Mobile World Congress: Why do smartphones look so alike?

Mobile World Congress: Why do smartphones look so alike? ff6fccc27e
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Media captionWATCH: The new smell-sensing CAT smartphone dares to look different

Is smartphone hardware treading water while industrial designers wait for bendy screens and other flexible, futuristic components to make more radical models possible? And will sales continue to decline until they do?

Samsung is casting a long shadow over this year’s Mobile World Congress.

The technology industry get-together in Barcelona is set to be dominated by the launch of its Galaxy S9 and S9+ handsets.

The reaction from many rivals – including Huawei, HTC and LG – appears to have been to hold off their own flagship launches until later in the year.

Image copyrightSamsung
Image caption Samsung has released several camera-themed promo videos ahead of the Galaxy S9’s launch

Based on “leaks”, the S9 looks to be another rectangular, rigid product with an almost-all glass front and sleek metal back.

Samsung’s own teaser campaign has centred on its camera’s capabilities rather than a radical form.

Of the few other new phones expected, speculation has focused on how many lenses they will feature, where their fingerprint sensors will be placed, their display dimensions and whether they will retain a headphone jack, rather than any expectation of a major leap forward.

Skip Twitter post by @evleaks

Asus Zenfone 5 Lite – quad cam (2 x 20MP selfie + 2 x 16MP rear) FHD+ pic.twitter.com/819mlsLJm7

— Evan Blass (@evleaks) February 9, 2018

End of Twitter post by @evleaks

“The tragedy is that we had two decades of incredible innovation with flip-phones, candy-bar phones, sliders, round phones, square phones – all kinds of different things,” said Ben Wood, from the consultancy CCS Insight.

“But the world changed in 2007 when Steve Jobs pulled the iPhone out of his pocket, and had what became the dominant design.

“We’ve since gravitated to the black rectangle with a touchscreen as the form factor of choice, and it feels like we’ve now reached a technology plateau where firms compete by offering marginal changes around the edges.”

Image copyrightGetty Images
Image caption The Nokia 3310 handset was one of the most talked about launches at MWC last year

Even so, there does appear to be an appetite for something “a bit different”.

The big story from last year’s MWC was the Nokia 3310.

The “reimagined” version of the Finnish company’s classic handset had both physical number keys and a screen that bulged at its bottom.

Its manufacturer, HMD Global, struggled to meet demand when it went on sale, despite several critical reviews.

Image copyrightLenovo
Image caption Lenovo showed off a phone that turned into a wearable at a press conference in 2016

More revolutionary still, Lenovo has previously shown off a foldable phone concept that wrapped around the wrist.

And Samsung has exhibited a prototype with a roll-out display.

Both prompted lots of online chatter but have yet to be turned into commercial products.

But change for change’s sake can be a mistake.

Image copyrightLG
Image caption Neither LG’s Flex phones nor its G5 were bestsellers

Two generations of LG’s curved-screened Flex smartphones left many consumers confused as to what benefit the design had.

And the South Korean company quickly retreated from the G5’s ability to pop off its bottom to allow bolt-on hardware modules to be added, after sales disappointed.

Pixel planner

It’s somewhat telling about the current state of smartphone design that when the creative lead of Google’s Pixel 2 discussed his work with the BBC, much of the conversation was dedicated to its colour schemes.

Image copyrightGoogle
Image caption The Pixel 2’s chief designer says he took inspiration from fashion, architecture and furniture

“On the panda one [there’s a] very bold, very expressive black-and-white colourway, with… a spark of optimistic colour in the orange power button,” Alberto Villarreal said.

The Mexico-born designer said he had been excited by recent trends in the fashion industry, and in particular the way people were combining formal items with athletics wear.

“The mix-and-match of those neutral tones, with some sparks of colour that make it more sporty, are things we definitely looked at for inspiration,” he said.

