3D touch and dual cameras for e-commerce

If you are an ecommerce company, then Apple’s path over the last year or so should be making you eager with anticipation. Unlike other technology companies, Apple rarely lays out their vision for their products in advance. Instead they prefer to launch and refine the underlying hardware technologies before launching the actual product or service. Metal and Apple Pay are but couple of the recent items on this checklist.

Last year’s 3D touch promises to evolve into a form where an online customer will be able to actually touch and feel what you are selling online. This will eliminate one more reason for customers to visit physical stores and get a feel of the items they’re buying.

This year’s dual camera system will in parallel will surely drive the effort towards enhancing computer vision. MTailor, which uses your phone camera to take measurements for shirts is but one of the baby steps towards this, and it has been in market for a couple of years already.

I’m sure Amazon is also aware of this, and they’d be among the first to commoditize these technologies on their Fire tablets and play a key role overall once the technology hits mainstream. They definitely missed a big opportunity with the Fire phone that had some interesting sensors, but not the vision (or maybe execution) to use them to the fullest.

Of course it is not just Apple working on the technologies involved, but given their vertical integration and focus, they are easily the only company that has the clout to push the market towards the standardization of the technologies involved (not necessarily interoperability with other platforms though). Google, Facebook and Microsoft (and Valve/Steam) have quite a lot of stuff going on in the AR/VR space, but given their limited influence on the hardware side of things, adoption will be slower than they’d like.

E-Commerce is but the tip of the iceberg of all that’s possible once computer vision and AR take off. Here’s to the next decade of new developments.

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Where Apple is aiming the puck

There weren’t too many surprises on the hardware front with the iPhone 7 release with the usual stream of supply chain leaks and rumours over the last few weeks leading up to the launch. The event pretty much reemphasized that the smartphone market, particularly the high end, has pretty much matured and Apple checked off the niggles over the entry level storage. Apple also broke a trend of sorts with the external design not changing considerably over the previous “s” year, another sign of a maturing market.

There was also a lot of clarity in their positioning of the Apple Watch with the focus shifting to health and fitness, while reducing the emphasis on communication (at least for the time being). It is going to be a while before the Apple Watch is able to turn into a standalone device. The new models in tandem with WatchOS 3 do address some of the performance concerns with the first model, but we’re still some time away from an always on display.

Apple also doubled down on their strengths with the focus on platform exclusives, 3D Touch and pushing the envelope on the camera capabilities. They have also increased the feature gap between the regular and Plus model this year with the camera having a tangible difference in addition to the screen and battery size, along with the increased RAM.

There was of course the loss of the headphone jack that many had predicted and the switch to a non clickable home button. The former is something that many of the Android phone makers have tried to preempt, while the latter is something a majority of the non-iPhone owners are used to. As for the A10 chip, it was a validation of ARM’s big.LITTLE architecture that has been in use by the Android market for over 3 years. Big jumps in performance usually come through node shrinks, and with Moore’s law slowing Apple has its task cut out.

Here are a few thoughts on where things seem to be headed based on Apple’s moves this year:

  • They have pretty much set their sights on the pro camera market with the support for wider colour gamuts on the sensor and display. Plus (pun intended) there’s the dual camera lens bringing back a viable telephoto lens to the smartphone market (sort of – 56mm is closer to normal focal length). People who were hurt with Windows Phone and Nokia’s (Lumia 1020) demise have a proper alternative at last.
  • It’ll be a while before the longer focal length on the iPhone attains the quality of the wider one, but this is just the beginning and we can expect iterations to happen pretty quick now that the ball has been set rolling by the most focussed company. Also, you don’t have to look any farther than this comparison of the original iPhone camera to the iPhone 7 to see what can be done in 10 years.
  • Again, on the photography front, with the Plus introducing a second lens, we get closer to the “holy trinity” of prime lenses which typically refers to a wide-normal-telephoto combination of lenses to cover a majority of shooting options. Technically we’ve got the wide and normal lengths covered. Of course, the iPhone is not going to be replacing DSLRs for specialised purposes (birding, low light action) anytime soon, but you know where we’re headed.
  • This dual lens camera also enables the journey towards computer vision thanks to the depth of field perception. What is today a sort of gimmicky feature previously tried by Android phone makers can potentially be the stepping stone towards AR.
  • Those Intel fab rumours that have been around for the last couple of years might finally be coming true next year.
  • The currently gimmicky, but increasingly exhibited feature of 3D Touch is most likely a stepping stone to a future where the display lets you actually feel the textures of items shown. This would take interaction to the new level and iOS 10 has finally opened up the current haptic engine to developers. Just take a look at Apple’s patents to get a feel (yes) of where things are headed. Maybe it’ll arrive as soon as next year when people expect the 10th anniversary iPhone to have an all display front. Accessibility has been one of Apple’s strengths and they also support Braille displays with their iOS devices. This expertise might just help them overall bringing out the really 3D in the touch. As to what kind of stuff is possible, check out Disney Research (guess which companies share board members?).

So, where does this leave me personally? Well, I just replaced my iPhone 5s battery and it should last me another year quite easily given that the performance has all but improved with iOS 10 (I doubt anyone with a 3 year old Android phone can say the same thing). The iPhone 7 Plus camera is really tempting me to give up my DSLR entirely (I really love shooting with my Canon 50mm f/1.8 prime lens which on a cropped body like the 550D gives an 80mm equivalent focal length), it’s just the first iteration and I find the 5.5″ size too big. Apple Pay has also not launched in India either, so I’m not missing any major feature with the 5s barring the screen size and camera (I do use a Mi 4 as well, so the screen size is even less of an issue). Then there’s the next year’s iPhone of course.

Changing an iPhone 5s battery for Rs 600

My 2+ year old iPhone 5s battery had been behaving quite erratically in the last few months and it used to switch off with the battery levels in the 40s. I finally bit the bullet and decided to replace the battery last week on my own after lots of contemplation on whether to go to an Apple authorised service centre or one of the local Heera Panna like outlets. I did a bit of reading and online tutorial watching which made the whole process seem quite simple and decided to go ahead on my own.

Amazon turned out to be quite useful for the DIY crowd with the battery and toolkit available at throwaway prices (Rs 450 & Rs 140 each). The items arrived pretty quickly as well and I started off with the video open for reference.

What the video fails to convey is the really miniscule size of the screws and the fact that each screw is of a slightly different size. Nonetheless, I managed to take things apart.

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Taking things apart

Yes, those tiny specks you see in the pink bowl are screws, and they are of slightly different heights, so if you are planning a similar endeavour, lay them out in the right sequence with the protection cover to make life easier when putting things back.

Removing the battery was another ball game altogether. I ended up following the method shown in the embedded video and prising the battery off. This is not as easy as it looks in the video as the tape holding it to the body is quite strong. I ended up pretty much deforming the battery when taking it out.

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The old deformed battery next to the new one

Some online tutorials do recommend taking out the tape before removing the battery, which is probably a better option. But you would need to have some tape handy to hold the new battery in place.

Either way, putting things back was even tougher (did I mention the tiny screws?), but I managed to get things done and the phone switched on. Touch ID was the major casualty though the sound from the loudspeakers was also not working at first. I opened up the phone once again as per suggestions online for Touch ID, but to no avail. The loudspeaker fortunately started working after plugging in a headphone and removing it as suggested in this thread.

A week on, the new battery seems to be holding up pretty decently though it’s still not enough to get me through a whole day without a mid-day top up. Still, it’s a lot more reliable than a phone that switches off at 45% charge. Life without Touch ID is also liveable given that there’s no Apple Pay in India or on the 5s.