade will be the Note 3’s ability to record in 4K video – the “ultra high-definition” format with four times the detail of 1080p “full HD”. Samsung, like other device manufacturers, has faced mounting pressure from governments and police around the world who say more should be done to deter phone theft. To that end, the Note 3 will come installed with the company’s new security software, Samsung Knox. The company said it will provide a far deeper level of protection of data when the phone has been stolen as well as a defence against malware. But one industry watcher said Samsung’s decision should not be a surprise. “Samsung is trying to build its own ecosystem, so why do something that brings value to somebody else?” asked Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at tech advisers Gartner. “Although the price of the Galaxy watch is high there’s not going to be great margins as there’s lots of technology going into it.” Samsung says the Galaxy watch will cost about $300. That is the equivalent of £190, although the firm has not announced a UK price yet. However, it is already clear it will cost more than Sony’s £120 device. Start-up Omate is planning to release a watch in October that matches Samsung’s in price, but its device is set to feature a 3G chip, meaning it can make calls and work as a standalone device.

Qualcomm has also unveiled Toq, a watch using the firm’s Mirasol colour display technology, which should mean better battery life than its rivals. It also links up to a range of Android smartphones, and will go on sale next month at a suggested retail price of £190.
The Galaxy Gear features a 1.6in (4cm) LED display, a 1.9 megapixel camera, a speaker and microphone, has four gigabytes of internal storage and a non-removable battery. Samsung said the watch could be used as a way to make voice calls without having to take the phone it was linked to out of the owner’s bag or pocket. It comes preloaded with 10 different clock options and there will be about 70 apps available at launch including Evernote’s note-taking software, auction service eBay, the social network Path and several fitness programs.

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“Samsung has a history of latching on to the latest trends and throwing a product into the market to try and get ahead of potential rivals,” said CCS Insight’s Ben Wood. “Galaxy Gear is the first attempt but I expect that there will need to be several more iterations before it is something that will will appeal to anyone other than an affluent geek.”

Unappealing ‘anachronism’

Ms Milanesi agreed that neither Samsung nor Sony’s watches were likely to be the breakthrough product that makes smartwatches a mainstream product. “Once you get a curved display you’ll see more interesting designs, but for the moment you are basically just putting a glass screen on a wrist and I don’t think that will appeal to many,” she said. “Samsung is also claiming a day’s battery life with fair usage. It’s like going back to a time you had to wind your watch up every night before going to bed. “I don’t think consumers want to do that with a watch or a band. They want to have it on without having to worry about charging it every day.”

Research firm Forrester was equally sceptical.

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“The wrist is the one of the most accepted places on the body for consumers to wear a sensor device,” said analyst Sarah Rotman Epps. ” but there are very few functions you could perform better on a watch than on a phone. “Maybe Samsung will tap into unmet demand with this product, disproving naysayers as it did with the Galaxy Note phone which succeeded after many 5in competitors failed. “But my bet is that smartwatches are sci-fi inventions that are already anachronisms in this modern world.”

 Will we ever… create intelligent robots?

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Walking, talking androids have been a sci-fi staple for decades, but as John Pavlus reports building one in reality is still a matter of getting the right parts and smarts. – We made you ‘cause we could. – Can you imagine how disappointing it would be for you to hear the same thing from your creator? In Prometheus, Ridley Scott’s film about a space expedition searching for the origins of human life, the elegant, Lawrence-of-Arabia loving android David discovers from a crew member the possible motives behind his own creation – and understandably finds this less than inspiring. But the idea of creating intelligent robots has fired human imagination for decades. These robots have taken many forms in speculative fiction, from the seductive charms of Futura in Fritz Lang’s masterpiece Metropolis to the urbane, existential angst of David in Prometheus. In reality, though, how far have we progressed towards being able to create an intelligent robot just “’cause we could”?

To understand where we are now, we have to go back about twenty years, to a time when artificial intelligence research was in crisis. Rodney Brooks, then a professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote a landmark paper in 1990 stating: “Artificial Intelligence research has foundered in a sea of incrementalism… small AI companies are folding, and attendance is well down at national and international Artificial Intelligence conferences… What has gone wrong?”

