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14 Jan 2019 Updated 26 Jul 2019

Singapore-backed technology firms make waves at CES

The Business Times Marissa Lee

Innovations from the likes of Creative, Meridian catch the eye of global leaders like Sony and Flir at the pre-eminent tech trade fair

THOSE who are familiar with Creative Technology's Super X-Fi headphone holography may have felt a pinch of déjà vu when Sony unveiled a new "360 Reality Audio" concept at CES in Las Vegas to much fanfare last week.

The Japanese electronics giant promises a sound experience that's "like magic".

A video on its webpage explains: "Until now, with headphones the sound images were inside your head, which is not natural."

A year ago, Creative chief Sim Wong Hoo had described Super X-Fi to The Business Times in the exact same words.

The likeness grew sharper when BT sat through one of Sony's 360 Reality Audio demos during the tech trade show.

Tiny microphones were used to profile the shape of one's ears, together with the assurance that Sony is working to simplify the task with a mobile app that maps the ear.

(A recurring joke during the headphone calibration process was: "Look at this centre speaker here. Don't move, don't breathe - just kidding about the breathing.")

Once calibration was completed, the music that flowed from the headphones was as if it came from an external speaker system.

But there was one key difference compared to the Super X-Fi: Sony's new software is not yet available and still in development.

The demo was also limited to two tracks recorded in a new object-based audio format. Sony did not play any un-remastered tracks for BT.

BT asked Sony if the same experience could be produced for normal tracks pulled off YouTube.

A staff member said what Sony really wants is for the music industry to re-master their music into Sony's new format, because Sony is all about "creator's intent".

He added: "We don't want to take Pharrell's music and make it sound surround sound the way we think it should; we want it to be done the way he thinks it should. Makes sense?"

That was the second time that day a staff member had name-dropped Pharrell Williams. The Sony artist had said at CES days before that 360 Reality Audio was "mind-blowing".

Meanwhile in a smaller demo room away from the main hall, Creative was convincing another group of listeners that Super X-Fi can add three-dimensional detail to sound from stereo and mono tracks.

That is what really excites people, said Creative's Mr Sim: "Every content out there, we can use. We can even use their (Samsung's) content and render it better."

Both Sony and Creative deployed envoys to size up each others' demos.

Asked for his opinion of Sony, Mr Sim said: "Fifteen years ago, we had already used HRTF (head-related transfer function) and applied it to special 3D content. But when applied to headphones, it was not interesting, not inspiring. I refused to use it, as it was not good enough for me. From what was described to me, they may be using such HRTF.

"They appear to be copying many of our ideas in their presentation. I welcome others trying to enter this space, because it serves to educate the market, telling more people headphone audio is wrong or unnatural. It also seems that they are in a different space from what we're doing, so there's even a chance to collaborate."

Lee Teck Chee, vice-president of technology at Creative, said: "We have a playback system, Sony has a playback system. It remains to be seen how good their playback system is because they don't have the working sample. The difference in the end will be how accurately you do the rendering system.

"Depending on how serious they are about this, by next year they might have it but we might be somewhere else already.

Imitation is the best form of flattery, Mr Sim said. Particularly, Mr Lee added, if it involves a big player copying from a small one.

At last tally, Creative's CES awards haul was nine, most of them for Super X-Fi.

Many of the cool concepts displayed each year in Eureka Park, the startup hall of CES, may never find traction. But one local company gave the competition a run for their money.

Meridian Innovation showcased a new low-cost, low-power compact thermal imaging camera that can be built into any device.

"We want to see the invisible; sense what you can't see," chief executive Hock Leow told BT.

"So mysterious right?" said co-founder Hasan Gadjali, before fixing a small adapter to his mobile phone, producing a live thermogram of us. The temperature reading changed as he tapped his finger on different points of the image: "We have an array of single pixels that form an image so I know on every spot, the temperature."

Meridian's tiny SenXor tracks temperature differences to help you "see" through darkness. It's useful for autonomous driving and can track movement in your home while avoiding the privacy concerns that surveillance cameras raise.

Meridian's innovation even attracted the attention of the big boys.

On the first day of CES, engineers from Flir, the world leader in thermal imaging, took turns to monitor Meridian's booth, Mr Gadjali said. The manufacturing process for his thermal camera is more easily scaled for high-volume production than Flir's, he added.

Meridian was incubated in Singapore, where it houses its design headquarters. But its participation in the show was subsidised by Hong Kong, where its clean rooms are located, so it wasn't part of the Singapore Pavilion organised by Enterprise Singapore.

The Singapore Pavilion companies numbered just 17 out of the 4,500 exhibitors at CES, and most were startups clustered under a white Singapore banner in Eureka Park. The 17 excluded bigger boys like ST Engineering, Creative and Razer which flew their own flags.

One visitor expressed concern that some booths were left empty when he tried to pay the Singaporean entrepreneurs a visit in the morning of the second day of the show. "This is not how high-performance companies operate," he said.

BT had more luck when it visited on the first day, and spoke to Sid Mazumdar, the 16-year-old founder of Newton's Meter.

Personal safety devices and wearables were a common sight at CES, and this startup had designed one of the more useful devices on display from Singapore.

Newton's Meter is a small device that pairs an accelerometer with artificial intelligence for sudden impact detection.

Stick the device into your car and if you crash, it will use bluetooth to prompt your phone to send an SOS message with GPS coordinates to your emergency contacts.

Mr Mazumdar said: "I just had an idea that I thought would benefit somebody."

He said he had lots of support from his dad as well as engineers who are prepared to back it "because we think it will work".

Augmented reality (AR) was huge at CES. In the AR and gaming section of the hall for larger companies, visitors did not seem to mind sharing heavily used AR headsets stained with sweat and facial oils, in their eagerness to try out the novelties.

Team Singapore didn't have anything to offer in the AR domain, where real life vision is mixed with computer graphics.

But Nanoveu, a company that's been touting glasses-free 3D for six years now, said it managed to strike up talks with possible business partners this year.

Its product is the EyeFly3D screen protector, which works with a mobile app to display 3D content, without the need for 3D glasses.

Interest in 3D offerings spiked four or five years ago, then faded, but is coming back now, said chief operating officer David Symons.

"There's a real buzz around VR. A lot of content is being shot in side-by-side mode (the format used by both VR and 3D) and people are starting to ask themselves how else can I monetise that content," he said.

In the past, the lower computational power of smartphones also made it difficult to produce a good 3D image but this has changed, Mr Symons said. The drawback with the EyeFly3D is that when it's on a phone's screen, the quality of 2D images and text gets slightly diminished. Striking a balance of good 2D and 3D is "real magic", Mr Symons said.

South Korean startup MOPIC faces the same problem but offers a practical alternative.

Its app-based smartphone cover, Snap3D, can be snapped on and off the screen easily when the content displayed isn't formatted for 3D. It can also snap photographs in 3D.

Elsewhere in the hall, homegrown gaming hardware maker Razer drew a steady stream of traffic and exhibited more new products than ever before.

Haptics, the tactile future of virtual reality, is trending this year and while some firms released haptic body suits that can send out real vibes to various muscles, Razer took a simpler approach.

It previewed HyperSense, a haptic feedback platform that syncs up headphones, mice and backrests that contain haptic motors to specific actions in a PC game, like jumping or firing a gun. Razer swept 15 awards at CES for six products.