Monthly Archives: May 2016

Transforming the global conversation

No wonder so many of us blunder into lamp-posts and each other rather than looking where we’re going.

But which dedicated chat app do you use? WhatsApp, Snapchat, Viber, Line? That largely depends on where in the world you live.

In China the biggest chat network is WeChat; in Japan the market leader is Line; KakaoTalk rules OK in Korea; Kik is huge in Canada and the US; Hike bosses India; while in the Arab world niche networks such as Palringo and Soma dominate.

And the number of chat platforms continues to proliferate, as tech companies aim to emulate the eye-watering valuations achieved by the leaders.

Snapchat was recently valued at nearly $20bn (£15bn). Facebook bought WhatsApp for $22bn in 2014 and this week changed the app’s privacy policy to allow businesses to message its billion-plus users directly.

In July, Line raised about $1.3bn in a stock market flotation that valued the company at around $6bn. And now chat networks are even investing in each other, with China’s WeChat recently leading a $175m funding round in India’s Hike network.

But can the market sustain so many platforms? Can we have too much chat?

Talkaholics

In 1993, US researchers James C McCroskey and Virginia P Richmond created the Talkaholic Scale, a method of identifying people who were aware of their tendencies to “over-communicate in a consistent and compulsive manner”.

Initially it was SMS and text messaging that made such communication compulsive. Then it was instant messaging with text, photos and videos.

And now you can access banking, shopping and other services within these chat apps.

“WhatsApp, WeChat, Line, Snapchat and a handful of others would seem to have the platform side sewn up as we head towards a one-stop-shop approach, where messaging apps become almost a command line for people’s lives,” says Eamonn Carey from Techstars, the tech start-up accelerator.

So how do the newcomers differentiate themselves in such a crowded market and keep their users loyal?

Chat goes niche

The trend is towards chat that can be conducted in a safe place by users who share a common interest.

“Niche networks will have a big role to play in what otherwise is a saturated market,” says Mr Carey.

For example, London-based Palringo is a social chat platform that helps people find games that can be played in chat groups of up to 2,000 people.

Stealing all your firm’s secrets

These days, you don’t need to sit outside in a van with your headphones on, listening to static for an hour before the battery runs out and the tape recorder gives a tell-tale clunk.

Tiny matchbox-sized gadgets are now capable of transmitting audio and video for hours on end to the other side of the world.

Not only that, but we are all constantly connected to the internet via mobile phones and computers, and happily share details of our work and home life on social media – all valuable information for spies.

For experts like Alex Bomberg, whose company International Intelligence provides counter espionage services to large organisations, the result is that the threats to company security are now almost too many to count.

He is casting his eye over one corporate head office to demonstrate the kind of things he “sweeps” for when giving security advice.

The organisation doesn’t want to be named – no-one is keen to have their security weaknesses pointed out publicly. Despite having identity passes and security guards, the company is still vulnerable, he says.

Traditional vulnerabilities, such as sensitive documents casually thrown into the bin or poorly paid cleaning and security staff being bribed to steal secrets, are now being amplified by technology.

Almost every meeting room is furnished with a conference phone that could be hacked. Anyone with a portable memory stick and a few minutes at a work station could download vast amounts of data or upload a virus. If you chuck out an old photocopier these days, the hard drive can hold years of stored data.

And corporate spies are continually developing new tech-based tricks.

“You pre-load a USB [memory] stick [with malware], and leave it where someone will find it,” says Mr Bomberg. “It’s human nature to wonder whose it is… especially if it says Accounts or HR on it.”

And then there’s the smartphone.

“They are very, very dangerous things,” he says. “You are bringing basically a transmitting device into a building.”

We are all effectively carrying the perfect James Bond gadget in our pockets.

“A lot of the larger companies now are creating sterile areas in which to hold a meeting. You can’t even take your mobile phone in, which is very good practice, because what have we got on our phones? A microphone.”

When it comes to business travel, executives are routinely advised nowadays to check a hotel suite thoroughly for listening devices, not to leave their laptop unattended, and to shun public wi-fi networks.

‘They’re investigating you’

But the most effective corporate espionage attacks of recent times have relied as much on human frailty as technology.

