On September 27, 2016, Google has rolled out the Google Neural Machine Translation system (GNMT), “which utilizes state-of-the-art training techniques to achieve the largest improvements to date for machine translation quality,” explain Quoc V. Le and Mike Schuster in their blog post. Until the release of this update, Google had been relying on another model, which involves breaking sentences into individual phrases and breaking those phrases even further into words. The old model was known for producing convoluted and hard-to-understand translations, especially in the case of notoriously difficult language pairs such as Chinese and English.
But, after testing the new version of Google Translate, several tech commentators have reported that the system is now approaching human-level accuracy. Try translating a complex sentence—even one with historicisms and obscure names of places and events—and you will likely be just as surprised by the accuracy of the translation as Nick Statt from The Verge and others were.
That being said, the system is by no means perfect. “GNMT can still make significant errors that a human translator would never make, like dropping words and mistranslating proper names or rare terms,” Google admits. However, by using a system modeled after neural connections in the human brain, these gaps could quickly disappear. The system is even said to have developed “its own internal language to represent the concepts it uses to translate between other languages.”
Surprisingly, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 46 percent increase in translation job opportunities between 2012 and 2022. Tony Guerra, the director of interpretation services at CETRA, even said, “Google Translate has a role: it can provide a very rough and overall sense. But it does not understand or distinguish certain phrases.” That’s exactly where both he and the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics may be wrong.
There’s no doubt that high-stakes translators won’t be replaced by computers anytime soon—perhaps even never—but what about millions of translators and interpreters who work on a freelance basis, dealing with an endless stream of mundane translations of descriptions for cheap products, internal company guidelines and policies, and high-school homework? ZDNet lists the profession of a translator as the 9th job that will be automated by AI and robots. Considering the article was posted more than a year ago, it would be interesting to see where would the author place translators now.
The key here is convenience. It takes time, money, and effort to hire a translator, but it takes just a few seconds to copy-paste the text into Google Translate. And when the software spits out something that looks legitimate, it’s easy to imagine many cases where someone would just decide to use what Google Translate thinks is the right translation. That right there represents an hour or two of work for some freelancer, which doesn’t seem significant until you realize that the Google Translate mobile and web apps account for around 18 million translations per day for Chinese to English alone.
Once Google perfects the technology behind their text-based translation system, they could use it in other, even more interesting ways. “A few wearable tech upstarts are showing interest in the area of translation hearables,” says Sophie Charara in her article for Wareable. One company, Doppler Labs, is developing a real-time hearable device that would allow for in-ear translation of Spanish. A start-up named Waverly Labs have raised $3.5 million on Indiegogo to fund a smart earpiece language translator which translates between users speaking different languages. The device won’t be out until May 2017, but it already serves as a clear evidence confirming the large demand for the technology.
It could be that the profession of a translator will change and adopt these technologies as essential tools for working in a more efficient manner. Machines could do the first draft and real human beings could then use their expertise and knowledge to polish the final product to perfection. But where accuracy and appropriateness of style don’t play a huge role, there will likely be no work left for real translators.
To those who closely follow the virtual reality industry, Intel’s entry into the crowded mosh pit that is VR likely comes as no surprise. The company has missed their chance when it comes to mobile, so the pressure is on them to come up with a technology that would help them stay as relevant in the future mobile-first world filled with virtual and augmented reality experiences as they are now.
Google has been pushing virtual reality with their ultra-affordable headset made from cardboard, and, with Google Daydream, the company is now starting to establish itself in the as a worthy competitor to Samsung’s Gear VR, a mid-range mobile virtual reality headset. But neither of these companies occupies the spot that Intel wants to seize. The main target is the same demographic that would purchase an Oculus Rift headset for its superior graphical fidelity and immersion.
“Merged reality delivers virtual world experiences more dynamically and naturally than ever before and makes experiences impossible in the real world now possible,” said Intel’s chief executive, Brian Krzanich. Project Alloy revolves around Intel’s RealSense technologies, a platform for implementing gesture-based human-computer interaction techniques.
When used for the purposes of virtual reality, RealSense technologies help Intel get rid of several critical restrictions of current VR solutions. For starters, Project Alloy cuts all cords, allowing users to enjoy a free range of motion without being chained to a computer. To ensure users won’t bump into real objects while being immersed in virtual worlds, Alloy employs advanced collision detection and avoidance system. As a user approaches, let’s say, a wall, the wall will become visible in the virtual world.
