Google and Amazon lay the foundations for a virtual assistant to run our homes

The dream of the smart home always seems just out of reach. Everyone knows how it should work. You buy a new connected device, plug it in, and it instantly syncs with all your other devices. Of course the reality is often markedly different—one poor man spent 11 hours trying to make a cup of tea with his new kettle. This is not an isolated experience as many tech reviewers and consumers have documented their own valiant battles to control their devices.

The root cause of the frustration stems from the multitude of technology standards, but Google and Amazon are both making great strides trying to address it. They have realised that convenience is the key to making the category a success. And what could be more convenient than telling someone, or in this case something, to do a job for you? The Amazon Echo, newly available in the UK, has won over industry experts for its ability to search online for information, and control the home’s connected devices using simple voice commands. But it is Google Home that has many in the industry excited.

Google has always been a data company, with a mission to organize the world’s information. If you have a Gmail account, it’s been reading your emails for years. If you use any of its services such as Android, Chrome, Maps or Search it knows pretty much everything about your habits. A few years ago, it launched Google Now that aimed to map out your life as a personal concierge you could speak to. With Google Home, this goes one step further.

Advances in Artificial Intelligence mean that you can now converse with Google Home. After you ask it what’s on at the cinema, you can then ask it to filter by age-certification or genre, and then to book tickets. It will wake you up and give you a morning briefing based on the papers you read. It will alert you to any delays on your commute, and remind you about appointments. Plus, it can connect to your smart home devices—though not as many as the Amazon Echo—and operate them all by voice. Initial reviews have been very positive, and while there are discussions to be had about privacy and security, the promise is there for all to see.

We surveyed 2,500 European consumers about their hopes for the smart home, and only three per cent thought they needed a hub to control all their devices. But it’s looking more likely that a device like the Echo or Home will be the gateway to your home’s other devices, with users enticed by the ability to search and manage other aspects of their lives.

The price points are within consumer expectations, though they do not leave much room for purchase of additional smart home products. Thirty per cent said they’d pay up to £150 for smart home devices over the next year, exactly the price of the Echo, with Google Home set to retail in the U.S. at $129. Fifty per cent would pay more than £150, meaning these devices are accessible, and could well act as the catalyst for people to buy more smart home devices. Indeed, Google is pushing its Nest thermostats and IP cameras anew on the back of the Home launch.

By choosing voice as the input method, Amazon and Google have removed the cumbersome user-experience of finding the relevant app on your smartphone for the lights, and then navigating to another app for speaks. It is choice that could usher in mainstream acceptance for having a virtual assistant in our homes.

by AS

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Chester Gould was Right

It wasn’t until I was loaned Apple’s new Watch Series II that I put one on. When the Watch was launched I decided it would not be something I’d wear, much less buy. But I’ll admit, I was pleasantly surprised to get it, and welcomed the chance to give my 26-year old Rado a rest while I tried the Watch out.

I’m not going to get into the technicalities because a watch is for wearing, it’s personal, apart from saying what an amazing piece of kit the Watch is: beautifully crafted, fabulous screen, snappy performance, even GPS, and so easy to set up and incorporate into living alongside an iPhone.

But when I first put it on, it took a while to get used to the sheer bulk of the 42mm screen, and the gold colour with a beige woven nylon strap was to my taste a bit bling. It took a few days to get used to having it on my wrist, and get through the inevitable mixed reactions from staff, family and friends.

Then I started using it, responding every time the haptic tap alerted me to a message, meeting, or exhortation to stand up, or breathe. I discovered Siri on the Watch – and started leaving text messages everywhere to try out, in the style of Chester Gould’s comic book detective Dick Tracy, the experience of talking to your wristwatch. It worked very, very well. I got hooked on Activity monitor, and was thrilled the day I completed 230% of my daily exercise requirement.

