Has wearable tech had its day?

With the clicking of poles and a determined stride, the Winchester Nordic Walking group is a distinctive sight as its members pound the Hampshire countryside.

The day I bumped into them, all but one was using some form of fitness tracker.

A few Fitbits, a Garmin smartwatch, a couple of phone apps and one basic pedometer – and all, they claimed, were roughly counting the same paces.

“Before I had a watch it didn’t bother me, now I’ve got one I hate being without it,” said group leader Linda Bidder.

Christiane Livingstone oversees Nordic walking groups around the UK.

“Fitness trackers (of all sorts) are incredibly popular in my groups,” she said.

“People love to know how far they have walked and even compete with each other.”

And yet the wearables market has had a rollercoaster ride in recent months.

This time last year analysts were making multi-billion dollar forecasts for the developers of health trackers and smartwatches, and Apple was boldly selling a $10,000 gold edition of the Apple Watch.

But by November 2016 Smartwatch shipments declined by 51.6% year-on-year, according to a report by market analysts IDC.

Jawbone, once a popular fitness tracker brand, confirmed to TechCrunch that it is leaving the consumer market and focusing on healthcare providers.

Microsoft has removed its Fitness Band on its online store (although it is still available on retail giant Amazon) and crucially no longer provides the Band developer kits.

Fitbit remains a key brand name at the heart of the fitness tracker revolution – and it acquired one of its rivals, the Pebble Watch – but it was recently reported to be laying off staff, and founder James Park said the firm experienced “softer than expected” sales during the recent Christmas period.

10,000 steps

Various devices claim to measure heart rate, sleep, activity and count calories.

Counting steps is probably the most common use of wearable devices – but recently experts have questioned whether the golden goal of walking 10,000 steps a day is actually worthwhile, and a US study concluded that health trackers did not aid weight loss.

Analyst Ben Wood, from CCS Insight, was such a wearables enthusiast that he still wears one on each wrist – but even he speaks more cautiously these days about the sector overall.

“The reality is these devices have stalled in the marketplace,” he told BBC Radio 4’s You and Yours programme.

“A lot of people have got them, a lot of people like them but the spectacular explosive growth that we anticipated hasn’t really occurred.”

Ben Wood thinks there’s an engagement issue – after a while these devices don’t tell you anything new.

There’s also the battery issue, and the fact that many of the older and cheaper varieties aren’t water resistant.

Furthermore, Simon Bryant from Futuresource says many wearables aren’t yet independent enough and rely on being tethered to a smartphone, or replicate a functionality, such as step counting, that the handset already has.

However Mr Bryant believes that while wearables may be down, they are not yet out.

“We feel the slowdown is temporary and the market will accelerate this year,” he said.

He thinks that improved power, appearance, and mobile pay options could give them a boost alongside a maturing user group.

Things do appear to be looking up. Sales figures for 2016 just released by IDC indicate 25% market growth year-on-year, with Fitbit taking the largest share – followed by budget brand Xiaomi.

One of the top five sellers is Garmin, which has focused on the dedicated fitness market.

Theo Axford, senior product marketing manager at Garmin UK, told the BBC that while the market had become “very competitive” the firm had not experienced declining sales.

“Brands must ensure that they are meeting the needs of the customer and always delivering value,” he said.

“Whilst the entry space has become largely commoditised, customers that have bought into the technology as a first foray into wearables are now looking for, and demanding more.

“The advocacy we’ve experienced for our devices over many years in what was a fairly specialist market has now become much more mainstream, and customers are looking for a brand with the specialist expertise and a legacy they can trust.”

And what about smartwatches – once feted as the ultimate smartphone accessory with multiple tracking functions and apps?

Ben Wood argues that they are “a solution that’s looking for a problem” – but robust sales of the Apple Watch and Google’s current rollout of a new operating source for Android-powered watches, Android Wear 2.0, suggest the industry has not given up on them yet.

In December 2016 Apple CEO Tim Cook said sales growth was “off the charts” following the release of the Apple Watch 2 in September, and Android watchmaker Samsung showed the biggest growth year-on-year in IDC’s report.

“The smart wearables market is changing,” said Ramos Llamas from IDC.

“Health and fitness remains a major focus, but once these devices become connected to a cellular network, expect unique applications and communications capabilities to become available.”

And this will allow them to make a bid for freedom, he believes.

“This will also solve another key issue: freeing the device from the smartphone, creating a stand-alone experience.”

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Netatmo Presence

Netatmo’s first security camera, called Welcome, was designed to monitor the interior of your home or office, and introduced facial recognition software so that it could alert you to strangers, or ‘welcome’ anyone else.

It’s joined here by the more expensive Presence – which retails at £250 (around $305, AU$405) – an exterior proposition which comes with a dimmable LED floodlight and object detection that can differentiate between people, animals and cars, alerting you to the ‘presence’ of any, or all of those things. 

