Thursday, 24 October 2013

A chat with machines

Voice-command interfaces are now almost pervasive in most electronic devices, from mobile phones, TVs, even automobiles. The concept of holding a conversation with a computer seemed pure science fiction until recently.

But things are changing, and quickly. A growing number of people now talk to their mobile smart phones, asking them to send e-mail and text messages, search for directions, or find information on the Web.

Now the rapid rise of powerful mobile devices is making voice interfaces even more useful and pervasive. Current smart phones pack as much processing power as the laboratory machines he worked with used in the '90s.

Smart phones also have high-bandwidth data connections to the cloud, where servers can do the heavy lifting involved with both voice recognition and understanding spoken queries.

"The blend of more data and extra computing power has put at our disposal infinite possibilities,” says Mr Josep Kim, the Managing Director LG East Africa. Speech has increasingly proven supremely suited for mobile computing partly because users have their hands and eyes occupied; but also because a single spoken command can accomplish tasks that would normally require a multitude of swipes and presses.

The last few years have seen hype around voice commands reached the peak of inflated expectations with the buzz around Apple's Siri, only to recede straight after. The new wave of voice-enabled devices showcased at IFA 2013 earlier in September offers a glimpse of how voice commands may make consumer's lives easier.

Siri, the voice-activated personal assistant built into the iPhone, was at one time the most prominent example of a mobile voice interface. But voice functionality is built into Android, the Windows Phone platform, and most other mobile systems, as well as many apps. While these interfaces still have considerable limitations, we are inching closer to machine interfaces we can actually talk to.

However the jury is still out, with consumer adoption the bellwether for technological success. “The development of the Werniche Project has seen LG make quick progress in incorporating voice commands. Known as VoiceMate, LG's voice recognition technology has only recently entered the international stage,” says Mr Kim.

LG has been quick to incorporate voice commands, commanding a leadership role in this emerging space. However competition in voice command technology is fierce worldwide, especially in mobile phones with other alternative voice activated personal assistant field brands well-ingrained in the public's awareness.

The basis of LG's voice recognition software is intended to work in tandem with Google's own Android OS language-based systems, the latter being embedded within LG's own proprietary "Werniche" engine.

The technology works across two strands: Natural Language Understanding, which allows for intelligible processing of sentences, and Dialogue Management, which uses a vast database of available information to extract meaning. The project has developed as technology has evolved to enable a greater ability to grasp the complexity of human language, with notable LG products providing milestones leading up to the advanced voice command products available today.

VoiceMate represents LG's primary voice command platform and rivals other competitive voice recognition platforms in both function and in technological prowess also incorporating latest features like opening apps via command. Other functions include the ability to have texts sent, calls made, alarms set and web searches performed all by having a natural conversation with VoiceMate.

Functionally, VoiceMate uses "reasoning with a probabilistic model to find the best answer". This means that the context of the question is taken into consideration instead of just using a database to relay answers.

Progress has come about, thanks in part to steady progress in the technologies needed to help machines understand human speech, including machine learning and statistical data-mining techniques.

Sophisticated voice technology is already commonplace in call centers, where it lets users navigate through menus and helps identify irate customers who should be handed off to a real customer service representative.

Monday, 14 October 2013

Battle for premium TV market on the rise

The battle for high-end television market is constantly shifting as electronic manufactures outdo each other in steadily churning out new TV models, albeit with negligible new features, that would make customers folk out an extra back.
In less than a year, players in the home entertainment sector have produced a string of new TV models that have captured the imagination of the premium TV market segment. At the beginning of the year, LG sparked off what has turned out to be stiff competition for the premium TV sets market when it released the world’s first 84 Inch Ultra-HD 3D TV worth about Ksh1.8 million. 
Ultra HD is the branding term for TV sets with roughly four times the resolution of 1080p HD TVs. An Ultra HD TV is wider than the average car and boasts 8 million pixels to generate crystal clear images at a resolution four times higher than existing Full High Definition TV. The sheer size of the display, which is equal to four 42-inch TVs, has a screen resolution that can display ultra HD pictures four times sharper than a full HD TV.
In a bid to also tap into the high market, other TV manufactures such as Sony and Samsung have also released similar TV sets but have been unable to match LG Electronic’s competitive pricing. Though Sony unveiled its 84 Inch Sony Bravia 4K LED TV in the Kenyan market, there is little to justify why its latest Bravia LED television goes for a whooping Ksh3.5 million, almost twice the price of its competitor.
The Sony Bravia TV has 4K (3840 x 2160) LED panel, comprising 8.29 megapixels, which is four times the resolution of Full High Definition standard. Samsung Electronics recently took the race for control of Kenya’s high-end television segment a notch higher by launching the country’s most expensive TV worth Sh3.7 million. However, besides the price and an inch to make the screen 85 inch, there is little tangible value that the manufacturer added to the new set.
However, this underscores the appetite for premium TVs in the local market with bigger screens and sharper resolution. Earlier this year, Samsung Electronics released a 75-inch full HD TV at Sh1.06 million while Japan’s Sharp unveiled an 80-inch model retailing at Sh1 million.
Besides size, the common features of the premium TV sets are their ability is convert normal television pictures into 3D pin-sharp images and Ultra-HD picture quality. LG has equipped its Ultra HD TV switch CINEMA 3D technology, bringing 3D entertainment into the Ultra HD arena.
The 3D Depth Control allows viewers to fine-tune the perceived distance between objects on the screen, for a customizable 3D experience. With the proprietary Samsung up-scaling engine, the Samsung UHD TV up-converts HD or Full HD picture to UHD-level quality by restoring detail to create greater precision and real-life picture quality.
The electronic manufacturers are currently locked in a battle for wealthy individuals and businesses like hotels and bars that are increasingly turning to wider screen sets for entertainment.
However, one of the biggest challenge that is slowing the speedy take up of premium Ultra-HD TVs is the unavailability of Ultra-high definition content through free-to-air services, cable or internet television sources. The only way of obtaining Ultra-HD content is through manufacturers.
However, there is a possibility of new movie content being made available on hard disk drives as the movie industry targets this new found niche market. Presently, production houses only provide near to ultra-high definition versions of movies to cinemas. With Africa middle class growing steadily, electronic manufactures are positioning themselves to capitalize on a burgeoning disposable income.
Manufactures of home entertainment gear have been shifting their focus towards new generation LED display technology as consumer interest in liquid crystal display (LCD) flat-screen wanes.
The uptake for LCD TVs has ebbed as consumers, especially in developed markets, trade in their huge cathode-ray tube TVs for flat screens. TV manufactures are now moving to newer organic light-emitting diode (OLED) flat-screen display presently used in high-end smartphones. The technology is billed to replace LCD in larger-sized panels such as TV screens in the near future.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Could StarTimes go the GTV way?