The problem, as Brooks saw it, was that the type of research inspired by Alan Turing’s famous artificial intelligence test had hit a dead end. The Turing test directed decades of AI efforts towards devising computer systems that “thought” by solving logic problems –focusing on the “sea of symbols”, as Brooks put it, that were believed to undergird intelligence. These systems could shuffle and sort information with dizzying speed, giving them the appearance of intelligence when performing certain abstract tasks (like playing chess). But when it came to “common sense” intelligence – the kind we rely on when selecting a book from a bookshelf, distinguishing a cat from a dog or a rock, or holding a glass of water without dropping or crushing it – this symbolic, Turing-style AI couldn’t cope.

Get smart

A better alternative for AI was to take a “situated” route, as Brooks called it. The first order of business: forget about building brains that can solve logical problems. Instead, focus on building bodies that can deal with and respond to the physical world. In other words: build robots. There’s something about an embodied agent that seems more “intelligent”, in a general sense, than any algorithm. IBM’s Watson system may be able to beat humans at Jeopardy! with its deep reservoir of facts – an impressive simulation of “book smarts”. But Boston Dynamics’ Big Dog robot, manoeuvering itself sure-footedly up hills and around unfamiliar obstacles, and even maintaining its balance when shoved by its human companion, actually seems to be smart – at least, in the same way a dog or horse is. “One kind of smart has to do with knowing a lot of facts and being able to reason and solve problems; another kind of smart has to do with understanding how our bodies work and being able to control them,” says Marc Raibert, CEO of Boston Dynamics. “That kind of smart helps people and animals move with remarkable mobility, agility, dexterity, and speed.”

When Brooks wrote about this new kind of artificial intelligence in his 1990 paper, he introduced half a dozen robots who look like Big Dog’s evolutionary ancestors. One of them was Genghis, a six-legged insect-like robot that could autonomously negotiate unfamiliar terrain in an eerily lifelike way, without any high-order processing or centralized control system. All it had were lots of simple sensors “tightly coupled” to motor controllers in each leg, loosely connected in a “nerve-like” network to pass sensory information between the motors, “without any attempt at integration”. This primitive-seeming architecture, wrote Brooks, was the key to someday building artificially intelligent robots: Parts before smarts.

Brooks’s insight paved the way for Boston Dynamics’ lifelike robots, as well as Brooks’s own iRobot corporation (which manufactures Roombas and bomb-defusing robots for the military). And yet a truly intelligent robot – with parts and smarts equivalent even to that of a domestic dog – has yet to be built. Why? Not because situated AI turned out to be yet another dead end, but because it addressed a newer, harder problem, known as Moravec’s Paradox. “It is comparatively easy to make computers exhibit adult level performance on intelligence tests or playing checkers, and difficult or impossible to give them the skills of a one-year-old [human] when it comes to perception and mobility,” roboticist Hans Moravec wrote in 1988.

Acting human

So how can we solve Moravec’s Paradox? One approach is to take the assumptions of situated AI to their logical endpoint: If we want to build a robot with human-like intelligence, first build a robot with humanlike anatomy. A team of European researchers has done just that: their ECCERobot (Embodied Cognition in a Compliantly Engineered Robot) has a thermoplastic skeleton complete with vertebrae, phalanges, and a ribcage. Instead of rigid motors, it has muscle-like actuators and rubber tendons. It has as many degrees of movement as a human torso; it flops into a heap when its power is turned off, just like an unconscious human would. And most importantly, all of these parts are studded with sensors.