Interestingly, Apple seemed to have learned from the Series I that their Watch will never make it as a desirable piece of luxury jewellery along the lines of a Rolex or Cartier, despite sales – according to the company – ranking the Watch as number two in the world in terms of value. Instead, sensibly, the Watch is now pitched at the health, leisure and up market lifestyle sector and in that vein, especially with the GPS, I reckon it fits very well indeed.

As I said at the beginning, a watch is a personal thing. I wonder if everyone who has a Watch goes through the same stages I did: first, fascination for and playing with the technology. Second, using every alert and app available so that the taps on your wrist begin to run your life. And third, settling down to a modus operandi where only the important things that complement the Macbook/iPhone partnership are allowed through.

I was sitting on a plane writing this blog, and as the steward leaned over dispensing snacks, I could see a silver colored Apple Watch – with metallic strap – sitting on his wrist.
“Aha,” I said, “an Apple Watch. Is that a Series I?”
The steward saw my Watch. “Is that the new one?” he asked.
“Yes, I’m trying it out,” I replied. “What do you think of yours?”
“Actually, I never wanted one,” he said. “I was given this as a present.”
“Do you like it?” I asked.
The steward glanced at his Watch, paused for a second, and replied, “It’s growing on me.”
Which just about sums it up. Apple’s Watch – it’s growing on me.

by JD

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Thoughts on HP Samsung acquisition

Last month, HP Inc. formally announced its acquisition of Samsung’s printer business in a deal valued at $1.05B – the largest in its history – bringing in 6,500 printing patents, over 1,300 engineers and researchers worldwide, as well as numerous channel partners. The acquisition is expected to be closed within a year, after which Samsung agreed to invest in HP through open market equity purchases of between $100m and $300m.

Their stated ambition? Disruption of the $55B Copier Segment.

But why now? To summarise, as the printed page continues to decline in an era of digitised private and professional communication, printer vendors are fighting it out to sustain revenues and market share. One major opportunity to do so resides in the contractual business space, which holds the promise of additional, ongoing revenues from the sale of supplies and services.

Will it work? Both Samsung and HP have failed in the past to make much headway in a market currently dominated by Xerox, Ricoh, Canon and Konica Minolta. With its acquisition however, HP appears to be in a particularly strong position to accelerate its efforts to crack the copier dealer channel, gain market share, and grow its contractual managed print business.

Indeed, combining Samsung’s A3 know how with its own proprietary technology, HP Inc. is confident that they have a strong value proposition and strategy in place to disturb the copier market space. Its new A3 LaserJet and Page Wide printers mount a comprehensive challenge to A3 incumbents: plugging the gaps in its portfolio, and offering reduced cost per page, affordable colour printing, as well as lower servicing costs for partners.

This being said, these are still early days. Certainly, HP Inc.’s strategy is appropriate, and their offering meets market demands. It is hard however to predict how the channel and HP Inc.’s competitors will respond, and the extent to which they will be able to effectively leverage Samsung’s technology, people, and channel partnerships – a space therefore to watch closely.

by ZB

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3D Printing: Gaining Insights at IMTS and TCT

As head of global analysis and research at CONTEXT I probably spend more time than I’d like in front of a computer screen. But as any analyst will tell you, staring at online spreadsheets is only part of the job. To really understand the industry you need to meet the key players that work in it. Trade shows are a major part of this so it was great to get out recently to two of the biggest around: The International Manufacturing Technology Show (IMTS) in Chicago and TCT in the UK.

I gained some invaluable insight into the industrial and personal IT space, meeting key executives at some of the biggest names in the business, engaging with prospective customers and presenting to attendees.

3DP on the rise
IMTS is a six-day event only held once every two years, so you know it’s going to be big. This year around 115,000 attendees came to Chicago from all over the globe and the focus for many was on 3D printing (3DP) and additive manufacturing (AM). In fact, AM now has its own dedicated front-and-centre section at the show, highlighting the major $5 billion contribution it makes to the total global manufacturing tech market of around $12 billion.