Image copyrightGoogle
Image caption Mr Villarreal believes his use of colour made the Pixel 2 distinctive

When it came to the rest of the design, Mr Villarreal says he took a less-is-more approach.

“One thing that we been very careful about is making sure that when you look at the phone from the front, the attention of the user is focused on the screen.

“So [it was about] removing anything that is distracting from that.

“We have no branding, no buttons. And even details like the front-facing stereo speakers [is] something that we are treating very discreetly, blending with the black front.

“Even the bezels of the phone are black.”

Image copyrightGoogle
Image caption It is relatively unusual for a handset manufacturer to share sketches of their original designs

Mr Villarreal declined to discuss how flexible components and other innovations might affect future designs.

But he did say the public should be sceptical when they read reports about technology companies making last-minute hardware changes.

“We were were working on the [Pixel 2] before we had released the previous one,” he said.

“In order to manufacture a product in high-volume, you have to start the pre-production quite a few months before.

“So, I cannot think of major changes that could happen to a product very close to the launch date.”

Image copyrightGoogle
Image caption Google ultimately released an all-blue model, but not one that combined the colour with yellow

Handset-makers may currently be more occupied dreaming up new artificial intelligence features and augmented reality capabilities than trying to rethink how mobiles look in the hand.

But recent shipment figures indicate many consumers don’t see these features as compelling reasons to upgrade.

IDC recently reported the global market was down 6.3% over the October-to-December quarter in 2017 compared with the same three months the previous year, while Strategy Analytics put the fall at 8.8%.

China – the world’s biggest market – represented a particular black spot. Local demand for smartphones suffered a 14% year-on-year plunge, according to Canalys.

While absorbing those figures, it’s worth noting that the data would have been even worse had Apple not released the iPhone X – a device that at least looked different to its predecessors, even if it too conformed to the current minimalistic aesthetic trend.

Image copyrightGetty Images
Image caption A revamped iPhone X helped ensure Apple experience a smaller decline than many of its rivals

“Hardware is always the easiest thing to sell – if it looks different you get consumers attention, and then you build from there,” said Carolina Milanesi, a consumer technology analyst at Creative Strategies.

“Trying to get someone into a store for something that looks the same as last year is difficult, even if it has new things to offer.”

She added that shop workers often struggled to explain new artificial intelligence and cloud-based facilities, while many consumers had proved suspicious of the privacy implications.

Return of the flip

That’s not to say there aren’t some companies attempting something out of the ordinary.

UK-based Bullit Group – which previously designed a Kodak-branded phone whose rear resembled a compact camera – has a new rugged CAT phone with a smell sensor, and is also promising to unveil a Land Rover-inspired handset at this year’s MWC.

Movie camera-maker Red is developing the Hydrogen One for later in the year. The phone promises a new type of “holographic display” and is intended to have a variety of camera-based modules attached to its back.

Image copyrightSamsung
Image caption The W2018 flip-phone is being marketed as an a luxury item in China

And Samsung itself recently launched a modern take on the flip-phone, in China – the W2018 – with screens on both its inside and outside as well as a physical dial-pad.

It is, however, expected to cost upwards of $3,000 (£2,140) – an idiosyncratic look, it seems, can merit an extraordinary price.

MWC news event timetable:

Image copyrightGetty Images

Sunday 25 February

  • Huawei – 14:00 local time (13:00 GMT)
  • Nokia/HMD Global – 16:00 local time (15:00 GMT)
  • Samsung – 18:00 local time (17:00 GMT)

Monday 26 February

  • Sony – 08:30 local time (07:30 GMT)

Tuesday 27 February

  • Asus – 19:30 local time (18:30 GMT)

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MWC 2018: Smell-sensing CAT 61 smartphone sniffs out glue

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Do people agree with Kylie Jenner on the Snapchat update?

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Trump says violent video games ‘shape’ young minds

Screenshot from Call of Duty  Trump says violent video games 'shape' young minds 80b82ceb24Image copyrightActivision

President Trump has vowed to “do something” about the violence in games and films watched by younger people.

