Meet Sens’it, a gadget that lets you play with Sigfox’s IoT network

Consumer gadget enthusiasts might have fawned over the new Samsung Galaxy S6 Edge and the Huawei Watch at Mobile World Congress, but if you are an internet of things geek, the most interesting device at MWC was probably at the other end of the Fira Gran Via at Sigfox’s booth. The French startup, which is trying to build a global wireless network solely for the internet of things, was showing off a pill-shaped device it designed to let IoT developers test out its network.

Called the Sens’it, the device has no screen or keypad, just an LED light that doubles as its only button. Under the hood, there are three sensors: an accelerometer, a thermometer and a sound meter, all of which turn themselves on at intervals to take a snapshot of their surroundings and then communicate that data over Sigfox’s network.

If you’re looking for a practical application here, there isn’t one. On its own, the device doesn’t really do anything. Sigfox intends for the device, which was built by Axible, to be a proof of concept that developers can use to create their own applications. But that doesn’t mean you can’t have a bit of fun with it.

The Sensit alongside the Sigfox web app

The Sensit next to the Sigfox web app

Sigfox has created a web app that allows you to access the data Sens’it collects, and it’s built a few communication hooks that trigger email and SMS alerts when the sensors are triggered. For instance, according to Sigfox head of marketing and communications Thomas Nicholls, you could put the Sens’it in your car and get an alert every time it moves. You could place the device in a cabin that otherwise has no power or internet connectivity and measure temperature and sound levels. The Sens’it also has a button that will trigger an email or SMS alert every time you double-tap it.

Nicholls gave me a Sens’it to play with while I was in Barcelona for MWC (Sigfox’s network isn’t in my hometown Chicago yet), and I made it do a few basic things. I got it to trigger an alert when my plane took off from the airport, and I sent random text messages to myself while I was wandering around. But someone with more time and creativity than me could do a lot more with the device by using IFTTT channels or by tapping into SMS APIs like those offered by Twilio and Nexmo.

An immensely useful application would be the ability to generate a “safety” call to my phone with a double tap of the Sens’it button. It doesn’t matter if there’s nothing but dead air at the other end of the line. It would be a great way to get out of conversation when someone has cornered you — on the show floor at MWC, for instance.

All of this is designed to prove the resiliency and range of Sigfox’s network, which is now live in Spain, France and Russia and will soon go online in the Netherlands and in the U.S., starting in San Francisco. Sigfox uses the Industrial Scientific and Medical (ISM) band used by Z-Wave and ZigBee to create a very low-power, long-range and low-throughput network.

A Sigfox ISM radio module

A Sigfox ISM radio module

That network is entirely unsuitable for a gadget or appliance that needs constant high-bandwidth links, such as a car or a tablet, but it excels in the low-bore connectivity world of the industrial internet. Sigfox connects home alarms, parking space sensors, water meters and even dog tracking collars — anything that only needs intermittent access to the network as well as a cheap radio and service plans.

One of the big selling points for Sigfox, Nicholls said, is its extremely long range. It can cover entire cities with just a handful of base stations, and it can reach far out to remote places that even cellular networks don’t reach. I can attest to that. Upon landing in New York after my plane experiment, I opened up my email and discovered that Sens’it had triggered several more emails 10 to 15 minutes after I took off from the Barcelona airport. That means it was still connecting to the Sigfox while we were at cruising altitude over the Spanish countryside. It only stopped linking up with the network once we hit the open ocean.

Sigfox only manufactured an initial batch of 1,000 Sens’it devices, so it’s not handing them out to everyone. But if you’re a service provider, IoT developer or just a curious maker with an idea, you can apply for a Sens’it here.

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Full duplex may be the next breakthrough in mobile networking

Stanford startup Kumu Networks didn’t receive much notice at Mobile World Congress this week as the giants of the mobile industry revealed their plans for 2015, but it did get the attention of two rather important mobile carriers. At their separate booths, Telefónica and SK Telecom were showing off a Kumu-built radio transmission system called full duplex, which both carriers said could eventually become one of the key technologies of any future 5G standard.