General Electric’s acquisition of the number two and four metal 3D printer makers – SLM Solutions and Arcam AB – for $1.4bn last month continues to validate this market. As did the firm’s joint $81m investment with several other players in plastics 3D printer business Carbon3D. Much of the show focused on where AM goes next – ie whether AM for plastics, which makes up 90% of unit volume and two thirds of global revenues, can move from being used principally for prototyping to short/mid-run manufacturing. We also heard about the role of 3DP and AM in Industry 4.0, which will certainly be one to watch for the future.

The number two 3DP market player, 3D Systems hosted a full day conference at the show where new president and CEO, VJ Joshi introduced an almost entirely new management team to analysts, press and partners. Apart from discovering that he’s brought many of them with him from HP, where he ran the imaging business for two decades, we learned that Joshi has no interest in the 3DP desktop/personal market, which he sees as a distraction.

Meeting and greeting
I’m glad to say the show was a great success in terms of helping to promote what we do at CONTEXT. At the EOS event at IMTS I joined a one-hour Q&A panel on AM, fielding a healthy number of questions and following up with a bunch of interested attendees informally afterwards. I also had meetings with some of the hottest companies around in the space, including HP, Carbon3D, Concept Laser – number two in metals – EnvisionTEC and others.

There was more of the same at TCT in Birmingham, UK. The show focuses on the personal/desktop as well as the industrial/professional market, so there was time to take in showcases from the likes of Ultimaker, Zortrax, MakerBot and Polaroid. Some key takeaways include the delay of the Mattel printer, the forthcoming shipment of Mcor’s repositioned desktop paper/colour printer and new or increased presence from HP, Ricoh and others. On the industrial side, there seems to be a growing number of so-called “hybrid” machines sold by the likes of Sodick which offer AM and traditional manufacturing in one machine.


According to CONTEXT research I presented at the show, the personal/desktop market grew in 1H16 but contracted on the industrial side as management changes and new entrants continue to make an impact. Metal 3D Printing remains a bright spot in that market side along with power-based plastic printers.

CONTEXT will be hosting a 3D Printing Breakfast event at CES in Las Vegas on Thursday, 5th January 2017. To register or for more information, please contact: Theo Gibbons.

by CC


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High Street Retail: Down but not out

At first glance, the ONS retail statistics for August painted a rosy picture of the UK retail industry. Headline figures, such as the volume and value of sales increasing 6.2% and 4.1% respectively year-on-year, suggest that there is much cause for celebration for retailers across the country. Dig a little deeper behind these figures, however, and the picture starts to look a little less pretty – especially for the high street.

So where do these positive figures come from? Food stores were actually the main drivers of growth, whereas the outlook for household goods was particularly worrisome. Year-on-year, the volume of goods purchased in-store contracted for the first time since May 2014.

Turning stores into destinations
The key challenge for high street retailers, and electrical retailers in particular, is pulling customers back into stores and encouraging them to spend. In order to do so, we expect to see companies take the initiative and begin offering consumers something that they are not able to get from online shopping: an experience.

Bricks-and-mortar stores offer retailers the opportunity to showcase their products in key ways which online cannot replicate, be it through demonstrations, experiential activities, or simply giving the consumer the chance to get their hands on the product. For example, John Lewis has recently dedicated 1,000 square feet of prime retail space in their Oxford Street branch to the smart home category. This is a long-term investment in an emerging product range, which has driven an increase in sales, and, importantly, increased the percentage of sales in store.

New technologies such as Virtual Reality present a significant opportunity for retailers to turn their shops into destinations. Take the example of AT&T in the US, which launched a Virtual Reality cruise experience across 133 of its stores using Samsung Gear VR. In the UK, EE recently partnered with BT Sport to allow football fans to watch football matches through VR headsets at four of their stores across London. Stunts like this give consumers a reason to visit the high street.

