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The Future

Tomorrow’s cities: How big data is changing the world



A crowd
Should happiness become a general measurement of city life?

You may not be that bothered about the idea of living in a smart city but I bet you’d love to live in one that was happy.

The data to measure the happiness of a city is already all around us, in the tweets we send on an hourly basis to the profiles we share on Facebook.

And increasingly that data is being captured and analysed to gauge the health and happiness of a nation.

Take the Hedonometer project which this year set out to map happiness levels in cities across the US using data from Twitter.

Using 37 million geolocated tweets from more than 180,000 people in the US, the team from the Advanced Computing Centre at the University of Vermont rated words as either happy or sad.

As well as discovering, somewhat depressingly, that people were happiest when they were further away from home, the study threw up some interesting facts about how healthy they were too.

It found words such as “starving” and “heartburn” were written far more frequently in cities with a high percentage of obese citizens.

Such data could be incredibly useful to city governments, for informing them about what policies were needed in any given area.

“Cities looking to understand changes in the behaviour of their citizens, for example to locate ads for public health programmes, can look to social media for real-time information,” said Chris Danforth, one of the project leaders.

Data overload


Twitter Map
  • Each engine of a jet on a flight from London to New York generates 10TB of data every 30 minutes
  • In 2013 internet data, mostly user-contributed, will account for 1,000 exabytes. An exabyte is a unit of information equal to one quintillion bytes
  • Open weather data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association has an annual estimated value of $10bn
  • Every day we create 2.5 quintillion bytes of data
  • 90% of the data in the world today has been created in the past two years
  • Every minute 100,000 tweets are sent globally
  • Google receives two million search requests every minute

Back in 2010 Google chief executive Eric Schmidt noted that the amount of data collected since the dawn of humanity until 2003 was the equivalent to the volume we now produce every two days.

This data comes not only from posts to social media sites, mobile signals and purchase transactions but increasingly from sensors on objects from lamp-posts to skyscrapers.

The so-called internet of things offers a new way to analyse and measure city life, from whether water pipes are leaking to how traffic is flowing on the roads and whether buildings are using energy in the most efficient way.

A prediction from architect and urban planner Prof Mike Batty back in 1997 that by 2050 everything around us would be some form of computer is already starting to come true.

In Birmingham, lamp-posts are being fitted with sensors that can transmit information about cloud cover to offer hyper-local weather forecasting.

In Norway, more than 40,000 bus stops are tweeting, allowing passengers to leave messages about their experiences, and in London the mayor’s office has just begun a project to tag trees so that people can learn about their history.

Sensors on objects also allow people to tell stories about city life in whole new ways.

At MIT’s Senseable City Lab, 5,000 pieces of rubbish in Seattle were geo-tagged and tracked around the country for three months to find out whether recycling was really efficient.

The project proved three things, Carlo Ratti, head of the lab, told the BBC.

“The project showed us that we need to design a better system because some of this stuff was moving thousands of miles in the wrong direction.

Raining taxis, MIT Senseable City Lab
MIT is using weather data to guide taxi drivers in Singapore to where it is going to rain

“It also promoted behavioural change. We shared the information with citizens and one guy stopped drinking water in plastic bottles when he saw that [they were] all going straight to landfill.”

A third, more unexpected result of the trial happened when a burglar stole some of the tags from the labs.

“It was very funny and it didn’t take the police long to trace him,” said Dr Ratti.

Now the team is working on a project in Singapore which offers advanced weather forecasts to taxi drivers to get them to places in the city ten minutes before it starts to rain.

Fridge sensors

Big data is not always such fun.

Supermarket chain Tesco is installing sensors across its stores to reduce heating and lighting costs.

The records of the fridge systems in one store alone produce 70 million data points a year.

“How do you make sense of that amount of data?” asked John Walsh, energy manager for Tesco Ireland.

And in this case the only objective is to run the fridges more efficiently.

Escalate that to a city, with data from transport systems, utilities, rubbish collection, hospitals, schools, offices and government, and the scale of the problem is obvious.

Tesco turned to IBM’s data analytics, also used by many cities.

City planning

3D visualisation of Vancouver
Vancouver is making sense of data using a 3D visualisation of the city

Computer-aided design company Autodesk has been working with San Francisco, Vancouver and Bamberg, in southern Germany, to build 3D visualisations over which government can overlay data sets to see how a city is performing at any time.

Presenting data in new ways has had surprising consequences.

In Germany the model was used to show people what the impact of a new railway line would be.

“It was almost like a gaming environment. People could put it on their iPad and zoom around the model,” said Phil Bernstein, vice-president of industry relations at Autodesk.

