Touchless Technology in the Operating Room

I’ve written a few articles in this space on video game consoles, in particular my difficulty choosing between Xbox One and PS4. One of the things I like about the Xbox One is the Microsoft Kinect feature, which can track hand gestures and respond to voice commands.

Microsoft Kinecthas the potential to contribute to something much more important than a video game console. British researchers have been testing the technology for use in vascular surgery, and the success of those initial tests has led to an effort to take it further, into neurosurgery.

When performing surgery, doctors sometimes use images (from X-rays, CT scans, etc) while in the operating room. They have the choice of having someone else manipulate the image to get a better look, or they can do it themselves. Of course, this second option may require the doctor to “re-scrub” to maintain a sterile operating environment and doing this multiple times can be a time-consuming process.

Kinect offers a better way, potentially allowing the surgeon to use voice commands and hand gestures to keep the operating environment sterile. Of course, Kinect reportedly does have some issues with recognizing voices, so the technology is not yet a perfect solution (for gamers or surgeons, for that matter), but the possibilities are fascinating.

Report: iPhone “Kill Switch” Serves Intended Purpose

A recently released report by state attorneys general, prosecutors, police and other officials, conducted as part of an initiative known as “Secure Our Smartphones,” has concluded that Apple’s addition of a “kill switch” in its iPhone handsets has resulted in a drastic reduction in the number of thefts.

The kill switch allows the phone’s owner to render the phone unusable should it be stolen, thus eliminating any possibility of resale.

Consumer Reports estimated that 3.1 million mobile devices were stolen in 2013, twice the number reported in 2012.

Dramatic declines were seen across the country—robberies of Apple products in New York City fell by 19% in the first five months of 2014 compared to the previous year. Similar decreases were reported in San Francisco and London. Over the same time period, thefts involving Samsung smartphones increased by 40%. (Samsung introduced a kill switch feature in their phones in April.)

In response to these numbers, Google and Microsoft have announced that they will incorporate a similar feature into the next version of their smartphones’ operating systems.

“The statistics released today illustrate the stunning effectiveness of kill switches,” said New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. “The commitments of Google and Microsoft are giant steps toward consumer safety.”

Viewers Have Mixed Feelings on Camera-Enabled Set-Top Boxes

Consumers seem to have mixed feelings about the idea of TV providers monitoring their movements through camera-enabled set-top boxes. Providers could use these “spy” set-tops to serve targeted ads or program recommendations to users.

According to a survey from the research firm Strategy Analytics, 30% of consumers surveyed said they would “never” accept such monitoring and 13% said they “probably” would reject such a service. However, other consumers seemed to be more open to the idea of camera-enabled set-top boxes as 14% of those surveyed said they “don’t mind at all,” and 44% were either neutral or had only “a few reservations.”

Microsoft already provides voice and gesture-based controls with the Xbox’s Kinect attachment, but those features can be disabled by consumers. Intel has also stated that it will utilize a camera-enabled set-top box for its over-the-top TV service, but like Microsoft, users will be able to turn off the feature. Read more

Microsoft Reveals ‘XBox One’

After four years in development, Microsoft recently announced plans to release Xbox One. This is Microsoft’s first new game console in eight years. The company has not given an exact release date or stated the price of the new system, but it’s likely to be released in time for the holiday shopping season.

According to Microsoft, Xbox One will be much more than a game system: it’s being promoted as not just a console but an all-in-one device that funnels games, live TV, video-on-demand and even Web chat to users, allowing them to move easily between these functions. The new device is designed to interact with users’ televisions, will respond to both voice and gesture commands and will have an integrated Skype function.

Microsoft also announced a partnership with the NFL, under which Xbox One users will enjoy a number of interesting, exclusive features. Users will be able to track their fantasy football stats on screen in real time, and will be able to talk to friends during games via Skype, all on the same TV screen. Read more

Microsoft Unveils Skype for Outlook.com

Last week, Microsoft introduced a preview edition of Skype for Outlook.com in the UK. The product is scheduled to be rolled out in the United States and Germany in the coming weeks.

The new product will feature the ability to engage in video and audio calling powered by Skype embedded in every Outlook.com (a free email service) inbox. Once set up, a user reading an email on Outlook.com can simply move their cursor over the picture of the person who sent an email, or of anyone in their contacts, and initiate a Skype call or chat session. Once a user’s Skype and Microsoft accounts are merged, their Skype contacts will merge into Outlook.com. Set-up requires the download of a plug-in for users’ Internet browser, although only the most recent versions of Internet Explorer, Chrome and Firefox are supported. Details on additional browser support are forthcoming.

When Microsoft purchased Skype in 2011, critics questioned how the two companies with such different services could merge their products in a way that made sense to consumers. Two years later, Skype for Outlook.com represents the first major step towards integrating the two services.

Microsoft recently launched a new version of Outlook.com, and claims it has not only been a wild success (with 60 million users), but that it is attracting numerous Gmail users. The new Outlook.com replaced Hotmail, which had for several years been badly languishing behind Gmail. Bing has been slowly increasing its market share, and the success of Outlook.com may have given Microsoft some momentum. The launch of Skype for Outlook.com may continue that momentum and enable Microsoft to push back on Google’s market share.

Skype Nears $2B in Annual Sales

Bloomberg reported last week that Skype is approaching $2 billion in annual sales. As you may remember, Microsoft paid $8.5 billion to buy Skype in 2011, and, at the time, Skype had about $800 million in sales.

The software giant is busy integrating its Lync Internet calling application, which is popular with business users, with its consumer-friendly Skype unit. Microsoft anticipates that by June 2013, Lync users will be able to connect to Skype for telephony, instant messaging and to see whether contacts are online, according to a blog post by Skype President Tony Bates.

In related news, last Friday Skype quietly launched a new video messaging service that delivers short recorded clips to Skype contacts for playback when they come online.

The beta service is part of the Skype Premium package that costs $10 per month, and it is restricted to certain platforms, including users running Skype on Android, Apple’s iPhone and Mac OS X computers. However, nonsubscribers are allotted 20 free messages over the next three months in order to test drive the service.

Skype plans to launch the new video messaging service to all users later this year. For now, “We’re looking for feedback,” said Chaim Haas, a spokesman for Skype, adding that the company’s Twitter and Facebook page will accept user reviews and information.

Microsoft CEO Tells of a Shift in the Business

Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s recent letter to shareholders said, “It’s important to recognize a fundamental shift underway in our business and the areas of technology that we believe will drive the greatest opportunity in the future.” The letter was released October 9 in Microsoft’s 2012 annual report.

Along with reporting that fiscal year 2012 revenue grew to $73.7 billion, he revealed that due to strong cost discipline, cash flow resulted in $31.6 billion, up 17% from the previous year.  He reported that Microsoft returned $10.7 billion to shareholders in stock buybacks and dividends.

The “shift in business” is the primary focus of his letter, and he describes how Microsoft will attempt to handle the change as the future unfolds. Ballmer observes that people use Microsoft software, devices and services “at work, and in their personal lives.”  He said, “This is a significant shift, both in what we do and how we see ourselves—as a devices and services company.” Ballmer goes on to say that accomplishments and developments this year along with the company “roadmap in front of us brings this to life.” Read more

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