In a meeting at the White House on school safety, President Trump said the violence played a role in shaping the way people saw the world.

The meeting was held the week after a school shooting in Florida in which 17 people died.

Many experts say research has not demonstrated a link between video games and violence.

‘Desensitised people’

In comments made during the meeting, President Trump condemned the violence in video games saying: “We have to do something about maybe what they are seeing and how they are seeing it.

“I’m hearing more and more people say the level of violence on video games is really shaping young people’s thoughts,” he said.

Mr Trump also spoke about violence in films and the ease with which young people can see films in which “killing is involved”.

Despite hinting at action on violence in video games and movies, President Trump did not go into detail about what would be done.

The president’s comments came soon after those of Kentucky’s governor who said violent games “celebrated death”.

Last week, Kentucky Governor Matt Bevin, reacting to the Florida shooting, also singled out video games as an influence on the way younger people viewed the world.

Many games “celebrate the slaughter of people”, said Mr Bevin.

He added: “They have desensitised people to the value of human life, to the dignity of women, to the dignity of human decency. We’re reaping what we’ve sown here.”

Image copyrightEPA
Image caption The White House meeting involved survivors of the Florida shooting

‘Noise and bluster’

In response Ethan Gach, a reporter at video games news site Kotaku, said video games were often blamed in the wake of mass shootings in the US.

“It’s a familiar scapegoat many of us have been hearing for decades, one which often acts like a smokescreen to deflect responsibility away from the Second Amendment and lax gun laws.”

John Walker, from games news site Rock Paper Shotgun, told the BBC that it was “disheartening” to hear politicians link video game violence to real world events when research has consistently shown no link.

He said: “The reason this matters, the reason why blaming games for such terrible tragedies against all reasonable proof is so horrifically serious, is it distracts us from identifying and addressing the real causes.

“Statements such as Trump’s are easy, lazy get-outs, noise and bluster to keep people in a position of responsibility from actually doing the difficult, complex, long-term things that might actually help,” said Mr Walker.

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Kylie Jenner ‘sooo over’ Snapchat – and shares tumble

Kylie Jenner attends a gala at Metropolitan Museum of Art on 1 May 2017 in New York City.  Kylie Jenner 'sooo over' Snapchat - and shares tumble bafd465498Image copyrightGetty Images

Reality TV star Kylie Jenner wiped $1.3bn (£1bn) off Snap’s stock market value after tweeting that she no longer used its Snapchat messaging app.

Celebrity Kim Kardashian’s half-sister posted: “sooo does anyone else not open Snapchat anymore? Or is it just me… ugh this is so sad.”

Snap’s shares sank after Ms Jenner’s tweet about Snapchat’s re-design to her 24.5 million Twitter followers.

One million people signed a petition demanding Snap roll back the change.

After dropping almost 8%, shares in Snap closed 6% down on Wall Street, and are now back near the $17 price at which the shares were listed when the company floated on the stock market.

Snapchat is facing intense competition from Facebook’s Instagram – especially for celebrity users – and Ms Jenner’s attack comes at a time when investors are already worried.

Ms Jenner later tweeted a follow-up: “still love you tho snap… my first love”.

Skip Twitter post by @KylieJenner

sooo does anyone else not open Snapchat anymore? Or is it just me… ugh this is so sad.

— Kylie Jenner (@KylieJenner) February 21, 2018

End of Twitter post by @KylieJenner

Skip Twitter post 2 by @KylieJenner

still love you tho snap … my first love

— Kylie Jenner (@KylieJenner) February 21, 2018

End of Twitter post 2 by @KylieJenner

Snap has rejected complaints about November’s re-design to its messaging app, with its boss Evan Spiegel saying earlier this month that users just needed time to get used to it.

Mr Spiegel had something to soften the blow, though, with news on Thursday that his total pay last year was a staggering $637.8m.

