IFA 2018

Voice of the future

Devices that can be controlled using audio commands are the rage at the recent IFA 2018

Voice-enabled devices were everywhere at the recently concluded IFA 2018 tech trade show - the latest evidence of the push by tech manufacturers to have consumers control their devices, from smartphones to speakers to home lighting, through voice commands.

Voice assistant software has grown in popularity over the past two years, with four major players staking their claim in the market: Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, Microsoft Cortana and Apple's Siri.

The first two take the lion's share of the pie, being the most prevalent across new products being launched at IFA, which takes place every August in Berlin and where tech firms display their wares that set the trajectory for devices ahead.

Manufacturers are stuffing microphones into products in a bid to connect them to voice assistants.

Chinese electronics firm Lenovo, for instance, announced a slew of new laptops at IFA, which included either Amazon Alexa or Microsoft Cortana, or both.

Its latest business laptop, the ThinkPad X1 Extreme, continues to support both Microsoft Cortana and Amazon Alexa, while its Yoga C930 supports Amazon Alexa.

The development was most visible in the audio sphere: It was almost impossible to find a new speaker at the show which did not have some sort of voice assistance built into it, be it Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa.

Speaker brand Marshall announced two new speakers, both with Alexa and upcoming Assistant support.

Harman Kardon unveiled five new speakers and a soundbar all enabled with Google Assistant, while Bose revealed two speakers and a soundbar that come pre-built with Alexa support.

Research firm Canalys estimates that smart speakers alone will hit 100 million installation bases this year and more than double to 225 million by 2020.

"One of the top trends (in IFA) is that conversational interfaces underpinned by artificial intelligence technologies now have an ecosystem developing around them," said analyst Manjunath Bhat, a research director at market research firm Gartner.

This means using voice commands on one device to control other devices. For instance, Lenovo announced a connected light bulb and smart plug which connects to its new Smart Display that receives voice inputs. Directing a command, "turn off the light", at the Smart Display will switch off the connected bulbs, for example.

Singapore consumers might lose out in the voice assistant war, however, as the biggest player - Amazon Alexa - is currently not supported locally, and Amazon has not revealed plans to bring Alexa officially to Singapore.

Smartwatches get update

Privacy and security issues are top concerns of such technologies, as consumers worry about their devices listening in when more of them start coming with microphones. However, most of these new devices come with physical buttons to switch the microphones off should the need arises.

Voice assistants also lack context to carry out meaningful conversation, said Mr Bhat. "The diversity in language dialects and accents adds to the complexity," he said.

Another trend of consumer interest to emerge from IFA would be traditional watch companies releasing their own smartwatch variants, based on Google Wear OS. These watches, too, will be connected to Google Assistant, letting users control their watches with their voices.

Brands such as Skagen, Diesel and Casio each put its own spin on the smartwatch.

The Skagen Falster 2 is a stylish smartwatch with a heart-rate monitor and waterproof capabilities, while the new Diesel Full Guard 2.5 is a chunky, rugged smartwatch designed for heavy-duty wear.

Casio's Pro Trek Smart WSD F30 is similarly designed for rugged use, with the option for online and offline map storage as well.

"This brings the same competition to the smartwatch segment that smartphones have seen for a long time. Right now, consumers don't have many options in terms of price and functionality," said Mr Bhat. "Google Wear OS-based watches up the ante for a market that is starved of choice."

SMARTPHONES

Smartphones traditionally take a back seat at the Berlin-based IFA tech show, but several smartphone manufacturers still took the chance to announce their latest devices.

Sony, for instance, announced its latest Xperia flagship smartphone at the show last week.

The Sony Xperia XZ3 is the first Sony smartphone to sport an Oled screen, which will also be capable of playing HDR (high dynamic range) content.

It sticks to the curved design language found in other Sony smartphones this year, with a rounded back contoured nicely for holding.

It sports a 6-inch display in a 6.2-inch body that is a good size for using it with one hand and does not feel as bulky or unwieldy as the extra-large XZ2 Premium released last month.

It is very much a 2018 flagship, packing the latest Snapdragon 845 processor and being one of the first phones to ship with the latest version of Android, Android 9.0 Pie, when it launches in selected markets at the end of the month.

However, it still provides 4GB of RAM when most flagships are moving towards 6GB of RAM.

The XZ3 also takes a step back on the photography front by sticking to a single rear camera - a strange decision, considering that the month-old XZ2 Premium finally broke Sony's streak of single rear camera smartphones by having two rear cameras.

Instead, it packs a single 19-megapixel camera with f/2.0 aperture, with in-built software in the camera to simulate portrait mode. The XZ3's price is not yet available.

South Korean electronics firm LG kept mum about its latest flagship, the LG V40, at IFA, offering instead a variant of its latest G7 ThinQ smartphone.

The G7 One is LG's first Android One phone which eschews the company's own software for a stock Android experience, but it loses out on a few key features in the process.

The G7 One ships with pure Android 8.1, giving it a cleaner look on the software front.

It does, however, use the slightly older Snapdragon 835 processor, but the pure Android software should make up for any speed loss.

Notably, it also does away with the G7 ThinQ's secondary wideangle lens, stripping away the ability for users to take wide-angle shots, which has been a key feature of LG phones over the past few years.

Key features of the G7 ThinQ that have been retained are LG's quad digital-to-analogue converter for high-resolution audio and the BoomBox speaker feature, which amps up the bass when playing music on a flat surface.

The phone also feels different, with a textured surface on its back, compared with the G7 ThinQ's all-glass back.

LG has not released details on the G7 One's pricing and availability.

8K-READY TELEVISION DISPLAYS

Entertainment junkies can look forward to sharper, extremely high-resolution and more life-like television displays, as 8K-ready displays seem set to hit the market over the next few years, even as high-resolution content struggles to keep pace.

South Korean electronics firm LG unveiled the world's first 8K Oled television display at the IFA consumer tech trade show in Berlin last Friday, setting the stage for consumer adoption of such highresolution televisions in the future.

The flat-screen television comes with a huge 88-inch display and contains four times as many pixels compared with the 4K television screens that have gained popularity in recent years.

Other brands like Sharp and TCL also unveiled 8K televisions at IFA, but those televisions use LCD displays.

LG's television is the first to use Oled display, rather than a traditional LCD screen. The television contains more than 33 million self-emitting pixels that individually turn on or off according to what is being shown on screen, and so the display can show off true blacks and stronger contrast ratios.

Traditional LCD panels use a backlight to light pixels, which can bleed to surrounding pixels and so are not capable of true blacks.

LG did not commit to a release date nor prices for its new 8K television at IFA. The company's current highest-end 4K Oled television, the 77-inch LG W8, costs $34,999.

"While the 8K TV market is still in its infancy, it is expected to grow to more than five million units by 2022 and LG is committed to leading the ultra-premium market with its 8K Oled TV technology," the company said in a statement.

Even so, 8K content is currently non-existent, with content producers creating only 4K content for the market. In the absence of native 8K content, television manufacturers are also letting their displays upscale 4K content to 8K quality using software adjustments.

LG's closest rival, fellow South Korean tech company Samsung, also announced at IFA its first commercially available 8K televisions, which will be available at the end of this month in selected countries and regions.

These 8K televisions, which Samsung is naming the Q900R, will have the company's own Qled displays and are available in four sizes: 65, 75, 82 and 85 inches. It has not announced prices for these displays.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 05, 2018, with the headline 'Voice of the future'. Print Edition | Subscribe