Mobile World Congress: 10 best tech innovations, from drone taxi made in China to new 5G tricks
Incredible holograms, AR and VR, 5G innovations, disease control by smartphone, and tracking systems for dogs, children and valuables: here are the 10 most exciting tech innovations to come out of Mobile World Congress
The annual Mobile World Congress held at Barcelona is always dominated by new phones from the big brands, but if you look beyond the main halls there is so much innovation to explore. Here is a taste of the tech that caught the eye this week.
1. Ehang 184 drone taxi
Riding in a one-seater drone that autonomously flies you from an airport to your hotel is not everyone’s idea of how futuristic travel should look. Realising that drones such as the Ehang 184 are also a potential pest and a danger to each other, the mobile networks are hoping to create an “internet of the skies” by fitting all drones with a 4G SIM card.
Dominating the Innovation City zone in Barcelona, 4G-connected drones such as the electric, four-blade Ehang 184 could be tracked and geofenced [given a virtual geographic boundary] by a mobile network, so they could never enter airspace used by aircraft. There are plans to trial the Ehang 184 imminently in Dubai.
2. Kino-mo’s Hypervsn hologram effect
Holograms are an illusion. Light needs to bounce off a surface for the human eye to see colour and brightness, so stopping it in mid-air? Impossible. Not that you’d know from the huge crowds around British company Kino-mo’s booth.
Showcasing huge 3D hologram-like projections of shoes, drinks, cars and fantasy worlds, the Hypervsn technology is initially puzzling … until you try to photograph it. By capturing a still frame, it becomes obvious that Hypervsn is a grid of dozens of small propellers and LED lights. The image is actually flat, but if you’re standing in front of it, it looks every bit like moving 3D holograms.
3. Dog tracking using Samsung Connect Tag
If you’ve ever heard of the internet of things (IoT) and wondered what all the fuss is about, Mobile World Congress this year provided an answer.
“You can put it on your dog’s collar, or throw it in your luggage,” says Andrew Parker, programme marketing director, Internet of Things, at GSM Association (GSMA).
The device in question is the Samsung Connect Tag, a tiny 25g disc that uses almost no battery power, and has very low cost connectivity. “Korea Telecom is selling them as all-purpose tracking devices at US$9 per year for connectivity, and at that price, you can easily see why everyone could soon be tracking everything,” says Parker.
The background technology is low-power, cheap narrow band-IoT and LTE-M data networks, which are gradually being rolled out around the world.
4. Earthlight: Lunar Mission VR
What would a moon base of the future be like? You can find out at Project Alice, a large virtual reality rig installed in Barcelona by Beijing-based VR tech company Noitom and Huawei’s X-Labs.
This multiplayer rig hosts Earthlight: Lunar Mission, a VR experience that’s technically mixed reality since you can pick up real props – such as a box for collecting moon rocks – as you walk around the lunar surface.
Each astronaut wears an untethered Oculus Rift headset, which tracks them around the moon, with a network of optical cameras that make it so accurate that you can even give each other a high-five.
5. SK Telecom’s 5G 360 video calls
With massively increased bandwidth, 5G is going to enable all kinds of new ways to communicate. One intriguing use for 5G demonstrated by SK Telecom in Barcelona this year was the 360-degree video call.
Installed in a couple of booths, the demo involved the Insta360 Air camera. Does anyone need to make a VR phone call? Probably not, but remember when video calls quickly became common as soon as 4G networks were up to the task? Callers being able to share everything around them with each other does introduce the possibility of real-time, 360-degree “share calls”. It could yet prove to be 5G’s killer app.
6. Plex-VR’s 3D light-field characters
Samsung and Sony have both talked up augmented reality avatars that can be created, customised and shared using the new Galaxy S9 and Xperia XZ2 phones. Plex-VR takes that one step further with a new 3D light-field technology that can recreate a live performance on a phone or tablet. “We use a lot of cameras to capture a person’s performance from lots of angles, and after some processing we can put them into an AR and VR environment,” says Jason Yang, chief technology officer and co-founder at Plex-VR.
7. HTC Vive Pro & Vive wireless adaptor
There’s nothing like a leash to ruin an otherwise otherworldly VR experience. VR headsets are going wireless, and HTC previewed its Vive wireless adaptor, which will be released in the summer. Attached to either the original HTC Vive or the new, higher resolution HTC Vive Pro headsets, the freedom it gives you really does bring a new sense of immersion.
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In Barcelona, HTC had Texas-based VR company Janimation Studios create a wonderful arcade-style experience of hot air ballooning through the Grand Canyon. Taking place in a real, vintage ballooning basket, the wireless experience lets you move around freely, and feel both heat from the balloon’s burner, and the wind through your hair.
8. The world’s most efficient solar panel
In some corners of the Mobile World Congress it’s possible to find scientists who are searching for solutions to humanity’s biggest problems. Perhaps the most important was in the Graphene Flagship area, where the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia was showing off the world’s most efficient solar panel.
Created from inorganic crystals called perovskite, the key ingredient is graphene ink. Considered a ‘miracle material’ for over a decade, graphene is the thinnest, strongest and lightest material scientists know of. It’s also transparent, flexible, and conducts electricity and heat supremely well.
“The graphene is used to increase the efficiency to record levels, and to increase the stability of the solar cell,” says Beatriz Martín-García from the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia.
“This one is graphene in glass, but you can also produce flexible substrates,” adds Martín-García. More research is needed to make it as long lasting as silicon solar panels, but it’s already four times cheaper to produce.
9. Disease control by smartphone
Tech is increasingly being used to solve real-world health problems. Tuberculosis (TB) is a huge problem in India, killing 480,000 people every year, and it’s highly infectious. The GSMA has created a pilot study in Uttar Pradesh to track people’s movements using the GPS on their phones.
“We took open-source mapping data from the Indian government about TB levels, and we added anonymous data from AirTel’s mobile phone network to see how the local population moves about,” says Jo Gilbert, global product & platform development manager at the GSMA.
The resulting map shows the exact places where people coming from areas with high TB travel through, thus identifying precisely where authorities should put mobile clinics and focus awareness campaigns.
10. Pivotal Commware’s holographic beams
The big telecom companies have agreed on a way to create 5G mobile phone masts, and they work in a similar way to 4G, spreading bandwidth equally in all directions. That’s hugely wasteful. So Seattle-based Pivotal Commware has found a way to focus radio-frequency energy directly at a moving target, much like a spotlight.
“We’ve created software-defined antennas that maximise capacity and coverage, and squeeze every ounce of effectiveness out of the spectrum,” says Brian Deutsch, chief executive of Pivotal Commware.
“Even in cities you can get a bad phone signal if you’re on the edge of a cell [area of coverage], so with this technique, you can just move the edge of the cell somewhere where there are fewer people,” he says.
Such high-fidelity beams could even make it possible for massive 5G-like bandwidth to follow a person wherever they go. No wonder Microsoft founder Bill Gates is an investor.