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(Reuters) – Most Android phones will have to wait until 2019 to duplicate the 3D sensing feature behind Apple’s Face ID security, three major parts producers have told Reuters, handicapping Samsung and others on a technology that is set to be worth billions in revenue over the next few years.
The development of new features for the estimated 1.5 billion smart phones shipped annually has been at the heart of the battle for global market share over the past decade, with Apple, bolstered by its huge R&D budget, often leading.
When the iPhone 5S launched with a fingerprint-sensing home button in September 2013, for example, it took its biggest rival Samsung until just April of the next year to deliver its own in the Galaxy S5, with others following soon after.
The 3D sensing technology is expected to enhance the next generation of phones, enabling accurate facial recognition as well as secure biometrics for payments, gesture sensing, and immersive shopping and gaming experiences.
Tech research house Gartner predicts that by 2021, 40 percent of smartphones will be equipped with 3D cameras, which can also be used for so-called augmented reality, or AR, in which digital objects cling tightly to images of the real world.
“This kind of functionality is going to be very important for AR,” said Gartner analyst Jon Erensen. “I think that is something where you don’t want to get left behind.”
According to parts manufacturers Viavi Solutions Inc, Finisar Corp and Ams AG, bottlenecks on key parts will mean mass adoption of 3D sensing will not happen until next year, disappointing earlier expectations.
That means that China’s Huawei, Xiaomi and others could be a total of almost two years behind Apple, which launched Face ID with its iPhone X anniversary phone last September.
In particular, Android producers are struggling to source vertical-cavity surface-emitting lasers, or VCSELs, a core part of Apple’s Face ID hardware.
“It is going to take them a lot of time, the Android-based customers, to secure capacity throughout the whole supply chain,” said Bill Ong, senior director of investor relations from Viavi, seen as the only major supplier of optical filters needed for the 3D sensing modules.
“We may have a potential introduction of a second handset maker into 3D sensing at the end of this calendar year. (But) the volumes would be very low. In 2019 you clearly will see at least two or more android-based phones,” he added.
Ong declined to name the company that might launch an Android phone with 3D face recognition this year but said that Viavi was in talks with all the major smart phone makers to supply the filters.
Some Android phones with 3D sensing capabilities have hit the market in small numbers, such as the Asus ZenFone AR released last year, but those models didn’t use the sensors for facial recognition like the iPhone X does.
Apple, Huawei and Xiaomi all declined to comment, as did Samsung, whose current phones use a standard camera for facial recognition.
Apple’s effort to get ahead with the technology is the latest evidence of an aggressive approach by the Cupertino-based company to making the most of the technological advances its financial firepower can deliver.
The iPhone maker’s $ 390 million deal in December to secure supplies from VCSEL-maker Finisar was one such move. Another is Apple’s discussions with major cobalt producers to nail down supplies for lithium-ion rechargeable batteries that power its mobile phones.
“Apple is always very focused on its supply chain,” says Gartner’s Erensen. “When it comes to new technologies like this and implementing them to new phones, it’s one of the ways that Apple can really can be aggressive, differentiate and take advantage of the position they have in the market.”
Several sector analysts say their channel checks show Apple was initially sourcing VCSELs chiefly from California-based Lumentum and that bottlenecks in production there last year also spurred the $ 390 million deal with Finisar.
Lumentum, which declined to comment, is ramping up additional manufacturing capacity for VCSELs and edge-emitting lasers for the first half of fiscal 2019, according to the company’s earnings call.
It will also be helped by the purchase this week of another optical components producer Oclaro Inc. Finisar too, expects to expand in 2019.
All of that, however, still leaves the major Android producers searching for their own supplies of VCSELs.
Craig Thompson, vice president of new markets at Finisar, says interest in the technology is universal across the sector.
“Each customer has their own adoption timeline and rollout plan, which we can’t discuss, but we expect the market opportunity for VCSEL technology to increase substantially in 2019,” he says.
Another producer, Austria-based Ams, also expects to have VCSEL chips widely available next year and says it has won a large deal with one phone maker.
“As part of a combined external and internal VCSEL supply chain where an external volume production supply chain is available to us, we are currently building internal VCSEL production capacity in Singapore,” Moritz Gmeiner, head of investor relations for AMS, told Reuters.