When the mobile companies pull out the 5G card, they’re usually trying to signal that something is a really big deal, and in the case of Kumu, they could very well be right. What full duplex does is solve a fundamental problem in wireless communications that limits a network’s full capacity potential: the inability to transmit and receive signals on a radio channel at the same time. The problem is known as self-interference, but the concept is not quite as complex as it sounds.

Shouting

Imagine two people are having a conversation, which itself is one of the simplest two-way — or duplex — communication channels. If both people are talking at the same time, neither one can understand what the other is saying. The words one person speaks get drowned out by the other’s voice before it ever reaches his ears. The same principle holds for wireless transmissions. When a radio is transmitting its signals bleed over into its own receiver interfering with the signals it’s trying to listen for.

For that reason wireless networks have always been built in something called half-duplex mode, which basically prevents them from ever transmitting and receiving in the same channel at the same time. It’s why most mobile networks in the world today use different sets of frequencies for downlink and uplink transmissions (For instance in many U.S. LTE systems, our devices receive data from the tower in a 2100 MHz channel, but they send information back at 1700 MHz). And it’s why a Wi-Fi router flip-flops between transmitting and receiving when it talks to your laptop or smartphone. Half-duplex has served the wireless industry well, but using it means you’re only using half of the total capacity of your airwaves at any given time.

Kumu Networks is based in Santa Clara but its roots are in Stanford where its founders started their full duplex research.

Kumu Networks is based in Santa Clara but its roots are in Stanford where its founders started their full duplex research.

 

As my colleague Signe Brewster wrote in Gigaom’s first look at the Stanford startup in 2013, Kumu claims to have developed the mathematical breakthrough necessary to solve the problem of self-interference at a practical level. And now it’s claiming to have produced a commercially viable full-duplex radio system that can transmit and receive simultaneously without turning its connection to mush. According to Kumu VP of product development Joel Brand, the company accomplished this by becoming a very smart listener.

Essentially Kumu is constantly scanning the radio environment, gauging the exact state of the airwaves at any given time, Brand said. Using internally developed algorithms, Kumu can “hear” how the transmission the radio is pumping out is changing the signal environment a the receiver. It can then compensate for those changes as signals heading the opposite direction arrive. It’s like echo cancellation applied to radio waves instead of sound.

Full Duplex demo

Kumu supplied some photos of the full duplex rig it demoed at Mobile World Congress, and I’ll be the first to admit it doesn’t look very impressive. But at MWC I asked Vish Nandlall, CTO of Australian multinational mobile carrier [company]Telstra[/company], about the technology, and he said it was the real deal. Full duplex isn’t some crazy new concept Kumu just made up one day, he said. Full duplex is used today in regular phone lines, and its application to wireless has been kicking around scientific papers and academic research labs for some time. But what Kumu did was come up with a viable technology that could be applied to real world networks, Nandlall said.

The impact could be quite significant. If you remove the self-interference barrier, carriers could use all of their spectrum for both uplink and downlink at the same time, which would double the capacity or double the number of connections any network could support. Wi-Fi networks would no longer have to alternate between sending data and receiving it, thus dramatically improving their download and upload speeds. It might not solve the so-called spectrum crunch, but it would go a long way to making wireless networks a lot more efficient.

Right now Kumu is pitching the technology to carriers as a backhaul system, so they could use their 4G spectrum to concurrently communicate with phones and the core network. But Brand says in the future full duplex can easily be applied to the access network connecting our devices. In fact, Kumu’s MWC demos were using off-the-shelf radio smartphone chips from [company]Qualcomm[/company], just with the duplexer ripped out. That kind of change would require a redesign of both our networks and our devices, which isn’t going to happen overnight. That’s why Kumu and its carrier partners [company]Telefónica[/company] and [company]SK Telecom[/company] are looking ahead to 5G.

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Why emerging markets need smart internet policies

The Alliance for Affordable Internet (A4AI) has released its latest study into, well, the affordability of internet access. The study shows how big the challenge is on that front in emerging markets – for over two billion people there, fixed-line broadband costs on average 40 percent of their monthly income, and mobile broadband costs on average 10 percent of their monthly income.