“The patterns of sensory stimulation that we generate from moving our bodies in space and interacting with our environment are the basic building blocks of cognition,” says Rolf Pfeifer, a lead researcher on ECCERobot. “When I grasp a cup, I am inducing sensory stimulation in the hand; in my eyes, from seeing how the scene changes; and proprioceptively [in my muscles], since I can feel its weight.” These sensory patterns are the raw material for the brain to learn something about the environment and how to make distinctions in the real world, says Pfeifer, and these patterns depend strongly on the particular actions we perform with our particular body parts. “So if we want the robot to acquire the same concepts that we do,” he says, “it would have to start by generating the same sensory patterns that we do, which implies that it would need to have the same body plan as we do.” For now, ECCERobot’s humanoid physiology is so difficult to control that it can barely pick up an object, much less exhibit intelligent behaviour. But Pfeifer and his team aren’t the only ones exploring this “anthropomimetic” strategy: Boston Dynamics, the same firm that created Big Dog, is working with DARPA, the US military’s research wing, to develop a humanoid robot called ATLAS which will “use the arms in conjunction with the legs to get higher levels of rough-terrain locomotion,” says Raibert. In any case, says Pfeifer, building an intelligent humanoid robot – one that “can smoothly interact with humans and human environments in a natural way” – will require breakthroughs in computing and battery efficiency, not to mention a quantum leap in sensory equipment. “A really crucial development will be skin,” he says. “Skin is extremely important in the development of intelligence because it provides such rich sensory patterns: touch, temperature, pain, all at once.” A robot with skin and human-like internal anatomy starts to sound less like a robot at all, and more like a synthetic organism – much like David in Prometheus. Which takes us back to the question he asks in the film. Or as Pfeifer more pragmatically puts it: “Why build a robot which is a very fragile and expensive copy of a human being?” It is a very useful goal, Pfeifer argues. “Even if we still mostly want robots to do specialized tasks, there will be tons of spinoffs from an understanding of humanoid, intelligent behaviour. Yes, we’ll draw inspiration from biology. But that doesn’t imply that we won’t go beyond it.”

Google unveils upgraded Nexus 7 tablet

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Google is tightening its grip on the booming tablet market, with a new tablet, updated version of Android and a social take on games. The company announced a new version of its popular Nexus 7 tablet during a press event Wednesday in San Francisco. Sundar Pichai, Google’s senior vice president of Android and Chrome, unveiled a slimmed-down, speedier version of the tablet, which will start at $229 when it goes on sale next week. The new Nexus 7, made by Asus, has undergone some subtle physical changes. The size of the device has been trimmed down while keeping the screen the same dimensions. The higher resolution screen is now 1,920 by 1,200 pixels, packing in 323 pixels per inch. The amount of RAM has been doubled, and the CPU is twice as fast as the previous Nexus 7. The company also said that it has improved its speaker performance and that it can last for nine hours of high-definition video playing. Netflix will be one of the first apps to take advantage of the new video-friendly specs. The streaming-video company’s new Android app will stream movies at 1080p on the Nexus 7. The device will run Android Jelly Bean 4.3, a new version of Google’s Android operating system. Google unveils $35 device that streams video to your TV. Tablets are on track to take over PCs, and Google has a bigger stake in the boom than its own flagship devices. Half of all tablets sold worldwide are based on Android, according to the company. “By the end of 2013, consumers are going to buy more tablets every year than personal computers,” Pichai said. The new version of Android 4.3 will have parental controls so you can prevent the little ones from seeing saucy content or inappropriate apps. There are also user profiles for tablets that end up in the hands of multiple users.

The company expects to have more than 70 million tablet activations this year. Many of those users are downloading content such as apps, music and movies from the Google Play store. The Play store has more than 1 million apps and has seen more than 50 billion downloads, according to the company. A new app, called Google Play Games, is similar to Apple’s Game Center. In it, Android users can see what games their friends are playing and go up against other users, checking out their accomplishments on leader boards. Older Nexus devices will also be able to test out the Android upgrade — existing Nexus 4, Nexus 7, Nexus 10 and Galaxy Samsung devices will receive over-the-air updates for the operating system. The Wi-Fi versions of the Nexus 7 will be available starting July 30, and an unlocked LTE version of the tablet will go on sale in the coming weeks.