Previously anyone wanting to get involved in city planning would have had to make a trip to the town hall to look at maps that they may not have understood. Making them have much more visual impact could revolutionise how cities are built, he thinks.

“It is a political act as well as a technical act. It makes the decision-making process transparent and democratic, and the design process more inclusive.”

Digital copy

Code with words Big Brother is Watching embedded
With data increasingly becoming a commodity, how do we protect our own?

Whether we like it or not, we are already starting to interact with our cities, whether via the text message that offers you 20% off purchases from the shop you have just walked past or location-sensing apps on our smartphones that tell us about the nearest coffee bar.

“My phone knows that I normally work until 17:30 and knows the next bus I should catch before I even ask it. It is beginning to predict my life,” said Andrew Hudson-Smith, who heads University College of London’s Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis.

We are basically building a digital copy of our physical world and that is having profound consequences”

Carlo Ratti Director of MIT’s Senseable Cities Lab

“I could turn it off but I don’t because I find it very useful but I am basically giving everything to Google. It is fantastic but scary at the same time and shifts the way the world works,” he said.

His lab has been at the forefront of some big data collection projects, and while he sees huge value in it for researchers he recognises that it raises huge ethical issues.

“We can collect every tweet. People have clicked “yes” to those terms but don’t realise that everything you share can be collected. We could be walking blindly into a 24/7 surveillance society,” he said.

Nick Pickles, director of privacy campaign group Big Brother Watch, agrees that big data could become just another word for Big Brother.

“The core functionality of a smart city requires a vast amount data to be collected on every aspect of our lives every minute of every day. The question is how does that data get used? And it doesn’t require a huge amount of imagination to see how it could be used to monitor people in a very real Big Brother way.

“At present the control of information is being taken away from citizens, and companies providing services are rushing to find ways of generating revenue from the data they hold. The danger is that when smart cities become a reality, individuals will not be able to control the ways they are monitored or what happens to the information, which is exactly the opposite of how it should be.”

The issue has huge implications for society and is going to need serious debate, Dr Ratti believes.

“We do need to think about how we want tomorrow’s society to work but it is a bigger discussion than just smart cities,” he said.

“We are basically building a digital copy of our physical world and that is having profound consequences.”


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The Future

This PS5 upgrade will give gamers the ‘fastest data loading ever’




Sony hasn’t been shy at talking up the PS5’s proprietary 825GB SSD and the performance enhancement gamers can expect as a result when the console launches on November 12. But surprisingly, it appears the company may have been selling its true potential short, according to one development tool maker.

Charles Bloom, a data compression specialist working at RAD Game Tools, has written a lengthy blog post explaining how the company’s Oodle Kraken technology will help give the PS5 “the fastest data loading ever available in a mass market consumer device.” In fact, Bloom continues, “we think it may be even better than you have previously heard.”

We’re not going to sugarcoat it: the blog post is long and very technical. The main point, however, is that the fast SSD, CPU-dependent IO stack and Kraken hardware decoder combines in a way that makes it greater than the sum of its parts. Kraken, Bloom writes, “acts as a multiplier for the IO speed and disk capacity” which both ensures faster loading times and smaller install footprints.

“Sony has previously published that the SSD is capable of 5.5 GB/s and expected decompressed bandwidth around 8-9 GB/s, based on measurements of average compression ratios of games around 1.5 to 1,” Bloom explains.

“While Kraken is an excellent generic compressor, it struggled to find usable patterns on a crucial type of content: GPU textures, which make up a large fraction of game content. Since then we’ve made huge progress on improving the compression ratio of GPU textures, with Oodle Texture which encodes them such that subsequent Kraken compression can find patterns it can exploit. The result is that we expect the average compression ratio of games to be much better in the future, closer to 2 to 1.”

But it doesn’t stop there. “Good data compression also improves game download times, and lets you store more games on disk,” Bloom explains, with the compression ratio acting as “an effective multiplier for download speed and disk capacity.”

The long and short of it? “A game might use 80 GB uncompressed, but with 2 to 1 compression it only take 40 GB on disk, letting you store twice as many games. A smaller disk with better compression can hold more games than a larger disk with worse compression.”

Things might get better over time, as well, because the company’s latest Oodle Texture technology, which promises the best compression results, is new enough that not every launch title will benefit. But, Bloom says, the team “expect it to to be in the majority of PS5 games in the future.”

You can read the full explainer on Charles Bloom’s blog, but for most consumers, the headline will be enough: the PS5 has some very clever technology that massively improves the way data is both stored and accessed. The upshot to you? Your console’s storage should go further, and long load times should be a thing of the past. Roll on November 12.