Not only that but the same technology also allows you to bring your own hands into your virtual world and use them to interact with objects just like you would in real life. The RealSense cameras on the headset can accurately track finger movements, analyze them in real time, and project them back into the virtual environment with an unnoticeable delay of just a few milliseconds. What’s possible with a technology like this is limited only by the imagination of developers.
Intel knows that and is ready to support developers by releasing a suite of sensing and computing technologies and collaborating with Microsoft to ensure that Windows-based content works great on Alloy and other Intel-based virtual reality devices. According to Intel’s website, “Intel will open the Alloy hardware and provide open APIs for the ecosystem, allowing developers and partners to create their own branded products from the Alloy design, in 2017.”
The current version of Project Alloy, which is still just an early prototype, shares certain design features of both PlayStation VR and Samsung’s Gear VR. One commentator complained about problems with fit and comfort, saying that the headset felt too heavy. But, according to Tim Parker from Intel, the final version of Project Alloy will offer a much better user experience. The company plans to ship first units in the second half of 2017, and they should feature Kaby Lake processors and a single 400 series RealSense camera, instead of an older Skylake processor and two R200 RealSense cameras. What’s more, the final Project Alloy will support a discrete graphics card.
In past, Intel debuted several interesting tech concepts which failed to turn into real products, but, hopefully, things will be different this time around. Their partnership with Microsoft is promising and so is the concept itself. We already have lightweight mobile VR systems that offer a blurry glimpse of what VR is all about, and there’s no doubt that there will be no shortage of heavy-duty tethered systems. Project Alloy could be right in the middle, striking the perfect balance between portability and graphical fidelity.
Of course, a device that’s essentially a PC with an Intel microprocessor in it is just what the company needs to establish a foothold in the virtual reality market and ensure their revenue stream won’t dry up as our computing habits evolve and change.
“[Smartglasses] are not going to happen,” wrote Hayley Williams in her article posted in April 2016 on Gizmodo. The article contains a roundup of various Kickstarter projects, most of which live in obscurity to this day. Several commentators under the article shared her views and expressed their disinterest in the arguably dorky technology that first became available to public on May 15, 2014, with the release of Google Glass, an optical head-mounted display designed in the shape of a pair of eyeglasses.
At the time, the $1,600 gadget seemed to be spearheading an entirely new category of wearable devices, one that could fundamentally alter the way we interact with one another and the world around us. But in January 2016, Google has decided to suspend sales of Google Glass, ending the product’s brief and quite unsuccessful life. “The problems Glass created outweighed the solutions Google thought it could solve. It’s strange and unsettling to consider how disconnected Google was from the real world with Glass,” commented Nate Swanner.
Arguably, Google Glass failed as a product because of the company’s over reliance on early adopters willing to spend big bucks, developers of apps and solutions for which there was never any real audience to begin with, and support from large business partners, such as Twitter, who were all quick to drop the technology as soon as they’ve realized where it’s heading.
What the world needed wasn’t a large ecosystem and an entirely new way of living; it was merely a useful, simple-to-use product that wouldn’t be out of reach for most folks. That product is now here, and its name is Snapchat Spectacles.
Spectacles came as a surprise announcement by Snapchat CEO Evan Spiegel, along with the launch of Snap, Inc., a camera company with a goal to empower people to express themselves. Priced at $130, the simple, plastic glasses with a camera inside neatly fit into the upper echelon of the impulse buy price category of novelty gadgets and toys, which is also occupied by products such as Amazon Echo and devices from Fitbit.
The idea behind the glasses is simple: you shoot a short 10- to 30-second long video clips that instantly upload to Snapchat via your smartphone. Because the camera shoots 115-degree wide-angle footage, you can view it either in landscape or portrait—the app will automatically level the view as you spin your phone around. Why would Snapchat implement a feature like this? Because it’s fun. And that’s what the glasses are all about.
There’s something captivating about capturing the world around from the eye-level perspective; something that even a GoPro mounted on the head can’t replicate. The familiar field of view brings with it an unrivaled degree of intimacy and emotional connection. Even relatively mundane, daily events are interesting to watch when replayed on your smartphone or computer, not to mention sharing them with your friends and family.
It also helps a great deal that the Snapchat Spectacles look completely non-threating, which is something Google Glass utterly failed to achieve. They are made from plastic yet well-built, have very prominent circular LED lights to let people around you know you are recording, and they even come in a colorful case that doubles as a charger. The fun design brings the best out of people, making everyone want to participate in your short snippets of recorded memories.