It is thought to be the third-highest annual package ever received by a company’s chief executive.

The remuneration was, however, heavily boosted by the award of shares when the company listed on the stock market.

Mr Spiegel’s basic salary for last year was a more modest $98,078.

The package trails the 2007 and 2008 compensation for Daniel Och, head of hedge fund Och-Ziff Capital Management.

He received annual packages of $918.9m in 2007 and $1.19bn in 2008.

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BT told to share poles for ultrafast fibre internet

Home with telegraph pole  BT told to share poles for ultrafast fibre internet b639dbb9dfImage copyrightGetty Images

BT must make it easier for rival internet providers to use its telegraph poles, telecoms regulator Ofcom says.

Ofcom has published a list of new measures to make it cheaper for companies to install ultrafast full fibre broadband infrastructure.

Connecting homes directly to the fibre network delivers much faster internet speeds than copper cables.

Rivals Talk Talk and Hyperoptic welcomed the announcement. BT said it was “considering the implications”.

What are the new measures?

Ofcom says full fibre internet is currently available to 3% of UK homes and offices. It hopes to see 6 million buildings connected by 2020.

It said BT must make it easier for rivals to install fibre on its telegraph poles and in its underground tunnels.

It wants a clearer map of where there is capacity on the telegraph poles and in the tunnels for rivals to do so.

Ofcom suggested streets could be connected to full fibre in “hours” rather than days, as companies would no longer have to dig up roads to lay fibre.

It estimated that sharing infrastructure would halve the cost of connecting a home to full fibre – from £500 to £250.

Additionally, BT will be banned from reducing its wholesale prices in areas where rival networks are starting to lay infrastructure.

Openreach, which maintains most of the UK’s telephone lines, will be ordered to repair faulty infrastructure and clear the way for competitors to access its tunnels.

“Openreach must ensure there is space on its telegraph poles for extra fibre cables connecting homes to a competitor’s network,” Ofcom said in a statement.

How have BT and Openreach reacted?

BT said it had “noted” the publication of Ofcom’s proposals.

In a statement, it said the changes would have an “adverse financial impact on Openreach’s revenue and profit” in the region of £80m to £120m.

Addressing the restriction on varying its wholesale prices, BT said it was “considering the implications for full and fair competition”.

Openreach said Ofcom’s statement gave the company “certainty on their approach”.

But it said it had already been letting rival companies use its telegraph poles and tunnels.

“Our ducts and poles have been open since 2011 and we have been sharing a digital map of this network for more than a year,” it said in a statement.

It added that telecoms firms needed to “be certain they can secure a return on their investment” if a nationwide rollout of full fibre was to be realised.

How have telecoms companies reacted?

Talk Talk said the announcement was “good for consumers, competition and investment”. Hyperoptic said the move would strengthen the business case for investment in full fibre networks.

“This will ultimately create a better digital future for the UK, not just serve the interests of BT retail,” said Hyperoptic chief executive Dana Tobak.

Consumer magazine Which? said the changes needed to be made more quickly.

“Consumers are crying out for better broadband… steps to ensure more investment in this vital service can’t come soon enough,” said spokeswoman Alex Neill.

Analysis

Image copyrightGetty Images

by Rory Cellan-Jones, T#i noechnology correspondent

Suddenly everyone has gone full fibre. After years of insisting that laying fibre right to the home was too expensive and a copper connection to a kerbside fibre cabinet was absolutely fine, the government has changed its mind.

Now the regulator Ofcom has come in behind the new thinking. To make the sums add up, it is forcing BT to open up its network of tunnels and telegraph poles to its rivals.

Cynics will point out that this was supposed to have happened years ago – but at last the regulator is tightening the screw.

The really bold move would have been to split Openreach off from BT years ago and turn it into a national “fibre to the home” utility.

But that ship has sailed. Ofcom now believes that overlapping fast fibre networks built by BT and its rivals will deliver more innovation and a better deal for consumers.

