Mobile World Congress: smartphones about to get even smarter

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Each year around late February a massive hi-tech gathering takes place in Barcelona, Spain, that redefines mobile electronics.

The 30-year-old Mobile World Congress once was about mobile phones and telecommunications but its charter now is broad. This year the definition of “mobile” includes any hi-tech device that can move, such as drones, autonomous cars and robots.

Underpinning this in 2017 are developments in artificial intelligence, the big growth area in hi-tech. AI is stretching beyond machines having better language skills so they can interact with humans. At Mobile World Congress this year, there’s discussion about AI managing entire communication networks, and identifying and fixing problems more efficiently than we mortals.

And there’s the march to 5G, the promise of superfast cellular data. It’s the dominant discussion not only in the telco space but among manufacturers. And the competition is heating up with telecommunications supplier Qual­comm and LG saying it will bring 5G communications to cars.

Samsung says it will demonstrate throughput speeds of up to 4 gigabits per second at the event while China’s ZTE says its 5G networks will be ready for commercial pre-deployment by the third quarter next year. It says its Pre5G solutions let operators emulate the performance of 5G networks on existing 4G LTE infrastructure.

The huge data speed bumps are coming sooner than we think.

Nevertheless launches of new and updated smartphones remain a major part of the event and this year there is no shortage. New phones by Sony, LG, Huawei, BlackBerry (now licensed to TCL Communication), Nokia, Motorola and Alcatel were launched over a 48-hour period.

The big exception was Samsung, which routinely launches its next premium phone at MWC. This year it delayed its Galaxy S8 flagship launch until March 29 in the wake of the Note7 exploding-batteries affair. Samsung wants to be 500 per cent sure there are no battery issues before thrusting the S8 on to the public. At this year’s MWC, Samsung launched the Galaxy Tab S3 and Galaxy Book tablet computers, but no phones.

In 2017 the bar is set higher for premium smartphone features. Most premium smartphones now offer water and dust resistance. Manufacturers not only promise better battery life but faster charging too. Huawei, for example, cites just 30 minutes’ charging time for a full day’s use of its new P10 handset.

There’s a trend towards back-facing cameras on premium phones having two lenses.

Huawei’s P10 continues its practice of one lens being monochrome to enhance picture details, while one of the LG G6 lenses is wide angle, up to 125 degrees, and suits group shots.

Very few premium quality phones come to market without a fingerprint reader. You unlock a phone by placing your finger on the home button and use a password only if the device doesn’t read your fingerprint. This can happen, for instance, if your finger is moist or wet.

But an even more secure system is on the horizon with iris scanning, The phone scans your eyes before unlocking access. It was a feature already on the ill-fated Note7.

By next year it is expected to be ubiquitous, with Qualcomm Technologies and New York-based EyeLock announcing it as part biometric identification included in a new smartphone chip.

“By 2018, most new smartphones released in the world will include biometrics,” Qualcomm’s Sy Choudhury says.

We can expect other sensors and chips to be installed in smartphones.

At January’s Consumer Electronics Show Chinese electronics firm Changhong said it was partnering with Consumer Physics to create an eight-core phone with a spectrometer chip that analyses food and chemicals.

There’s also a “hardware-free” roaming SIM. Cellular data solutions firm KnowRoaming has partnered with TCL to create Alcatel phones that you take overseas and access the local data network with an app. Its global roaming but not with your SIM carrier.

AI is a big drawcard at MWC with Ericsson predicting that it will offer remedies for problems with communication networks and eventually identify and fix network issues itself.

Elements of AI are being rolled out as a component of Google Assistant on Android smartphones. Google has been working with vendors such as LG and Huawei to make the assistant work seamlessly with their Android variants.

Samsung is expected to launch its own personal assistant along the lines of Apple’s Siri when the S8 debuts late this month. Last year the Korean electronics giant acquired Viv, a personal assistant created by a co-creator of Apple’s Siri.

A week before the congress, Taiwan phone-maker HTC announced Sense Companion as part of its new U Ultra Play smartphone.

Sense Companion will know that, based on your calendar appointments, you will run out of battery well before you get home. It will suggest that you recharge now while you can.

It also keeps an eye on contact shortcuts on your home screen. It will suggest which contacts to remove if you have little engagement with them, and who to replace them with.

Virtual reality too is a drawcard. Samsung has announced yet another version of its Galaxy Gear VR headset, partnered with Oculus. But this version has a hand controller with a touchpad for dragging or dropping objects in virtual reality, and for tilting and shooting.

Rival Google’s Daydream View VR headset already has a hand controller. There are lots of VR experiences to savour at the congress.

Drones too are an important part of the event. Prominent China drone manufacturer DJI has unveiled an enterprise-oriented drone, M200, designed for performing aerial inspections. It has an upward-facing gimbal mount so you can examine the undersides of bridges and towers.

It comes with an ADS-B (automatic dependent surveillance) receiver that warns a drone operator about nearby aircraft, in time to take evasive action. The problem is that some aircraft are yet to be fitted with the ADS-B system.

In 2017 with AI, technology is heading towards being self-managing as well as amazingly innovative.

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