Snapchat has also decided to go with a very unorthodox distribution method: the Spectacles are sold through vending machines known as Snapbots. Snapbots are yellow, rectangular, vaguely resembling the Minions. These vending machines travel across the United States, never staying too long in one place. You can visit the official website of Spectacles to keep track of the Snapbot’s current location (it seems there’s just one Snapbot at the moment).
Despite everything that’s great about the product, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. The video quality could be better, it would be nice if Spectacles could shoot photos, and many people would certainly like to see a few extra styles of the glasses. But as a revival of a dying breed of wearable gadgets, Snapchat Spectacles deserve our praise.
The idea behind the project isn’t to throw away Cardboard into the pits of technological obsolescence, but rather to offer customers the next logical destination on their journey towards an immersive VR experience. Clay Bavor, Google’s vice president of virtual reality, commented, “We knew that Cardboard would only go so far, because there’s only so much you can do in terms of immersiveness and interactivity with—let’s be serious—a piece of cardboard, and a phone that was really only meant to be a phone.”
Google is going to keep Cardboard around as a highly affordable way how VR newbies can get a glimpse of what the once futuristic technology is all about. When the same customers reach the limits of what’s possible with Cardboard, they will know exactly what to buy next: Daydream.
So, what is Daydream? According to Bavor, Daydream is about enabling very high-quality mobile VR. The key word here is “high-quality”. Google is well aware that any truly immersive mobile VR experience will require a suitable hardware to run on. Not only that, but the entire ecosystem – apps, operating system, VR glasses – has to work in unison.
That’s why Google is working with their industry partners and in-house developers to create a VR platform the world has not seen before. The first Daydream-compatible smartphones – the ZTE Axon 7 and Asus Zenfone 3 Deluxe – are right around the corner, and so are the other two pillars of Daydream.
Three Pillars of DaydreamDuring his presentation at Google IO 2016, Bavor explained the steps Google took to create “our platform for virtual reality.” To succeed, Google needs to have a total control over the VR experience. Customers must know that when they purchase a Daydream-certified smartphone, they won’t run into any compatibility or performance issues.
There’s simply no more room for guesswork like there was (and still is and will be) with Cardboard. Samsung, with their Gear VR, has shown that customers are willing to pay extra for a smartphone that does something extra. But Samsung’s problem is the inability to control the experience from top to bottom. Users have to fight an operating system not meant for virtual reality and apps developed with only a vague idea of the kind of VR headset the apps are going to be consumed through. But all that is about to change.
SmartphonesGoogle doesn’t want any redundancy in their platform. The company expects smartphone manufacturers to bake all the functionality and features necessary for a smooth VR experience directly into their devices.
This entails powerful hardware capable of pushing demanding graphics at 60 frames-per-second, low-persistence displays with little to no lag to eliminate ghosting, and high-quality, latency-free sensors to increase the sense of immersion when inside a virtual reality world.
Prominent smartphone manufacturers, including Samsung, HTC, LG, Xiaomi, Huawei, ZTE, Asus, and Alcatel should have daydream-ready smartphones available this fall. The beauty of this approach lies in the fact that the whole platform can evolve in a similar way as video game consoles do. All that Google has to do to take Daydream to the next level is to bump up the reference specifications and call the result “Daydream 2.0” or something similar. With enough time, Daydream could start competing with PC-tethered headsets.
Headset and ControllerThe current mobile VR experience is held back by the chaos that reigns among the headsets. The market is flooded with headsets ranging from a few dollars to few hundred dollars. Some are compatible with devices up to 6”, others can fit only smaller smartphones; certain models have a wide field of view and high-quality optics, but there’s a slew of other headsets that don’t even come close.
With Daydream, Google has taken their experience and created a reference design that others can use as a blueprint to come up with something of an equal quality. The sketch they showed at Google IO 2016 depicted a sleek, clean headset that should appeal to regular smartphone owners and tech enthusiasts alike.
To complement the headset, Google has also created a VR-optimized controller that’s both powerful and intuitive. Its DNA can be traced back to the Wii Nunchuk Controller, as a consequence of its minimalistic appearance and built-in orientation sensor that allows for intuitive motion control. A circular clickable touch pad is designed to bring touchscreen gestures to the virtual world, and two buttons – a home button and app button – provide all the essential functionality without overwhelming users with options.