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The trouble knowing how much screen time is ‘too much’

A boy looks at a tablet  The trouble knowing how much screen time is 'too much' 8193a93ea5Image copyrightGetty Images
Image caption A Unicef review of research found digital technology can benefit some children

Concerns about the harm caused by “too much” screen time – particularly when it is spent on social media – are widespread. But working out what a “healthy” amount might be is far from easy.

Headlines rarely soothe nerves.

Apple’s Tim Cook recently said he would not want his nephew on a social network, while child health experts wrote to Facebook warning excessive use of digital devices and social media “is harmful to children and teens”.

There are many other such examples.

Some negative experiences on social media – like bullying, or becoming worried about how your appearance compares to others – can and do affect some children and young people.

However, this does not mean that technology use in general is harmful and it is difficult to make claims about how it will affect different people.

Indeed, some studies suggest that using social media can bring benefits, or have no effect on wellbeing at all.

An inquiry into the impact of social media and screen use on young people’s health was announced this week by UK MPs, who hope to separate “understandable concerns from the hard evidence”.

For now, anyone thinking about how much time using screens and social media is “OK” will ultimately have to make a personal judgement.

Image copyrightGetty Images

Consider the picture painted by a Unicef review of existing research into the effects of digital technology on children’s psychological wellbeing, including happiness, mental health and social life.

Rather than stating that social media was harmful, it suggested a more complex effect.

The Unicef report highlighted a 2017 study by my colleagues at the University of Oxford that examined 120,000 UK 15-year-olds.

Among those teenagers who were the lightest users, it was found that increasing the time spent using technology was linked to improved wellbeing – possibly because it was important for keeping up friendships.

In contrast, among the heaviest users of technology, any increase in time was linked to lower levels of wellbeing.

The researchers suggested that for those teens, technology use might get in the way of taking part in other important activities.

The point at which the use of technology flips from having a positive effect to a negative effect was different for each category at which the researchers looked.

For example, more than two hours of smartphone use on a weekday, and more than four hours on a weekend day, was linked to lower wellbeing.

This effect, however, was small and only predicted 1% of a teenager’s wellbeing.

The researchers suggested that the positive effect of regularly eating breakfast, or getting a proper night’s sleep, was three times stronger.

Overall, the Unicef study suggested that some screen time could be good for children’s mental wellbeing.

“Digital technology seems to be beneficial for children’s social relationships,” it said. The impact on physical activity levels, however, was “inconclusive”.

Image copyrightGetty Images

Similar trends for technology’s effects on wellbeing were found in a subsequent study among large numbers of teenagers in the US.

However, the researchers warned that social media and technology use negatively affects teenage wellbeing.

The findings made headlines.

One of the authors, professor of psychology Jean Twenge, suggested “excessive” use of devices was the problem.

But again, the effects were small, with the positive effects of exercise being more significant.

In contrast to the authors of the Oxford study, Dr Twenge recommends less screen time for children.

“Half an hour, an hour a day, that seemed to be the sweet spot for teen mental health in terms of electronic devices,” she said.

You might also be interested in:

A broader look at evidence provided by some other high quality studies again suggests the story is not clear-cut.

An early study in 2013 looked at how the television and video game habits of 11,000 UK five-year-olds affected them two years later.

It is one of few studies actually tracing the effects of technology over time.

It suggested that, compared with children who watched one hour of television or less on a weekday, a small increase in conduct problems was seen among those who watched more than three hours each day.

Playing electronic games, however, was not seen as leading to a greater risk of hyperactivity, or friendship or emotional problems.

Image copyrightGetty Images
Image caption Parents will need to use their own judgement on how much screen time is “OK”

So how much time should we, or our children, spend looking at screens?

It is difficult to be precise as different people spend time online in such different ways.

For example, someone enjoying their time chatting with friends is using social media very differently to someone worrying about their own life as they flick through contacts’ photos.