Former FBI agent Eric O’Neill is National Security Strategist at the Washington-based cybersecurity company, Carbon Black.

He says the race between virus and antivirus software has reached a stalemate – the new battleground is personal.

“Today, attackers are using sophisticated, ‘spear-phishing’ attacks,” says Mr O’Neill.

 

These are emails that have been carefully tailored to chime in with your own interests and experiences, using personal details gleaned about you from social media and elsewhere.

“They’re investigating you,” he says. “They’re learning about an individual and putting together emails that people will click on.”

The email might suggest your local golf shop is having a sale, for example, or that the renovation work on your office building is near completion. The aim is usually to entice you to click on a link containing malware.

In 2014, the US accused five Chinese military officers of spying on US industrial giants – including Alcoa, Solarworld, US Steel and Westinghouse – by sending emails that appeared to come from executives within the company, the US indictment said.

Hech helping Your Work

But not through my ears. I’m wearing a SubPac, which is strapped on to my back and allows me to feel the beat of the music as it thumps through my body.

Chris is trying to replicate what it would feel like if, like him, I were deaf. And this is his aim – to give the opportunity for deaf dancers in his classes to feel the music so they can learn his choreography with ease.

“Dance classes are always so fast-paced, and without being able to hear the music you end up just being out of time,” says Chris.

The SubPac, which is widely used in the music world to help music producers feel the music without damaging their ears, works by transferring low, bass frequencies directly to your body, providing the physical dimension to sound.

As soon as his aunty introduced him to music videos, dancing became a passion for Chris. But when he became deaf at a young age, after having meningitis, he thought his dreams of dancing and choreography were over.

Through his love of dance, Chris persevered, joining dance classes at the back and allowing his natural ability to shine through.

But he knew that not every deaf dancer would be as confident as him without being able to hear the music.

James Williams, who does business development for SubPac, tells the BBC: “Giving Chris, and those with hearing impairments the ability to experience something that we all take for granted is a rare opportunity.

“Since the focus is on physicality, the SubPac is great for helping dancers with hearing problems to dance in time to the beat.”

Sport for all

And technology is giving people with all kinds of disabilities the chance to stay active and keep fit.

Take Simon Wheatcroft, who lost his sight at 17.

Simon was born with the genetic degenerative eye condition retinitis pigmentosa (RP), which causes gradual deterioration of the retina. But that hasn’t stopped Simon becoming an ultra-marathon runner.

“I started running for something to do. I used a guide dog to run outside or went running with other people,” he says.

 

He has run the New York marathon and many much longer races, normally with a human guide. But what happens when you want to run solo?

In a bid to do a 155-mile ultra-marathon in the Namibian desert this May he turned to IBM Bluemix – the tech giant’s app development arm – to help him create an app.

Called eAscot after his guide dog, the app uses sensors, similar to car parking sensors, and satellite navigation to help him stay on course.

A desert race can be broken down into a series of straight lines, each with its own bearing on a compass. If he veers off to the right, the app emits a high-pitched beep that increases in frequency the further away he goes. If he runs too far left, low pitch beeps warn him.

Silence means he’s heading in the right direction.

“I was tired and in pain after the marathons, but I was also happy knowing I had achieved something that once seemed impossible, made possible thanks to technology,” says Simon.

“What sticks with me is the feeling of accomplishment,” he adds. “Being able to do something that had never been done before. To create an application in a matter of weeks that changed what was possible for visually impaired runners felt even better than completing any race.”

In it to win it

Paralympians, too, are using technology to help them compete at the highest level.

Advances in 3D printing, lightweight materials and computer design are having an impact in a number of areas, from tailor-made racing wheelchairs to aerodynamic prosthetic limbs.

“The technology being used, such as 3D tech, is evolving every year and we will see a wide range of new advancements at the upcoming Paralympics that will aid those competing to achieve even greater records across all disciplines,” says Nick Braund, head of tech and innovation at PHA Media.

Designworks carried out full body scans of track and field athletes in the US Paralympics team to create the sporty racing wheelchairs.

But what about assistive technology for everyday sports?