AppsThe team behind Daydream has been working with the core Android team to include VR capabilities in the next version of the mobile operating system. Starting with Android N, users will be able to put their smartphones into a special VR mode, which will change the UI, making the device easily controllable even while still in VR. Substantial changes have also been made under the hood to allow for a very low latency of less than 20ms and increased performance.
Clay Bavor said that Google will take a strong stance on quality and not allow badly written, designed, or optimized apps to enter into the Daydream ecosystem. “We want to make sure that we’re representing good VR to our users.”
Google wants to lead by example with their apps. The Play Store, YouTube, and Street View are all going to be optimized at launch to deliver an uncompromising user experience. A new face among Google’s increasingly larger collections of apps is the Daydream Hub, a kind of home screen that acts as a gateway to all games and virtual reality apps.
More VR apps are expected to pop up in the near future, thanks to Google’s partnerships with the New York Time, WSJ, USA Today, Netflix, Hulu, IMAX, NBA, MLB, and many others. New VR games from EA, Ubisoft, NetEase, and OtherSide Entertainment are also on the horizon, so there’s no reason to doubt that there won’t be enough compelling content available when Daydream takes off.
It’s ComingThe release of Daydream is planned on Autumn 2016, shortly after Android Nougat is out. Given that Cardboard headsets hover around $10 and Gear VR currently goes for $100, Daydream will probably be positioned right above the Gear VR, in terms of its price.
Google’s vision of the future seems to involve ultra-powerful smartphones that act as keys to countless invisible virtual worlds around us. They recognize that once we reach the point where we no longer need to own a laptop or PC just to get more processing power, smartphones and mobile operating systems will become the only thing that matters.
But this $45 billion company led by a man who happily admits that being greatly influenced by Steve Jobs doesn’t want to be regarded as a smartphone business. Xiaomi insists that they are an internet company – a new kind of company that deals primarily with rapid innovation, community building, and lifestyle.
They see that in our post-mobile, interconnected world, tech companies have become much more than providers of useful gadgets. Our entire work and personal lives revolve around tightly integrated ecosystems developed by companies such as Google, Microsoft, Amazon, and, of course, Xiaomi.
But to understand how Xiaomi got there and where the company is going, we have to understand how they managed to sell over 70m smartphones in 2015 alone.
High-End Products Without High-End PricesXiaomi is often compared with Samsung and Apple, even though the company targets a substantially different market. Their bread and butter are devices with high-end specifications and affordable prices. Such products appeal mainly to tech-savvy people and members of the younger generation who don’t have enough disposable income to afford often obscenely expensive flagship models from premium smartphone manufacturers.
In India alone, there are more than 700 million consumers under the age of thirty. When Xiaomi’s devices go on sale in this market, the company often sells their entire stock in just a few seconds. For example, the entire first batch of Mi 4 smartphones in exactly 37 seconds, according to GSMArena.
A flagship device from, let’s say, Samsung is going to cost you around $600, but a device with similar or even better specifications from Xiaomi sells for just $400. And if you lower your expectations just a little bit and look at Xiaomi’s mid-range smartphones, then you are suddenly dealing with prices and value unrivaled by any established mobile manufacturer.
The younger market that Xiaomi targets is also a lot more passionate and vocal about their gadgets. There’s no need for Xiaomi to spend large sums of money on advertising – their own fans will spread the word out.
Lifestyle CompanyIn an interview for Wired, Lei Jun said, “Think of Xiaomi as a company that is bringing innovation to everyone. We put an emphasis on high-quality products that help to create a connected lifestyle for everyone as we move into a new era of technological innovation. This doesn’t only mean smartphones, tablets, TVs, routers — we invest in startups that form what we call an ecosystem. They make products that are sold on Mi.com, ranging from power banks to wearables to air and water purifiers, so we have hundreds of products that come together to create a lifestyle.”
This “lifestyle approach” could be the key to Xiaomi’s total dominance in the second part of this decade. As their core audience gets older, they are going to settle and shift their collective gaze from smartphones, tablets, and laptops to refrigerators, microwave ovens, water and air purifiers, air conditioners, smart light bulbs, smart weighing scales, and all those other products that Xiaomi is investing their time, money, and effort into.
In this new environment, a smartphone is going to be a sort of central hub that brings everything together. Similarly, a Mi account is going to be a form of personal identification that unlocks not just an online cloud storage – but the entire world around us.