It appears to be the case that much of the debate about social media oversimplifies the reality.

A useful comparison might be with sugar.

Broadly speaking, people agree that excessive amounts of sugar can be bad for your health.

But the effect it might have can depend on many factors, from the type of sugar – fruit, or refined; to the person – athlete, or diabetic; and the amount – one gram, or many.

We would not readily trust anyone who claims to predict how someone is affected by consuming one gram of sugar.

The same could be said for social media usage: the outcomes depend on so many factors that only very crude predictions are possible.

Research about social media can sometimes help us navigate the debate, but concrete evidence does not yet exist.

This situation could improve significantly as more research is conducted in the coming years.

But for now, we will need to rely on our own judgements to decide about just how much time we – and our children – spend on social media.

About this piece

This analysis piece was commissioned by the BBC from an expert working for an outside organisation.

Amy Orben is researching the effects of social media on human relationships at the University of Oxford. Follow her @OrbenAmy

Edited by Duncan Walker

Original Source

Read More

The trouble knowing how much screen time is ‘OK’

A boy looks at a tablet  The trouble knowing how much screen time is 'OK' 8193a93ea5Image copyrightGetty Images
Image caption A Unicef review of research found digital technology can benefit some children

Concerns about the harm caused by “too much” screen time – particularly when it is spent on social media – are widespread. But working out what a “healthy” amount might be is far from easy.

Headlines rarely soothe nerves.

Apple’s Tim Cook recently said he would not want his nephew on a social network, while child health experts wrote to Facebook warning excessive use of digital devices and social media “is harmful to children and teens”.

There are many other such examples.

Some negative experiences on social media – like bullying, or becoming worried about how your appearance compares to others – can and do affect some children and young people.

However, this does not mean that technology use in general is harmful and it is difficult to make claims about how it will affect different people.

Indeed, some studies suggest that using social media can bring benefits, or have no effect on wellbeing at all.

An inquiry into the impact of social media and screen use on young people’s health was announced this week by UK MPs, who hope to separate “understandable concerns from the hard evidence”.

For now, anyone thinking about how much time using screens and social media is “OK” will ultimately have to make a personal judgement.

Image copyrightGetty Images

Consider the picture painted by a Unicef review of existing research into the effects of digital technology on children’s psychological wellbeing, including happiness, mental health and social life.

Rather than stating that social media was harmful, it suggested a more complex effect.

The Unicef report highlighted a 2017 study by my colleagues at the University of Oxford that examined 120,000 UK 15-year-olds.

Among those teenagers who were the lightest users, it was found that increasing the time spent using technology was linked to improved wellbeing – possibly because it was important for keeping up friendships.

In contrast, among the heaviest users of technology, any increase in time was linked to lower levels of wellbeing.

The researchers suggested that for those teens, technology use might get in the way of taking part in other important activities.

The point at which the use of technology flips from having a positive effect to a negative effect was different for each category at which the researchers looked.

For example, more than two hours of smartphone use on a weekday, and more than four hours on a weekend day, was linked to lower wellbeing.

This effect, however, was small and only predicted 1% of a teenager’s wellbeing.

The researchers suggested that the positive effect of regularly eating breakfast, or getting a proper night’s sleep, was three times stronger.

Overall, the Unicef study suggested that some screen time could be good for children’s mental wellbeing.

“Digital technology seems to be beneficial for children’s social relationships,” it said. The impact on physical activity levels, however, was “inconclusive”.

Image copyrightGetty Images

Similar trends for technology’s effects on wellbeing were found in a subsequent study among large numbers of teenagers in the US.

However, the researchers warned that social media and technology use negatively affects teenage wellbeing.

The findings made headlines.

One of the authors, professor of psychology Jean Twenge, suggested “excessive” use of devices was the problem.

But again, the effects were small, with the positive effects of exercise being more significant.

In contrast to the authors of the Oxford study, Dr Twenge recommends less screen time for children.