The United Nations’ “affordability target” for internet access is five percent of monthly income, so there’s clearly a ways to go in many developing countries. Almost 60 percent of global households are still unconnected and, unsurprisingly, those who can’t afford to get online tend to be poor, in rural communities and/or women. As my colleague Biz Carson wrote the other day, women are being left behind in the related smartphone adoption stakes too.

A4AI comprises players from [company]Google[/company] and the World Wide Web Foundation to the international development departments of the U.S. and U.K., and its report — unveiled Wednesday at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona — takes into account drivers of connectivity such as electrification and policy. As A4AI executive director Sonia Jorge pointed out quite reasonably in a statement, those who are unable to afford internet access are quite often those who most need it to improve their lot.

Still, she noted, good national “policies and principles” can make a big difference. For example, the A4AI report praised Latin American countries such as Costa Rica, Colombia and Peru for having solid infrastructure rollout plans. Costa Rica, which topped the affordability rankings of 51 emerging and developing economies, has been working to provide universal access since 2009.

According to A4AI, the policy areas that need attention include national broadband plans, competition-friendly environments (remember, many of these countries still have powerful telecoms monopolies), good spectrum allocation policy, the promotion of infrastructure-sharing, and “widespread public access through libraries, schools, and other community venues.” Strong political leadership helps, they added.

This is very much a long-term game. In the meantime, we have initiatives such as Google’s Loon, which is not quite ready yet, and [company]Facebook[/company]’s Internet.org, which is out there but somewhat divisive, both in terms of its impact on carriers and its threat to net neutrality. Both come with a still-fuzzy commercial imperative; from a societal standpoint, it is surely healthier for governments in emerging markets to foster more neutral and competitive alternatives.

White space broadband, which Google and [company]Microsoft[/company] have both been championing, could provide part of the solution (particularly in rural areas), but again it’s being held back by sluggish policy-making. Very few countries have authorized its use thus far, due to concerns over its impact on the broadcasting industry – the technology uses the spectral gaps between TV stations, though it’s now proven that it can avoid interference – and perhaps its threat to telecoms monopolies as well. Again, smarter government can make all the difference.

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Broadcom’s new Wi-Fi chip turns your phone into an IoT hub

At Mobile World Congress, Broadcom released a new chipset designed to bring Wi-Fi’s speediest technology, 802.11ac, into smartphones. What makes this particular chipset stand out is that it’s able to support simultaneous connections over both of Wi-Fi’s bands (2.4 and 5 GHz).

Simultaneous dual band has become fairly common in high-end routers, but it’s never really made its way into mobile devices because it requires two Wi-Fi antennas to maintain dual connections. But [company]Broadcom[/company] has also been paving the way for dual-antenna, or MIMO, technology in high-end handsets.

Broadcom’s press release played up the fact that accessing two networks at the same time would produce some pretty big boosts in speeds for heavy bandwidth consumers. But when I spoke with David Recker, Broadcom senior director for wireless connectivity, he pointed that there’s an even bigger implication here. This new modem will help change the role of the smartphone in the wireless network from that of a mere client to that of a network controlling hub.

While our phones can use Wi-Fi to connect directly to other devices such as wearables or home appliances, they can’t do so while maintaining their own uninterrupted connection to a Wi-Fi router. This will solve that problem, which is becoming increasingly bigger as smartphones insert themselves into the internet of things. For instance, you could use your phone to download a video from a Wi-Fi network and simultaneously stream it to your TV. Or you could use a smartwatch connected by Wi-Fi Direct to your phone to check email, while listening to music streamed over the Wi-Fi network.

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FCC’s Wheeler makes net neutrality case before global carriers

Federal Communications Chairman Tom Wheeler said on Tuesday that he doesn’t put much credibility in claims that U.S. carriers would stop investing in their networks in his new era of network neutrality. Taking the stage at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona before a global carrier audience, he said that the U.S. telecom industry’s actions speak far louder than its public statements.