And while Welcome was a slim, shiny, smartphone-friendly design for keeping in touch with your family, this angular, architectural surveillance cam is aimed squarely at protecting your property, be that a home or business.

It’s an IP camera that works wirelessly over Wi-Fi, either on its own, or teamed up with more Netatmo cameras that can all be controlled by the free Netatmo iOS/Android app called Security. There’s even a watchOS app for Apple Watch fans.

Design and installation

The relatively high price feels somewhat justified when you weigh this well-built and aesthetically pleasing device in your hands. Its all-metal construction is waterproof to IPX7 standard, includes a cluster of dimmable LEDs and comes with a mounting plate that allows it to simply replace an existing outdoor light.  

There’s no internal battery, so you’ll need to hijack the power cable that’s already in place. There’s no Ethernet port either, which means using your smartphone and the companion app to help the camera join your home network. Luckily, our router was located within range, but you may find that moving your router is more practical than installing a new power line for the camera.

Spec Sheet

Here are the full specs of the Netatmo Presence:

Type: IP camera 

Location: Outdoor 

Mounting: Wall-mount included 

Connectivity: Wi-Fi 

Resolution: 1080p

Sensor: 4-megapixels

Night Vision: IR LED 

Motion sensor: Yes (configurable) 

Audio: Two-way 

Battery: Yes (up to one year)

Local video storage: microSD

App support: Android, iOS, watchOS

Subscription: Free

Size/Weight: 200 x 110 x 50mm (H x W x D); 1.5kg

Features

The headline feature here is the sophisticated object recognition software that uses Netatmo’s companion app to send you a text or email when a car, an animal or a person crosses its path. It works with surprising success over distances of up to 20 metres in daylight and a little less than that when using its infrared sensors at night.

You can fine-tune the system by focusing on specific zones, which is done by pinching and zooming on the parts of the screen you are interested in, like a garden gate, or your driveway. 

As a floodlight, Presence is equally flexible and impressive. Few security lights are dimmable, but this one has a sliding scale of brightness and you can choose to have it triggered by either motion or low light. 

The grille at the back guards a speaker and microphone, adding two-way audio and making fairly clear sound recordings to go with the Full HD video. 

Another significant feature that could outweigh the initial cost of purchase is the fact that you don’t need to pay a subscription here. With video recorded directly onto a bundled 64GB microSD card, you don’t need a costly cloud server, as is the case with Nest, Samsung and others. You could also set up your own FTP server, if you find yourself recording more frequently.

Performance

The iOS/Android app, which as we mentioned is called Security, gives you intuitive control over this and any other Netatmo cameras you have, making it easy to scroll between each camera view. If you have just one camera, you’ll see a timeline of the activity recorded that day. When you turn your phone from portrait to landscape, the image becomes full-screen.

There’s also rather slick watchOS support, so that you can see images from the camera directly on your Apple Watch. It’s now available as a complication, meaning you can add the feature to your watch face.

The resolution goes up to 1080p at 24 frames per second, and we were able to zoom in and capture crisp video clips, although we noticed that zooming introduces quite a lot of video noise. 

Aside from the reassuring build quality, convenient floodlight feature and useful object recognition, the big advantage here is the camera’s flexibility. We were able to decide whether we received an alert when a car came up the drive, or if a person entered by the gate, and also choose whether to record that clip or not.

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Tom's Hardware's GDC 2017 Highlights

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'Vindicta' Takes Different Approach To VR First-Person Shooter Locomotion

GDC was ripe with new virtual reality games, and we spent much of the week trying these new experiences. In what could be an emerging trend, we found a first-person shooter that uses a new form of locomotion, and we were shocked when what appeared to be a silly gimmick turned out to be a viable solution for motion sickness and immersive movement in VR.

Vindicta is a new first-person VR shooter developed by Game Cooks, which showcased its work at a special event far from the bustling show floor at Moscone. The company’s debut game makes you Agent V, an elite infantry operative tasked with bringing down UB Industries’ plan of building a robot army to take over the world. You’ll face killer robots, mechanical spiders and a variety of other baddies that will try to thwart your attempts at stopping their evil plot as you cascade down the hallways of the HN1 Facility, taking out the robot trash on your way to save the earth.

Swing Away

The implementation of locomotion in Vindicta is what makes it stand out in the first-person shooter genre, which traditionally has had two prevalent methods of movement. Some use a teleport system, which tends to break the immersion and isn’t well suited for fast-paced map-exploring competitive shooters. The other option is what has been referred to as “classic” locomotion, in which a player simply hits a button on a controller to propel themselves forward (or sometimes, backwards) within the VR environment. The problem with this method is that without a physical action to match what our eyes are seeing, many users can experience nausea.