“Half an hour, an hour a day, that seemed to be the sweet spot for teen mental health in terms of electronic devices,” she said.

You might also be interested in:

A broader look at evidence provided by some other high quality studies again suggests the story is not clear-cut.

An early study in 2013 looked at how the television and video game habits of 11,000 UK five-year-olds affected them two years later.

It is one of few studies actually tracing the effects of technology over time.

It suggested that, compared with children who watched one hour of television or less on a weekday, a small increase in conduct problems was seen among those who watched more than three hours each day.

Playing electronic games, however, was not seen as leading to a greater risk of hyperactivity, or friendship or emotional problems.

Image copyrightGetty Images
Image caption Parents will need to use their own judgement on how much screen time is “OK”

So how much time should we, or our children, spend looking at screens?

It is difficult to be precise as different people spend time online in such different ways.

For example, someone enjoying their time chatting with friends is using social media very differently to someone worrying about their own life as they flick through contacts’ photos.

It appears to be the case that much of the debate about social media oversimplifies the reality.

A useful comparison might be with sugar.

Broadly speaking, people agree that excessive amounts of sugar can be bad for your health.

But the effect it might have can depend on many factors, from the type of sugar – fruit, or refined; to the person – athlete, or diabetic; and the amount – one gram, or many.

We would not readily trust anyone who claims to predict how someone is affected by consuming one gram of sugar.

The same could be said for social media usage: the outcomes depend on so many factors that only very crude predictions are possible.

Research about social media can sometimes help us navigate the debate, but concrete evidence does not yet exist.

This situation could improve significantly as more research is conducted in the coming years.

But for now, we will need to rely on our own judgements to decide about just how much time we – and our children – spend on social media.

About this piece

This analysis piece was commissioned by the BBC from an expert working for an outside organisation.

Amy Orben is researching the effects of social media on human relationships at the University of Oxford. Follow her @OrbenAmy

Edited by Duncan Walker

Original Source

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The fashion show with Hollywood visual effects

Lucasfilm’s ILMxLAB and the London College of Fashion have teamed up to put on a catwalk show with a difference.

A virtual avatar controlled by a performer in a motion capture suit appears onstage next to real life models.

BBC Click finds out more.

Video produced by Nick Kwek

See more about this film on BBC Click on BBC World News on Saturday 24 and Sunday 25 February 2018.

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Wot, no signal?

Wot, no signal? Wot, no signal?Image copyrightSky and Space Global
Image caption Arrays of tiny satellites will bring mobile services to billions who currently have no access

Large chunks of the planet are still of out of reach of mobile phone signals – that’s about four billion people without access to digital communications. But this could change thanks to shrinking satellite sizes and costs.

Lower-cost, space-based mobile phone services will soon be a reality thanks to one firm’s fleet of nano-satellites that will bounce your voice or text signal from one spacecraft to the next and finally down to the person you’re calling.

“People were thinking of using nano-satellites for earth imagery but nobody had thought of using them for voice or text communications,” says Israeli former fighter pilot Meir Moalem, the chief executive of Sky and Space Global (SAS).

“We were the first.”

His firm is aiming to offer customers mobile phone connections via a constellation of 200 shoebox-sized satellites weighing just 10kg (22lb) each.

Image copyrightSky and Space Global
Image caption Sky and Space Global’s Meir Moalem wants to bring affordable mobile services to the world

The fleet is set to be operational by 2020 and will provide text, voice and data transfer services to the Earth’s equatorial regions – including much of Latin America and Africa – to a market of up to three billion people.

“Affordable mobile services are critical for the economic and social development of many developing countries,” says Mr Moalem, who believes SAS’s nano-satellites will shake up the space-based communications market.

“Our total constellation costs just $150m (£108m). That’s less than the cost of a single standard communications satellite. This is what we mean when talk of a disruptive technology.”

But SAS is just one of a number of companies with big plans for space right now.