 Google competition plan ‘not good enough’ – EU official

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Google has not done enough to address concerns it is unfairly stifling competition, an EU official has said.

Google stands accused of using its 90% market share of internet search in Europe to promote its own services. The company has offered to change the way it displays some results to address the worries. But European Commission competition chief Joaquin Almunia said Google must rethink its response and “present better proposals”. “I concluded that proposals that Google sent to us months ago are not enough to overcome our concerns,” Mr Almunia said on Wednesday. In response, Google spokesman Al Verney said the search giant remained committed to settling the case, and that its offer “clearly addresses” the four areas of concern highlighted by the EU.

Huge fine

Those areas of concern, first highlighted in 2010, were:

  • how Google favours its own services in its search results
  • how it displays content from other websites
  • how it manages adverts appearing next to search results
  • how its actions affect marketers’ ability to buy adverts through rival networks

On advertising, competitors have complained that it is too difficult to place ads on Google’s Ad service using third-party software. Both sides of the dispute have said they are eager to reach a settlement, but if necessary, the commission could formally file a case – leaving Google open to the prospect of being fined 10% of its annual revenue. Google submitted in April its proposal to solve the problem. It agreed to display links to rivals close to where it displayed its own services on its results page. It also offered to more clearly label results from YouTube, Google Maps and its other sites. But lobby groups from other companies, including Microsoft, disputed the effectiveness of the changes. “It is clear that mere labelling is not any kind of solution to the competition concerns that have been identified. Google should implement the same ranking policy to all websites,” Microsoft said in April. Google had also been subject to an earlier US Federal Trade Commission probe into competition issues – which ruled there were no concerns.

Rival-backed study

After receiving Google’s proposals in April, the EU submitted the offer to the complainants – Google’s rivals – for their consideration. The interested third parties include Microsoft, Expedia and Trip Advisor – who form part of Fairsearch, a group of businesses looking to increase competition in the search industry. A study of UK web users commissioned by the group, conducted by a pair of US academics, suggested that, even under the new proposals, Google-owned services enjoyed “better placement, richer graphics and better visuals” than competitors. It said that as many as one in five of the 1,888 people studied clicked on Google’s commercial web services, compared to one in 200 clicking on its rivals. Another group, the Microsoft-backed Initiative for a Competitive Online Marketplace (Icomp), called for a “tight deadline” for Google’s revised offer. “It is reassuring that the commission has recognised, as had been argued by many, that Google’s offer of proposed remedies was inadequate,” said Icomp’s legal counsel David Wood. “Frankly, Google’s offer made rather surprising reading and clearly fell far short of meeting the key requirement.”

 Inter and IBM see big fall in profit

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Global PC sales are experiencing their longest decline in history

Two tech titans, IBM and Intel, have reported big drops in net income. Intel reported a second-quarter profit of $2bn (£1.32bn), down 29% from a year ago. For its part, IBM saw earnings for the same period fall 17% to $3.23bn. Revenue for both companies slipped as well, with IBM’s falling by 3% and Intel’s down 5%. Chipmaker Intel suffered as consumers and businesses switched away from traditional computers, while IBM made less on hardware and more on software. Last quarter, IBM’s revenues and profit fell short of analysts’ forecasts for the first time in eight years. As a result, the world’s largest computer company slashed jobs and pivoted to focus on data analysis and cloud computing in an effort to stabilise its business. More than 3,300 workers were cut from its ranks, and management at the top was changed. The company has now upped its forecast for the rest of the year, while its April-to-June figures beat expectations.

Brave face

IBM is unaffected by the global slide in sales of traditional personal computers, since it sold that division of its business to China’s Lenovo for $1.75bn in 2005. For Intel – the world’s largest semiconductor manufacturer – the picture is not as rosy. After initially assuring investors that the outlook for the rest of the year would be bright, the company has now slashed its expectations in the wake of declining PC sales. According to market research firm Gartner, global PC shipments fell 10.9% to 76 million in the second quarter. The company is hoping to focus on selling its chips for use in tablets and smartphones as a way to compensate for this decline, but so far, this has not happened. This is the fourth straight quarter of declining sales for the company, but its first with a new boss, Brian Krzanich, who succeeded Paul Otellini in May.