He pointed out that [company]Verizon[/company] in 2008 bid heavily and won for its initial 4G spectrum in 2008 even though it came with open internet stipulations similar to those implemented under the FCC’s new neutrality guidelines. Wheeler noted that this year’s 4G auction raised a record $41.3 billion even though the specter of the then-upcoming net neutrality vote had hung over the entire bidding process. [company]AT&T[/company] and [company]Verizon[/company] — two of the rules’ biggest opponents — spent a combined $28.6 billion in that auction.

“I don’t think any of the CFOs bidding in the auction just fell off the turnip truck,” Wheeler said after GSM Association Director General Anne Bouverot asked him whether it was fair to implement net neutrality right after those operators spent billions on new spectrum. Carriers bid on the licenses knowing full well that spectrum would be needed for the future growth of their networks whether net neutrality has passed or not, Wheeler said.

He also added [company]Sprint[/company], [company]T-Mobile[/company] and [company]Google[/company] Fiber had all committed to investing in their networks after the new regulations went into affect. Wheeler repeated many of the arguments he’s made for net neutrality over the last few months, though to a global audience unfamiliar with the fiery policy debate in the U.S., the information was largely new.

One question might have thrown Wheeler for a bit of a loop though. Bouverot said many of the countries represented at MWC might object to the nature of the FCC rules because their governments support developmental programs to bring cheap or free internet services to their unconnected citizens. Though she didn’t mention it by name, I assume she was referring to Internet.org, the founder of which, [company]Facebook[/company]’s Mark Zuckerberg, had spoken on the same stage Monday.

Wheeler responded that U.S. net neutrality rules could take those types of programs could be judged on a case-by-case basis, but he didn’t elaborate, and Bouverot didn’t press him. Under the rules, though, it’s unclear whether Internet.org could operate in the U.S. as it zero-rates, or exempts from all data charges, all mobile internet traffic to Facebook and a handful of other sites. Zero rating falls under the FCC’s general conduct rule which gives it the authority to ban practices that favor one service or app over another, which Internet.org clearly does.

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Double vision: YotaPhone 2 with e-ink rear screen coming to US

Although the unique YotaPhone 2, with its front and back displays, can work with AT&T and T-Mobile’s networks, you can’t buy the phone in the U.S. just yet. That’s changing soon but don’t expect to see the handset with e-ink rear screen in a carrier store anytime soon. Instead, the company is taking to Indiegogo to sell the phone for around $600 off-contract, according to PhoneScoop.

YotaPhone 2 front and back

Availability news came out of the Mobile World Congress where company announced the Indiegogo campaign. You can’t purchase the phone at the moment but you can provide an email address for updates in anticipation of April sales. YotaPhone says it will provide early-bird pricing for the Android 4.4 phone — which will get [company]Google[/company] Android 5.0 in the near future — and plans to bring it to retailers such as Best Buy in the U.S. as well.

This is the second iteration of YotaPhone’s handset with a traditional front screen coupled with lower resolution e-ink screen on the back. And this second time around gave the company another chance to show how a secondary screen can add to the phone experience. This hands-on Yotaphone 2 video from Android Central shows how the e-ink screen is better integrated into standard phone features in a way that doesn’t hit the battery too hard.

[youtube=http://youtu.be/w6ZCVdbJbZk]

Key to the approach are new configurable panels, or screens, where you can choose what’s displayed on the e-ink screen: Think of notifications, boarding passes, email, books and more. Compared to the newer flagship phones recently announced at Mobile World Congress, the YotaPhone 2 is a step behind, using last year’s [company]Qualcomm[/company] Snapdragon 801 chip, for example. The addition of that second, low-power screen could offset such a compromise for some users, and the phone does have otherwise solid specs, including a 5-inch 1080p display, 2GB of memory, wireless charging support and a large 2500 mAh battery.

A look at Zeroth, Qualcomm’s effort to put AI in your smartphone

What if your smartphone camera were smart enough to identify that the plate of clams and black beans appearing in its lens was actually food? What if it then automatically could make the necessary adjustments to take a decent picture of said dish in the low light conditions of a restaurant? And what if it then without prompting, uploaded that photo to Foodspotting along with your location because, your camera phone knows from past experience you like to keep an endless record of your culinary conquests for the world to see?