“I expect this capacity to be available for mass production next year.”
Reporting by Sonam Rai in Bangalore and Stephen Nellis in San Francisco; Writing by Patrick Graham; editing by Edward Tobin
Most of the questions surrounding the coming age of driverless cars pertain to practical things: regulation, insurance, training protocols for the cars’ remote human backups. Some are philosophical: What do we owe the people whose jobs will be annihilated? Do robo cars need ethics lessons? At least one question is practical and philosophical: How do we know when these things are ready to ditch their human safety drivers and roll about unattended?
No one has much of a response. You could say that as soon as the robot is safer than the average human driver—who crashes once every 238,000 miles or so—it’s wrong to keep it in the lab. Or you can argue that robo cars ought to be held to higher standards: Should they be 10 times better than the human? 1,000 times? Whatever the answer is, data will help us get there. And so we turn to the California DMV’s 2017 Autonomous Vehicle Disengagement Reports.
The Golden State, home to many of the companies leading the robo revolution, has some of the strictest rules for AVs in the country. Operators who run cars on public roads must publicly report any crashes they’re involved in. And at the end of every year, they must hand over data on how many miles they drove and how many times their onboard human safety driver had to take control from the machine—that’s called a disengagement. Combine those, and you have a number approximating how far any company’s self-driving car can go without human help. Something like a grade.
The metric is imperfect, and this data comes with a crate of caveats. But before we get into those, know this: Waymo (formerly known as Google’s self-driving car project) and General Motors appear to be leading the pack and making rapid progress toward the day when human drivers, with all their inattention and distraction and tendency to crash, will be obsolete.
Ifs and Buts
You can read more about the shortcomings of disengagement reports here, but here’s the quick rundown:
- They’re unscientific, because each company reports its data in a different way, offering various levels of detail and idiosyncratic explanations for what triggered the human takeover.
- They’re packed with vague language and lack context. Delphi cites “cyclist” as the reason for a bunch of disengagements. Zoox blamed every disengagement on a “planning discrepancy” or “hardware discrepancy.”
- They’re little use for anyone who wants to compare rival companies, because those companies aren’t running the same tests: Waymo does most of its testing in simple suburbs; GM focuses on the complex city. They’re better for tracking the progress of each outfit, but still not great, because those companies change how and where they test over time.
- A disengagement does not mean the car was going to crash, only that the human driver wasn’t 100 percent confident in how it would behave.
- They only cover driving on public roads in California. So we don’t know anything about Ford, which focuses its testing around Detroit and Pittsburgh. We don’t see data for Waymo’s increasingly important test program in Phoenix—where its cars are tooling about without anyone inside.
On the other hand, the disengagement reports are the best data we’ve got for evaluating these development efforts. No state but California demands anything like this, and private companies only share such info when the government demands it.
So, let’s sprinkle some grains of salt on the numbers and take a look. We broke them down into a pair of two-axis charts. The first looks at Waymo and General Motors. It notes how many miles they drove in 2016 and 2017 (in green) and how many miles they averaged between disengagements (in blue). (By the way, Uber didn’t have to file a report, because this data isn’t required until your first full calendar year of testing. Uber didn’t get its permit to test in California until March of 2017.)
The takeaway here is that Waymo’s software remains excellent, and it’s still doing tons of testing in California. For GM, you can see a huge ramp-up in miles driven, and a steep increase in miles per disengagement. That’s progress, and it’s a good thing: GM plans to launch a car without a steering wheel or pedals next year. Keep in mind that GM does nearly all its public street testing in San Francisco, a much more complicated environment than Palo Alto and Mountain View, where Waymo works.
Next, we have the data for Delphi (now known as Aptiv), Nissan, Mercedes-Benz, and Zoox, a San Francisco–based startup working to build a self-driving vehicle that looks nothing like today’s cars—not that it will say anything more than that for the time being. Each has a serious program, but they do so much less testing than Waymo and GM that we put them in their own chart. (Otherwise, the scales would just be totally out of proportion to each other.)