Vindicta bypasses the brain fart (or brain puke, in some cases) by forcing players to perform a physical action in order to move (strikingly similar to Sprint Vector), essentially syncing the physical signals received by your brain with what you see in the VR environment. The game employs the classic locomotion method (press a button to move) but adds an extra step. The rate at which you walk or run isn’t static; it’s dictated by how far and how fast you swing your arms, creating a more natural feel to movement within a VR environment and making the experience much easier to enjoy, without the need for a bucket.

Vindicta’s movement system isn’t perfect; the demo I played didn’t allow me to walk backwards. In a room-scale environment (in this case, an HTC Vive), it was relatively easy to avoid getting stuck in virtual corners, but I did occasionally have to reorientate myself in order to remain in the real-world play area. This was because I relied more on moving in the physical world while taking out bad guys, only using the push-button locomotion when I needed to travel farther distances. If you were to use the push-button method for the majority of your movements, the lack of backwards thrust could be bothersome, but that’s not the recommended way to travel in Vindicta.

No Stress, No Mess (Well, Maybe A Little)

As someone who suffers from classic locomotion sickness in VR, I was skeptical of the this new method of movement. Before I had an opportunity to try the game, I watched several attendees demo Vindicta. I found myself scoffing at how utterly ridiculous it appeared (some looked as though they were playing air drums while casually walking around, and others were hopping around like a cricket in sunlight and waving their arms wildly), and I started estimating how long I could last without getting sick as I watched the frantic, fast-paced gameplay on the screen.

However, when it was finally my turn (I totally killed it by the way, I’m a regular John Wick), I was shocked at how adding a physical element as simple as swinging your arms arms reduced the nausea factor, which in my case, was entirely eliminated. More importantly, I was able to enjoy the game on a deeper level than if I was worrying about whether or not I was about to upchuck.The only mess that needed to be cleaned up was the mountain of evil robot corpses I left in my wake.

Our time in the VR world of Vindicta was short, but it was impressive with both its graphics quality and gameplay, in addition to the new locomotion technique. Even though it’s still in development, Vindicta has the elements of a game I’d want in my library when it arrives this April as an early access offering for the HTC Vive on SteamVR (pricing TBD).

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Mechs In VR: A Stroke Of Locomotion Genius In 'Archangel'

VR presents numerous challenges for game developers, not the least of which involves how to frame scenes and help you navigate them. In Archangel, an upcoming VR title, developer Skydance Interactive used mechs to near perfection.

Mech Pilot In A Desert City

In the demo we saw at GDC, you enter the world of Archangel as a mech pilot. You start out in the cockpit of your mechanical beast, what Skydance Interactive calls a “six-story-high war machine.” You can see a facsimile of your hands courtesy of the controllers you’re holding (in our case, the Vive controllers), and when you move your hands, your mech’s giant robot hands move as well.

You’re on a planet that may or may not be earth; it’s a futuristic-looking city, with tall buildings rising out of a desert floor.

A voice in your ear–the AI that shepherds your team through battle–has you run a “systems check” as a means to get you accustomed to the game controls. Simply put, your right arm alternately has a machine gun or a rail gun, your left hand shoots a missile or “paints” multiple bogies with a missile targeting system before blasting them all out of the sky, and you can toggle on a shield for either arm.  

That’s pretty much it. Your mech stalks along a predetermined route, but you can look all around from the cockpit, just like you would if you were actually piloting one. (We should be so lucky.)

You have a team with you, and they fly around in hover vehicles as you all encounter waves of flying space jets as well as tanks slogging over the sandy terrain. Eventually, you face soldiers on the ground as well as beefier airships that are more difficult to take down.

As you make your way through the violent city streets, your comms are interrupted a couple of times by the enemy–some kind of rogue colonel, it seems. He offers you a devil’s bargain; your teammates urge you not to pay him any mind.

By the end of the demo, you’re in the firefight of your life, and just as you face off against a powerful airship, a giant metal…something…clamps down on your mech from above.

Everything goes dark. Fin.

Ideal Locomotion

Achieving quality locomotion in VR games is difficult to say the least, but Skydance Interactive found the perfect foil in the mech idea.

You have a delightful perch–six stories high according to the developer, remember–and you’re positioned close to the front of it, so you have a nice wide field of view. You never really lose that heart-pounding sense of height.

The mech walks, but you don’t. Normally, that’s an issue that can make you nauseous, but the developers used a few clever tricks to make it work. First of all, you’re moving rather slowly, with big, deliberate stomps, as a giant robot killing machine is wont to do. That means the scenery doesn’t move too fast for you.

Second, you can see just enough of the cockpit to remember that you’re essentially inside a vehicle. Humans are accustomed to moving quickly inside of vehicles without getting nauseous–except for sometimes when you get car sick or air sick–and by adding those reference points, Skydance Interactive gives you that same sense. (In that way it reminds us of CCP Games’ Gunjack.) It helps that this is a game you can play while seated.