These are just a few of the questions that [company]Qualcomm[/company] is asking of its new cognitive computing technology Zeroth, which aims to bring artificial intelligence out of the cloud and move it – or at least a limited version of it – into your phone. At Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, I sat down with Qualcomm SVP of product management Raj Talluri, who explained what Zeroth was all about.

Zeroth phones aren’t going to beat chess Grand Masters or create its own unique culinary recipes, but it will perform basic intuitive tasks and anticipate your actions, thus eliminating many of the rudimentary steps required to operate the increasingly complex smartphone, Talluri explained.

“We wanted to see if we could build deep-learning neural networks on devices you carry with you instead of in the cloud,” Talluri said. Using that approach, Qualcomm could solve certain problems surrounding the everyday use of a device.

One such problem, Talluri called the camera problem. The typical smartphone can pick up a lot of images throughout the day, from selfies to landscape shots to receipts for your expense reports. You could load every image you have into the cloud and sort them there or figure out what to do with each photo as you snap them, but cognitive computing capabilities in your phone could do much of that work and it could it could it without you telling it what to do, Talluri said.

Zeroth can train the camera not just to recognize a landscape shot from a close up. It could determine between whole classes of objects, from fruit to mountains to buildings. It can distinguish children from adults and cats from dogs, Talluri said. What the camera does with that information depends on the user’s preferences and the application.

The most basic use case would be taking better photos as it can optimize the shot for the types of objects in them. It could also populate photos with tons of useful metadata. Then you could build on that foundation with other applications. Your smartphone might recognize, for instance, that you’re taking a bunch of landscape and architecture shots in foreign locale and automatically upload them to a vacation album on Flickr. A selfie might automatically produce a Facebook post prompt.

Zeroth devices would be pre-trained to recognize certain classes of objects – right now Qualcomm has used machine learning to create about 30 categories – but the devices could continue to learn after they’re shipped, Talluri said.

With permission, it could access your contact list and scan your social media accounts, and start recognizing the faces of your friends and family in your contact list, Talluri said. Then if you were taking a picture with a bunch of people in the frame, Zeroth would recognize your friends and focus in on their faces. Zeroth already has the ability to recognize handwriting, but you could train it to recognize the particular characteristics of your script, learning for instance that in my chicken scratch, lower case “A”s often look like “O”s.

Other examples of Zeroth applications include devices that could automatically adjust their power performance to the habits of its owner or scan its surroundings sensors to determine what a user’s most likely next smartphone action might be.

Zeroth itself isn’t a separate chip or component. It’s a software architecture designed to run across the different elements of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon processors, so as future Snapdragon products get more powerful, Zeroth becomes more intelligent, Talluri said. We’ll discuss the Zeroth capabilities and designing software that’s smarter and based on cognitive computing with a Qualcomm executive at our Structure Data event in New York later this month.

Qualcomm plans to debut the technology in next year’s premium smartphones and tablets that uses the forthcoming the Snapdragon 820, which uses a new 64-bit CPU architecture called Kyro and was announced at MWC. But Qualcomm was already showing off basic computer vision features like handwriting and object recognition on devices using the Snapdragon 810. Many of those devices were launched at MWC and should appear in markets in the coming months.

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Pebble Time Steel launches alongside new smart watch straps

Pebble said it would have a few surprises in store after it launched its new Pebble Time watch on Kickstarter last week. On Tuesday, Pebble shared two of them: A new Pebble Time Steel edition available in multiple finishes with longer battery life and support for watchbands with electronics and sensors built into them.

pebble time steel gold

The introduction of Pebble Time Steel itself isn’t a huge surprise; the company offers its current watch in a Steel model. What is a little confounding is the timing of Pebble Time Steel. The answer may be in the availability: the metal version won’t arrive until July, which is after the plastic model ships.

Pebble says the new Steel edition has CNC-finished 316L stainless steel case and a larger battery; you can expect up to 10 days of run time on a charge. Finishes for the watch include Gunmetal Black, Silver Stainless and Gold, while bands will be made of leather or stainless steel.