More caveats: Mercedes-Benz may not look so hot in California, but that data’s from just three vehicles. It does much more work in Europe: In 2017, it sent an autonomous S-Class on a five-month tour of five continents. Nissan does a lot of testing at NASA’s Ames Research Center, which doesn’t count as public land, so doesn’t require data reporting. And to get the most interesting bit of data from Zoox, you have to dive into its report.
In its first year of testing (thus the lack of 2016 numbers), it drove just over 100 miles through August. Over the next three months, it drove about 2,000. Yet its rate of disengagements remained steady. Overall, it averaged 160 miles per disengagement. But if you look at just November, when it was doing lots of testing in downtown San Francisco, that number jumps to 430. Even with the caveats, it’s a clear sign that Zoox is making impressive progress—and that more than one of these students is getting ready to throw on a gown, grab its diploma, and give you a ride.
For the first time, Google joined the legal fight last week against robocalls.
But even mighty Google can only do but so much to counter the epidemic of robocalls. Carriers can and should do more to combat them, according to Jan Volzke, vp of reputation services for identity management firm Whitepages.
We’re at “at a point where we have no trust in a phone call,” he told me in a recent conversation.
In case you’re one of the six people in the U.S. who haven’t encountered such “extremely urgent” robocalls, here’s one Googlized version that also touts Bing and Yahoo. (Although it’s of the same ilk, it’s not clear if this robocall is from the company Google is suing.)
But things could change. In early summer, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) strengthened carriers’ hand in combatting robocalls.
In a big breakthrough this past June, the FCC gave the carriers the green light to block unwanted calls. The carriers had asked the federal agency to decide if they could legally offer call-blocking, given their common carrier status and other issues. Under common carrier, all traffic needs to be handled in the same manner.
Yes, the agency said. You, the carriers, can block calls.
The FCC also gave consumers additional latitude in how they grant consent and in their ability to block calls. They said consent could be withdrawn at any time, consent is automatically removed if a landline or cell number gets assigned to someone else, and text messages count as robocalls.
Previously, Volzke pointed out, it was difficult to undo consent once you gave it, and “now all robocallers must allow you to get out of it.”
If there is any doubt you have opted out, the FCC clarified that later in the summer — the burden is on the robocalling business to show the user has opted in or that there is an existing business relationship.
Carriers now “need to get serious” about the fight, Volzke said.
As one example of their weak response, he said that carriers offer “these services for a ridiculous $ 4.99 a month to block up to ten [robocalling phone numbers], and then you have to renew it every 30 days.”
He’s not alone in his frustration. The attorneys-general of dozens of states have written to the carriers to take care of this.
But robocalls have not been declining since the FCC’s decision in June. In fact, Volzke said, the amount of mobile spam and robocalls that Whitepages blocks monthly is up about 40 percent since then.
He pointed to several remaining structural issues, such as the fact that unwanted calls can involve multiple carriers and the solution would best be industry-wide. And right now carriers can only block calls as the result of each subscriber’s request — that is, it’s still onesies.
So robocalling — even, probably, robocalling that drops Google’s name — is not going away anytime soon.
As we await the ultimate battle, Volzke offers a few tips:
- The number one thing that affects the robocalls you get is the amount of consent you’ve given. In most cases, your phone number is the key to granting consent. So, treat your phone number with a level of confidentiality just below that of your Social Security number. He noted with amazement that people list their primary phone number on Facebook and Craigslist, where it can be scooped by a spider.
- “Get a second phone number” for public postings, he advised, and be careful when you give your number to people or sites you don’t know. “No one reads all the fine print,” Volzke pointed out.
- If you’re already on robocallers’ list, he suggests getting an app to filter the calls by originating phone number — assuming we’re talking about your smartphone and not your landline. (Not coincidentally, Whitepages offers a robocall- and robotext-blocking app for Android and iOS devices.)
- Next step up is call blocking for a specific phone number, although the bad guys may well change their number after a while.
- If that still doesn’t help, and you’re still getting multiple robocalls, Volzke said that getting a new phone number is “sometimes the only option.” That is, until the carriers get their act in gear.
By the way, Whitepages is an identity data company, not the phone book. They are involved in robocall issues because a) phone numbers are a key identifier, and b) they recently bought robocall blocker NumberCop.
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