Perhaps the most ambitious is Elon Musk’s SpaceX, which is aiming to build a huge 4,400-satellite constellation offering global internet coverage. It will be using its own Falcon-9 rockets to launch its fleet and plans to have the network operating by 2024.

Image copyrightSpaceX
Image caption SpaceX has ambitious plans of its own for space-based communications

And OneWeb has an 800-satellite constellation set for 2020, again focused on global broadband, while Google and Samsung are also mulling similar initiatives.

With all these satellites, low Earth orbit – an altitude of 2,000km (1,200 miles) or less above the planet – is becoming an increasingly crowded space. This could make future launches potentially difficult and dangerous with space debris.

Then there is the issue of finance. Not every planned constellation is going to find the investors with deep enough pockets to back it, though David Fraser, research director at APP Securities, says SAS could be “an attractive alternative option” given its low capital costs.

Air launch

For its part, SAS is using a non-traditional method of getting its satellites into orbit. They will be air-launched in batches of 24 by Virgin Orbit, part of Richard Branson’s Virgin group.

Virgin’s modified Boeing 747-400 will fly up to 35,000ft (10,000m), then LauncherOne, a two-stage liquid oxygen-powered expendable rocket, will blast the payload into orbit.

Image copyrightVirgin Orbit
Image caption Virgin Orbit’s modified 747 will carry a launcher rocket that will blast the satellites into space

It’s one of a number of air-launch-to-orbit systems under development.

The advantage of launching from an aircraft is that the rocket can be launched in exactly the direction to suit the satellite’s planned orbit. Virgin is planning its first launch later this year, while SAS’s craft will be launched in 2019.

Launch costs will typically be about $12m, much less than a traditional launch, says Virgin. It is “all about helping the small satellite community get into orbit,” says Dan Hart, Virgin Orbit’s president and chief executive.

Such lower-cost launch services will open up space to “a whole host of communications [and] remote sensing applications,” he says.

SAS has already proved that its communications systems works with three pilot satellites, and is now signing deals with partners in Africa and Latin America – including one of the biggest satellite-communications providers in the Americas, Globalsat Group.

Image copyrightSky and Space Global
Image caption Nano-satellites are not much bigger than a shoebox

Globalsat’s chief executive Alberto Palacios says his firm’s current customers – in the mining, energy, defence banking, and government sectors – can afford the costs of traditional satellite phone calls.

But he believes nano-satellites are a game changer.

“Some customers invest several hundreds of dollars in the hardware for a satellite phone terminal and will pay $50 a month for the service. But if you can offer a solution for half of that – then the price can be compared to conventional mobile phones,” he explains.

SAS says it is going for the gap in the market between existing satellite communications operators, such as Iridium, Inmarsat and Globalstar, and land-based mobile networks such as Vodafone, Telefonica, Airtel and Safaricom.

It is targeting customers earning less than $8 a day.

Image copyrightAlamy
Image caption SAS’s satellites will help Ghana monitor cocoa production across the country

In Ghana, the company has just signed a five-year deal with telecoms provider Universal Cyberlinks to help government agricultural projects and public services, including monitoring cocoa production across 5,000 buying centres and checkpoints.

“When you travel outside of a city in Africa, often you lose your phone signal because it is not cost-effective to put up phone masts everywhere. That’s where we come in,” says Mr Moalem.

“In the West, we tend to forget that in many parts of the world people are not concerned about high-speed internet, they want to make simple phone calls, texting or money transfers. It’s a basic need.”

Africa is certainly becoming a key market for mobile services. There were 420 million mobile subscribers in 2016 and by 2020 there will be more than 500 million, around half the population, says industry body GSMA.

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For his part, as you might expect of a former fighter pilot, Meir Moalem is optimistic about any rivals muscling in to the nano-sat communications niche.

“We welcome competition. It means we are a good business and there is money to be made,” he says.

“There is room for other firms to do this, but we will have ‘first mover’ advantage.”

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