The starting retail price of Pebble Time Steel is $299 but Kickstarter backers will save $50. Those (like me) who backed the Pebble Time can upgrade to a Steel model and not lose their place in line for delivery, but again, the newer model won’t ship until July.

strap-components

Pebble’s new smart straps are an interesting approach to cramming sensors in a watch. Why do that when you can build them into the wristband and have the data read by the watch? It’s a clever idea, provided the bands don’t get too bulky. Pebble has outlined how the smart bands will work on its developer blog, hoping to drum up some interest as it begins to broaden its smartwatch ecosystem.

BlackBerry shows off affordable, touchscreen-only Leap handset

BlackBerry has launched a touchscreen-only smartphone — its first since the Z3 a year ago — called the Leap. It will be reasonably affordable at $275 off-contract when it goes on sale this April.

The handset has a five-inch display and will reportedly go on sale in Europe and Asia first. BlackBerry is pushing the security angle pretty hard on this one, no doubt as a partial reaction to efforts by the likes of Blackphone and Jolla to appeal to privacy-conscious businesses and consumers.

“Companies and everyday consumers are finding out the hard way that mobile security is paramount. BlackBerry Leap was built specifically for mobile professionals who see their smartphone device as a powerful and durable productivity tool that also safeguards sensitive communications at all times,” BlackBerry devices chief Ron Louks said in a statement.

Indeed, the company also used Mobile World Congress in Barcelona to announce the BlackBerry Experience Suite, which is actually three suites of services that will work across rival platforms including iOS, Android and Windows. Two of the bundles will cover productivity and communications and collaboration, while the third will provide encryption and privacy controls for emails and documents.

Security aside, BlackBerry is promising that the Leap can take up to 25 hours of “heavy use” before its 2,800mAh battery gives up. It has an eight-megapixel rear camera and 16GB of internal storage with extra microSD support. As with other recent BlackBerry phones, the Leap also comes with the Assistant voice-and-text command feature and two app stores, BlackBerry World and the Amazon Appstore.

According to reports of the MWC unveiling of the device, Louks also briefly held up an unnamed handset with a slide-out keyboard that will properly appear later this year.

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You unlock this smartphone with your eyes

Some of the new phones launching at Mobile World Congress are sporting fingerprint scanners, but a new device from ZTE uses a very different biometric security measure to lock its screen. Using technology from Kansas City-based EyeVerify, the ZTE Grand S3 uses its front facing camera to check you are who you say you are, based on your baby blues.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sUKEn2UNY5k

EyeVerify’s technology uses an ordinary front-facing camera — its only requirement is that it takes photos at least one megapixel large. Instead of looking at your retinas, EyeVerify authenticates users by looking at vein patterns formed by blood vessels in the whites of the eye. ZTE calls its implementation Eyeprint ID, and it will come to other devices in its high end “Grand” line of smartphones. Android Central was able to try the ZTE Grand S3, and its eye-based unlocking software even works if you wear glasses:

One major question is what EyeVerify does better than fingerprint scanners, which have become the de facto biometric security measure for smartphones.

EyeVerify CEO Toby Rush wrote a blog post earlier this month comparing the two approaches. One of EyeVerify’s largest advantages is that it doesn’t require new hardware. Fingerprint scanners are expensive, and according to Rush, users have to look at their phone ever time it is unlocked, making eye-based verification preferable. However, he admits, in the burgeoning payments market, a fingerprint scanner makes more sense. Imagine standing at a retailer and staring at your phone to confirm your identity.

yXWpaL

The fact that EyeVerify doesn’t require specific hardware means it could also work well for security on cross-platform apps. Banks and credit unions are looking into EyeVerify as a way to lock down their mobile apps.

Other specs on the ZTE Grand S3 include an 8 megapixel front camera, a 16 megapixel rear camera, and a 5.5-inch 1080p display. The phone is powered by a Qualcomm Snapdragon 801 processor. It’s running Android 4.4.

The ZTE Grand S3 is already in sale in China for a very pricey 2999 RMB ($477) and the company hasn’t mentioned whether it’s bringing the device to markets outside of China. Although ZTE isn’t a household name in the United States, it currently has about six percent of the United States smartphone market, mostly in the low-end. Recently, it’s been trying to raise its profile by sponsoring NBA teams like the Golden State Warriors and New York Knicks.

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