The future role of the high street
Turning high street stores into hubs of activity and showrooms for new products will drive footfall and in turn, sales. Apple’s model may prove a blueprint: it’s no coincidence that Apple’s stellar sales run parallel to bustling Apple Stores where users can try out new products.

For retailers considering abandoning the high street and going online-only, it’s worth noting that a visible high street presence can also drive online sales: when John Lewis opened a department store in Chester, for example, sales in the region climbed 30%. This also might explain why Amazon has started to rollout physical bookstores in the US; at the very least, it reveals the importance of an omnichannel approach to retail.

Omnichannel goes beyond offering the consumer multiple channels to purchase, instead focusing on the importance of delivering a seamless experience across online and in-store. Viewed in this context, a physical presence in the high street offers a vital touch-point for consumers to try products before they buy, regardless of whether that purchase happens in-store or online.

Bricks-and-mortar shops are the most personal point of connection between retailer and consumer – so, far from disappearing, we hope they will play an even greater role in driving brand loyalty and sales across channels in the future. Retailers should begin to take advantage of the unique, experiential opportunities offered by physical stores, viewing them as just one component part of a broader omnichannel strategy, where customer experience is key.

by AS

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Allez Les Bleus in Tech Retail!

Last week at Paris Retail Week I met a number of French people who all repeated the same mantra to me – you are so innovative in retail in the UK. Well sacré bleu this is French negativism at its worst. The reality is the French are darned good at inventing new retail concepts – the hypermarket was an invention by Carrefour in the 60’s; international food retail was pioneered by Carrefour and Auchan in the 1970’s and 80’s; recently Auchan piloted the shop and collect drive-in format which was taken forward by Leclerc. And if you look at the area of retail which really interests us, a trip around Paris should remind any Brit that French creativity is not to be ignored in tech retail, and particularly connected objects.

Here is what I saw on the Paris Retail tour and in a visit yesterday to some additional stores:

  • the new Orange store in the Champs Elysees – you walk into a store with VR demonstrations on Samsung Gear headsets happening as you walk in (or at least you did last week, this week they were sadly missing) – this is a tech destination showing off smart home, health, connected car, fun gadgets, and a workspace for repair. The layout is airy and modern, the displays very Apple. My only disappointment was that the “coach” experience did not work as it should and I was left to wander round by myself. This concept store being rolled out all over Europe is part of an omnichannel strategy linking the on and offline journey of the customer. 8/10
  • Fnac Connect is on the Champs Elysees and has a small selection of connected objects and a large space dedicated to mobile phones. There is little visibility of store staff and it has not moved on since it was introduced nearly two years ago. But it is there and is being invested in as new stores are being rolled out over France in the Connect format. Inside the main Fnac store on the lower ground floor was excitement – the first display of Oculus headsets, on sale only in Fnac stores. I was underwhelmed as they were piled high next to a similar pile of HTC Vive. This is the biggest opportunity for tech retail to bring in the crowds as the Orange store has proven with the Samsung Gear and as clearly highlighted in our consumer survey on VR 7/10
  • Darty – I went to the Beaugrenelle store as I had read that it was a concept store for them. It has a dynamic welcome with a connected back to school campaign, and had a very full offer of connected objects ranged over multiple gondolas and displays. There is no doubt that Darty means business with connected objects. But what is still missing is the engagement with shoppers. What does it all mean? You are left to work it out for yourself. 7/10
  • Boulanger’s flagship store in Opera was our last visit and was a true delight. The welcome was a huge smile from the security guard – very un-Parisian. The prominent space on arrival is the collection point for the click and collect goods. Evidently this is a new generation omnichannel store. The gondolas were beautiful, airy and the signage was clear. The connected objects range was not as great as Darty but the store makes you want to shop and find someone to explain. Even as we left, the cashiers smiled at us. Boulanger has brought the warmth of the North of France to Paris and that is an unforgettable plus 9/10

On this visit I did not go to Lick, another specialist store for connected objects which we have covered previously in our Paris visits. The news is that Lick is extending its reach through a recent link-up with BHV to bring the flair of connected objects to this rather old-fashioned department store. I also saw the flagship Publicis store on the Champs Elysées which has introduced a connected objects offering (placed between champagne and wine on one side, and perfume on the other). I am not sure that they will get much traction from this as the selection of products was small and eclectic, but the overall conclusion is that the French are experimenting with tech retail, and for that I give Paris 10/10 – allez les bleus!


