Five AI gadgets making the most of machine learning
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
Raising the bar
How do you achieve a truly immersive listening experience where the sound is all-enveloping? Headphones can do it to some degree by shutting out the world and pushing sound directly into the ear. Multi-speaker surround-sound is another option, although it’s somewhat tedious to set up. But back in 2015, Dr Marcos Simón had another idea while working at the Institute of Sound and Vibration Research at the University of Southampton: what if you could give people the experience of spatial sound without using headphones, but with computer vision guiding it directly to their ears?
As cameras have become more powerful and AI has become more sophisticated, the idea of locating a pair of ears in a room and having speakers beaming sound to them is more plausible than it sounded a decade ago. Simón and Audioscenic, the company he founded with colleague Professor Filippo Fazi, have now had its technology incorporated into a consumer product, the Razer Leviathan V2 Pro. And like most ground-breaking products, it’s both disorientating and delightful.
Primarily designed for gamers, it consists of a soundbar that sits under the screen and a subwoofer at floor level. Two of its modes, Stereo and Room Fill, are standard (albeit high-quality) soundbar fare. But its two spatial audio modes (Virtual Headset and Virtual Speakers) use a tiny camera on the soundbar to track any movement of the head and adjust the output. Phase, volume and equalisation of the five speakers within the unit are subtly altered to ensure that the listener is always getting the ultimate stereo picture.
In Virtual Headset mode, stereo sounds designed for headphone listening are rendered incredibly well; you have to remind yourself the sound is emerging from a device in front of you. Virtual Speakers takes 5.1 or 7.1 surround-sound content and subjects it to the same technique, giving you something very close to a multi-speaker experience from a single soundbar and woofer. And you don’t even have to sit still. Razer Leviathan V2 Pro £399.99
The history of 3D entertainment has demonstrated one thing: if consumers have to make any kind of effort – wearing glasses, buying a special cable, seeking out particular formats – they stop caring about it. However, the Nubia (branded in the US as the Leia Lume Pad 2) is a high-spec Android tablet that expertly straddles the 2D and 3D worlds.
Its AI-driven face tracking “steers” 3D pictures and videos to the eyes so they’re always in sharp focus regardless of viewing angle. It can present 2D images in 3D by accurately guessing their depth, and its built-in camera captures in 3D, but the resulting images and videos can be shared and viewed in 2D on standard devices. 3D is back – but this time it’s easy. ZTE Nubia Pad 3D, £1,239
A doctor on your wrist
Many people have a sporadic interest in their health, happily assuming that they’re fine until it becomes clear that they’re not. MymonX, worn on the wrist and with a neat touchscreen interface, offers AI-driven confirmation of wellbeing, quietly keeping tabs on heart activity (via an ECG monitor), blood pressure, oxygenation, respiratory rate, temperature, sleep, physical activity and non-invasive glucose monitoring. Those numbers, whether gathered directly or derived via AI, get shunted to Apple’s Health app or Google’s Health Connect – but a £9.99-a-month subscription also gets you a monthly doctor-reviewed health report where notable changes are flagged up. Its ultimate aim: to head off poor health before it happens. MymonX, £249
The learning cycle
You may associate Acer with budget laptops, but it has a subsidiary, Xplova, dedicated to cycling computers, and some of that tech has found its way into this ebike. The ebii (rhymes with “TV”) works in tandem with an app (ebiiGO), using AI modelling to provide more power when you need it based on cycling conditions and your technique.
It can also intelligently conserve power to make sure your battery doesn’t die halfway through a journey (a common scenario when you’re enjoying a little too much power assistance). Collision detectors, automated lighting (front, back and sides) and security features (automatic locking when you walk away) make it a perfect urban getabout, and at a lean 16kg it feels more nimble than its heftier competitors. Acer ebii, €1,999
Follow that car
Babies learn the skill of focusing on faces by the time they’re around three months old. Historically, cameras have needed our assistance to accomplish this task, but the AI-driven processor in the newest Sony a7R can recognise the presence of a human face (or body) and keep it in sharp focus. No machine learning happens within the camera itself, but it already knows what certain things look like – specifically humans, animals, insects, birds, trains, planes and automobiles – and prioritises them as you shoot. If you want to override its choices, you can take control with a tap of a button. It’s a fearsomely powerful camera, but a joy to use out of the box, too. Some might say, “It’s not real photography because it’s not difficult enough.” They’re wrong. Sony a7R V, £3,999