Butter-Smooth Gameplay

It’s hard to describe how satisfying it is to move your physical arms and see giant robot arms move in concert with them. You feel powerful. Dangerous. Which is what you are when you’re piloting your mech.

You plod along a preset path, periodically stopping to fight waves of enemies. All the while, your NPC teammates are chattering over the comms, calling out the attacks as they come and delivering key info about what’s happening so you can react accordingly.

As we mentioned earlier, you have two weapon options on each arm, plus a shield for each arm that you can engage with a button press. You don’t have unlimited ammo, but you do have fairly deep magazines, so you don’t have to reload every few seconds. The different enemies go down faster with different weapons, so there’s a bit of a dance to rotating through your weaponry.

Your shields are the same: They last for quite a while, but not forever. At times there’s a lot of bullets flying at you, so a strategy we quickly adopted involved pulling up a shield with one hand while blasting away with the other. When the shield expires, you switch hands. That’s perhaps a little obvious, but because each weapon is ideal for taking out a certain type of enemy, you have to be disciplined in what you’re targeting when you’re using the weapons on a given hand.

Put another way: We suspect this will turn into one of those minute-to-learn, lifetime-to-master kinds of games.

Throughout the demo, the gameplay was crystal clear and butter smooth. All of the actions, even in the middle of an intense firefight, evinced no lag or issues of any kind.

Because of the fun, engaging, and pretty gameplay and visuals; clever no-nausea locomotion; and seated experience, Archangel is the type of VR title you can lose yourself in for long stretches of time.

The game will arrive in July 2017 for the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift, and PSVR, and on Steam.

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Uber uses 'secret program' Greyball to hide from regulators

Uber has been using a secret program to prevent undercover regulators from shutting down the taxi-hailing service in cities around the world.

The software, called Greyball, was developed to help protect the company from “violations of terms of service”.

But data collected through Uber’s phone app has been used to identify officials monitoring its drivers.

Uber has acknowledged that Greyball has been used in multiple countries, the New York Times reports.

The tool has enabled the company to monitor users’ habits and pinpoint regulators posing as ordinary passengers, while trying to collect evidence if they believe the service to be breaking local laws governing taxis.

The software works by collecting geolocation data and credit card information to determine whether the user is linked to an institution or law enforcement authority.

A “fake” version of the app would then allow those individuals suspected of attempting to entrap drivers to hail a cab, only to have their booking cancelled.


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The existence of the Greyball program was revealed in an article published in the New York Times on Friday, which attributed the information to four current and former Uber employees, who were not named.

“This program denies ride requests to fraudulent users who are violating our terms of service,” Uber said in a statement.

“Whether that’s people aiming to physically harm drivers, competitors looking to disrupt our operations, or opponents who collude with officials on secret ‘stings’ meant to entrap drivers,” it added.

It comes in the same week that the chief executive of Uber, Travis Kalanick, was forced to apologise after a video emerged of him swearing at one of the company’s drivers. Just two weeks earlier he apologised for “abhorrent” sexism at the company.

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Impulse Gear Confirms 'Farpoint' Features Co-Op, Launches Mid-May With PSVR Aim Controller

When Impulse Gear’s Farpoint launches in May, you won’t have to explore the alien world you’re lost on alone. The developer revealed the game has co-operative gameplay.

Last June, Sony announced that a new independent development studio called Impulse Gear was working on an exclusive PlayStation VR first-person shooter called Farpoint. Back then, not much was known about the game–and, truth be told, we still don’t know a whole lot about it.

We do know this: Farpoint is set on an alien world filled with hostile creatures. The spacecraft in which you were traveling crashed on the planet, and now you must fight to survive. Sony introduced Farpoint as a single-player experience, which, honestly sounds terrifying. Who wants to experience being alone on an alien planet with no one to talk to, and no one to give you a helping hand? Not this guy, that’s for sure. But let me bring a buddy along, and we’ll tear those aliens a new one.

Fortunately, when Farpoint launches I’ll be able to do that, and so will you. During GDC, Impulse Gear revealed that Farpoint includes an online co-operative gameplay mode, so you won’t have to face the solitude of being the only human on the planet.

The developers built the game around a special peripheral called the PSVR Aim Controller. Impulse Gear worked with Sony to build the gun peripheral, which features a tracking ball like the Move controllers, and a thumbstick to enable locomotion. The Aim controller launches alongside Farpoint, which is the only title for it so far, but we expect to see more titles with support for the gun-like controller in the future.

Impulse Gear said that Farpoint launches on May 16. It is currently slated as a PSVR exclusive, but we’re not sure if the release is a timed exclusive or not.

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