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Virtual Rome wasn’t built in a day

Guest blog by Dr Matthew Nicholls, University of Reading

I was delighted to present with CONTEXT at the Berlin IFA+ Summit. My own work with digital visualisation and 3D modelling in higher education sits very well alongside CONTEXT’s work surveying the amazing possibilities that Virtual Reality is now opening up. I work at the University of Reading, where I have built a large detailed 3D model of ancient Rome. I use this to generate still and animated images of the city, and also teach my students how to make their own digital reconstructions. Recently I have started using VR in my teaching and public work, turning my digital models into immersive, walk-around experiences. Stepping into these spaces in VR, no matter how well I think I know them, is a truly transformative, engaging experience.


Having to peer around physically, viewing the buildings in proper 3D, makes their scale and splendour much more intuitively visible than viewing them in more traditional 2D illustrations, and opens up the possibility of ‘stepping back into the past’. The potential for engaging students, as both users and creators of this sort of content, is terrific. It seems that the public agrees: I was very interested to see that the recreation of historical events scored highly in CONTEXT’s survey of what sorts of VR experiences are particularly appealing to potential users.

When not presenting, I explored the enormous IFA fair. The VR displays, naturally, were particularly interesting. Here the global market for gaming is the big driving force, enabling huge investments in hardware and software that will also benefit educational users like me. Oculus’ tour bus offered a sample of games and experiences in their Rift headset, including being chased by a T-Rex in a deserted museum, and playing a vertigo-inducing realistic rock-climbing game. Samsung’s lavish exhibit combined headset displays (using their Gear) with motion experiences, including a roller coaster and kayak ride (both using hydraulically-actuated seats), and a bungee jump into a virtual volcano.

Combining real-world motion with virtual graphics has potential for gaming, and also for fairground-style rides like these. It helps overcome two problems long associated with VR – that moving around in a virtual world without real-world physical movement can be disorientating or uncomfortable, and that VR can be perceived as an anti-social sort of activity. I enjoyed all of these ‘rides’; although the amount of physical movement involved was naturally smaller than the huge rollercoaster or bungee arcs suggested by the VR graphics, it seemed to be just enough to fool the body into accepting what the headset was showing.


And of course it had a very high novelty fun factor; as these things become more common, it will be interesting to see what seasoned gamers come to expect in a genuinely thrilling experience. I wonder whether augmented reality, blending digital and real world elements (including other players), will eventually open up more convincing or exciting realms of experience than pure VR.

Elsewhere in the fair VR really seemed to have come of age, and was incorporated into various CONTEXTs – in gaming, naturally, and also in (for example) headsets for drones. Drones are now cheap enough, and easy enough to fly, that they are becoming accessible to non-specialists. I can foresee archaeological uses, for example; drones are already being used in some digs for aerial exploration and also the harvesting of images for photogrammetric site surveying and reconstruction. Feeding real time stereoscopic imagery from a drone into a VR headset would provide a really immersive, exciting vista to the pilot (who would need somewhere safe and secluded to stand while flying it!).

As a university academic in ancient history, this was a very different conference to the sort I usually attend, and very enriching. It’s clear that as the accessibility of VR and 3D continues to increase, both in terms of falling prices and ease of use by non-specialists, the potential for educational uses in many subjects is going to be enormous; it’s exciting to be part of it at the outset.



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