“Nokia’s new Lumia packs a crazy 41-megapixel camera”

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After releasing two intriguing quasi-updates to last year’s flagship Lumia 920 phone, Nokia finally has its true Windows Phone successor: the Lumia 1020, which packs a 41-megapixel PureView camera. Despite the extra camera power, the phone looks and feels thinner than the too-bulky Lumia 920.The sensor and camera lens protrude from the back in noticeable fashion, but not so much that the phone becomes unpocketable. The Lumia 1020 has a 4.5-inch screen and a 1280 x 768 resolution, 2 gigabytes of RAM, and a dual-core Qualcomm Snapdragon S4 chipset. Aside from doubling the RAM, it’s basically the same as Nokia’s previous Lumia phones. These non-camera specs aren’t any major improvement over the status quo. That’s Nokia’s gambit: There’s not much to upgrade anymore besides the camera, so that’s where Nokia is throwing down.

The 41-megapixel sensor isn’t there to provide some insane bump in image quality, and you’re not meant to handle 41-megapixel images. Instead, it’s meant to replace the zoom function found in most point-and-shoot cameras. With smartphones, trying to capture an object off in the distance usually means settling for a speck-sized representation of that object in the frame or using digital zoom, which adds blurriness and graininess. Nokia’s 41-megapixel PureView technology uses those extra pixels to capture details you can’t even make out with your own eyes — but when you zoom, you can later crop the photo and get what you want with little or no drop-off in image quality. If you don’t want to zoom, the PureView camera will use all that pixel power to “oversample” (meaning it will capture the same pixel area multiple times and combine the best parts of each one) and generate a 5-megapixel image with added clarity and detail. It’s a noticeable boost in image quality, and applies to video as well.

To support this blinged-out camera, there will be apps from both Nokia and third-party developers. Nokia’s excellent Pro Camera app allows full manual control over your images, with an intuitive interface that gives quick access to settings including exposure, ISO, shutter speed and white balance. Apps from Vyclone, Path, Snapcam, Panagraph, Hipstamatic, and, yes, CNN, will be newly available or updated to take full advantage of the camera. On stage at the new phone’s New York unveiling, Nokia CEO Stephen Elop made a vague reference to Hipstamatic allowing uploading to rival photo app Instagram (owned byFacebook (FB)) — a wildly popular service that has no official app for Windows Phone. Offstage, Ignacio Riesgo, Nokia’s head of app relations for the Americas, confirmed that Nokia worked with Instagram to get this feature on the Lumia 1020, but he couldn’t offer any other details on when an official Instagram app might appear for Windows Phone.

Using the Lumia 1020’s camera confirms that the zoom functionality has strong potential. In an area with full natural lighting — or with the aid of the excellent xenon flash — you can use the digital zoom to crop in tight on a subject five to 10 feet away with little noticeable image degradation. But the real kicker come in the post-processing. If you choose to crop an image after the fact, Nokia uses a feature that it calls re-framing. Instead of letting you choose a section to zoom in on and deleting the rest of the photo, it will create a locked-in zoom setting for a photo, and leave it that way every time you view it — but it won’t delete the parts of the photo you can’t see. If you decide you want to revisit the full photo later, you can simply tap a button and re-frame the shot. Long story short: This has the potential be a photographer’s smartphone dream. But whether or not this is the Nokia (NOK) phone to buy still (still!) remains to be seen. Windows Phone 8.1 has yet to be released, and it will support a beefier processor than the dual-core Snapdragon Nokia is using here. While you won’t notice the extra power in general use, a quad-core processor could come in handy for quicker processing of these PureView images. Nokia CEO Stephen Elop confirmed that Nokia will have a another major phone launch later this year.

For those who can’t wait, the Lumia 1020 will arrive at AT&T (TFortune 500) stores on July 26 for $300 with a two-year contract.

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