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The Future

PS5 might get new PSVR motion controllers for next-gen virtual reality




There has been plenty to indicate that a new PSVR 2 headset is in the works for PS5, and the uncovering of a new patent puts more weight behind the idea that next-generation virtual reality will be accompanying Sony’s next-generation console.

As spotted by LetsGoDigital, the controller ditches the wand-like design of the ageing PlayStation Move controllers (first introduced way back 10 years ago in the Playstation 3 generation), and instead shows a joystick-equipped grip with a halo-like band surrounding it.

The patent (detailed in a 34-page document filed back in March 2020), discusses how  a single controller could be used, or a pair in tandem. As well as standard face buttons and joysticks, the controller would also support triggers and a touch sensor, which could be optionally added.

(Image credit: Sony / LetsGoDigital)

The controllers would require an external camera in order for their movements to be followed, with the suggestion that a camera on the VR headset itself could be picking up light-emitting parts on the curved surface of the controller, or a totally external, separate camera accessory.

Sony has already confirmed that PSVR will be compatible with the PS5 (though the need for a new camera adapter may prevent it being used at launch), and Sony continues to support the current generation virtual reality headset with new games and experiences, such as Hitman 3 and Vader Immortal. With products like the Oculus Quest 2 now on sale, Sony’s current headset would be starting to look a little aged next to a brand new console however.

As well as more refined controllers, we’d hope that the PSVR’s display would get a resolution boost, with additional processing power allowing for higher frame rates to ease issues some suffer from with motion sickness. A fully wireless headset would also bring Sony’s offering in line with the likes of Oculus’s range, and the HTC Vive Cosmos – though no company has yet managed to master the issue of lag between a wireless headset and an external processing device like a PC or games console, which would be a hurdle Sony would have to clear.


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The Future

The sequel to Sony’s PlayStation Phone apparently leaks, eight years too late




Cast your mind back, if you can, to the tender world of gadgets circa 2011. Apple had just launched Siri on the iPhone, Google was making its biggest push into social networking with Google Plus, and Sony had decided it was time to release a true gaming smartphone: the much-anticipated “PlayStation Phone,” officially dubbed the Xperia Play.

It was not, by any means, a great success. A 2011 Engadget review praised the phone’s sliding mechanism and gamepad but bemoaned its dim screen and lack of playable titles. The device had its fans, though, many of whom were excited in 2012 by whispers of an Xperia Play 2. This promised sequel never emerged, but eight years after the PlayStation Phone 2 was first rumored, images purportedly showing the device have appeared online.

Pictures of the phone were shared on the Xperia subreddit by a user who found a listing for the device on Idle Fish, a Chinese secondhand goods store operated by Alibaba. The seller says the phone is only a prototype and there’s no way to verify its authenticity. The seller’s shop, though, suggests they have some sources in the world of obsolete tech, with other listings including a PS3 devkit and classic keyboards like the venerated IBM Model F.

The device has left and right shoulder buttons, as well as the usual D-pad and PlayStation buttons. 
Image: via Idle Fish
Yes it turns on! But it’s not clear if it can do more than that. 
Image: via Idle Fish
The rear of the device shows Sony’s old Xperia branding.
 Image: via Idle Fish

The phone certainly looks the part. It’s got the same slide-out mechanism as the original Xperia Play and the PSP Go, a D-pad, a set of standard PlayStation buttons, left and right shoulder buttons, and Xperia branding on the rear. There’s also a mysterious “3D” button, which was perhaps for features similar to the stereoscopic display on Nintendo’s 3DS.

Notably, the front of the phone has capacitive buttons instead of hardware buttons. That’s consistent with changes to the design of Xperia phones from 2012 onward, and it matches a leaked render of the Xperia Play 2 that did the rounds on gadget blogs back in 2012. In other words: this may well be the real deal, but we have no way of knowing for sure.

It’s certainly interesting to think, though, what might have happened if the Xperia Play had found a market. Would gaming smartphones have become mainstream instead of a niche, if persistent, product category? Despite its limitations, the Xperia Play reportedly handled PlayStation games extremely smoothly (check out this video review of the device from 2019 for an in-depth look) and who wouldn’t want to have the PS1’s back catalog in their pocket?

But Sony apparently thought the hybrid approach just wasn’t worth it. Indeed, in 2011, it also released the PS Vita: the successor to the PSP which handily took care of any Sony fans looking for a reliable and portable gaming experience.

And in 2020, it’s hard to imagine a dedicated gaming phone ever making a comeback. Why bother when you can simply stream most console games to your smartphone of choice? If the Xperia Play 2 has finally surfaced, it’s only as a shipwreck of a long-forgotten age.


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