StarTimes has slowed down its operations in Africa and is unable to start building a platform for operations in some countries even after having obtained a license due to lack of funds, this is according to the Group’s president, Pang Xinxing.   

In an interview with China Daily, Mr. Xinxing said the biggest lingering challenge is lack of funds.  Yet his plan in Africa is still to cover more than 70 percent of the viewing population with the service in the next three to five years in Kenya. That would mean attracting more than 10 million digital TV users and 16 million mobile multi-media users to become the leading media group in the region.

StarTimes' performance in Africa has at least attracted investment from the China-African Development Fund to help it expand business across the continent. "We see the company as a very brave and successful private company from China," says Liu Jie, a CADF representative in Africa. "Its proposal to establish a digital platform and network for African countries, led by digital TV, is a promising strategy for the development of Africa and also the company itself. So we decided to invest in it."

Most former GTV subscribers have barely healed from the liquidation of the London-based Pay TV operator in 2009, which left about 40,000 Kenyans crestfallen lot. A recent shutdown of Smart TV left about 2,000 subscribers with outmoded decoders.

GTV subscribers were left hanging on to obsolete satellite equipment and others have lost thousands of shillings in subscription fees following the announcement that the cable TV had been liquidated after owing to global recession. The Pay TV p blamed “excessive demands on the business” caused by the global financial crisis that interrupted its ability to secure funding on an acceptable timescale which left it with no choice but to cease operations”.

StarTimes has eight satellite stations to ensure its global service and now operates in more than 10 African countries including Burundi, Congo, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda. It has two broadcasting centers, in Dar es Salaam and Abuja. The company started its business in Kenya in 2008 and has worked on several projects including building the DTV trial system for Kenya Broadcasting Corporation.

In 2011, Pan Africa Network Group, StarTimes' sister company, gained its license through an open bid with local companies to construct the DTV infrastructure for Kenya, and by the end of last year had invested $32 million in the country. It has become a crucial part of the country's changeover process from analog to digital broadcasting.

Although it has become a big stakeholder in this field in Kenya, entering the market and establishing such a company in Africa was not easy as it involved many sensitive issues and conflicts with local interest groups, says Li, StarTimes (Kenya) president.

The group spotted the opportunity as early as 2008 when the registration of the company started, but the company didn't gain a license until late 2011 and only officially opened last year.

"When we finally acquired the signal transmission license in Kenya in 2012, there were waves of attacks from the country's mainstream media saying it was dangerous for a Chinese company to control the digital signal in Kenya," he says. "Even though we won the open bid, some senators and other local media called for a reassessment and termination of our license."

However, the Pay TV is not new to controversy, even before the dust settled on recent wrangles with Communication Commission of Kenya surrounding Star Times charging its subscribers for free-to-air channels in Kenya, the Pay TV company recently found itself embroiled in a dispute with Ugandan consumers for selling them outdated decoders.

Two Ugandan citizens Mulwani Taminwa and Muzamiru Kasamba were on 18th June 2013 cleared by the Commercial section of the High Court to file a case on behalf of more than 130,000 complainants whom, the Chinese duped into paying for the outlandish appliances. They will be joined by the Uganda Consumers Protection Awareness Association (UCPAA) to push for a refund from the Chinese. The victims will also seek a swap for the compliant decoders from the accused.

In South Africa, outrage erupted from various religious groups following news that Star Times planned to shore up the dwindling viewership of Top TV, which is owned by On Digital Media, through adding to its bouquets p0rnographic channels intended to keep subscribers glued to their screens.         

South Africa’s Business Day reports that Top TV’s trump card may yet be pornography. Quoting Alex Elliot, an insolvency director at a law firm Routledge Modises who said TopTV’s new license to air three porn channels might save the company.
“The business rescue process that it is entering now gave TopTV the time it needed to get the licenses for the porn channels — and, as we all know, sex sells,” he said. Top TV was recently licensed to broadcast three adult content channels—Playboy TV, Desire TV, and Private Spice in South Africa.

However, this has raised reasonable fears that the Chinese pay TV operator may include the Top TV porn channels in its bouquet offerings in other African countries in order to entice potential subscribers. StarTimes, with about nine million subscribers across China and Africa, has extensive experience in pay TV.

TopTV has been in distress since October last year and it came as no surprise when shareholders of ODM voted to accept the business rescue plan offered by Star Times. In the last two years, Top TV has had to stop airing five channels after creditors ran out of patience. Top TV owes Fox, Warner Bros and Paramount and Disney colossal debts that it has accrued over time.    

The new development has already been received with outrage in Nigeria and South Africa, with the rescue plan of ODM by Star Times being marred by massive public outcry, especially from South African religious organisations, which find Top TV’s association with pornography repulsive.