Medibank launches VR for Australian hospitals on Google Daydream View

Australian health insurer Medibank has launched an immersive virtual reality (VR) experience for Australian hospitals on Google Daydream View, in collaboration with a group of neuropsychologists at Melbourne-based VR developers Liminal.

The “Joy” experience, which was entirely designed in 3D using Google’s Tilt Brush, provides hospital patients with a virtual experience to attempt to relieve loneliness and isolation, particularly for long-stay patients with restricted mobility.

From their hospital bed, users are transported to a computer-generated setting in a natural Australian landscape, around a campfire with a group of people and a sleeping dog. They can then choose from a selection of stories to be read to them by the attendee within the experience.

Sami Yamin, a clinical neuropsychologist and neuroscientist who works as head of research at Liminal, told ZDNet that Medibank had conducted research regarding loneliness in Australia before reaching out to Liminal for help to develop a new virtual solution.

“Long-stay hospital patients often really suffer from loneliness and isolation because they’re not necessarily able to access the community,” he said. “It’s sort of a growing problem within this specific context.”

The Joy experience was designed specifically for less able users, such as long-stay patients with debilitating injuries, and requires limited movement or interaction. Yamin said that Google Daydream View was perfect for the project over something like Gear VR, which requires more control of the head-mounted display by the user.

“We really had to think about what was reasonable for long-stay hospital patients to be able to do … something which was relatively passive but still gave the sense of community. So if someone had a spinal injury, and had had very little movement in their neck or below the neck, they’d still be able to enjoy the experience,” Yamin said.

“Using the Google platform was really important to us because of the fact that it’s the best mobile platform that’s available at this point in time. The Pixel phone has an amazing resolution, it has a lot of the power of the corded devices.

“Portability was a really big issue for us, so having something that was tethered was not an option. Room-based tracking would have been far too hard to set up. [Google Daydream View] just kind of made sense to us.”

Yamin added that although Daydream View’s interactivity is a bit more limited than other VR devices, it wasn’t a disadvantage given what Liminal was looking to achieve with Joy.

For the Joy experience, Liminal also encompassed several elements of neuroscience and neuropsychology to benefit the user on a deeper level. Rather than just a random setting, the elements that make up Joy’s genereated environment were chosen based on both the psychological and physical effects they could have on the user, such as reducing anxiety, lowering blood pressure, and activating the parasympathetic nervous system.

“[A campfire] from an evolutionary psychology perspective is something which is really innate within the majority of cultures,” Yamin said. “Historically, often campfires are where communities came to exchange stories. We know that natural environments are great for reducing depression and anxiety. We found research that suggested that fire was a really strong and powerful symbol of community and also looking at a fire has positive physiological effects.

“We wanted it to be familiar as well, not a completely removed situation. We wanted it to be sort of transportative, taking them out of their current four walls and taking them into another place, even if it’s for a short period of time.”

Medibank and Liminal are taking the Joy experience to around five or six hospitals this weekend before a nationwide rollout.

Yamin said virtual reality has practical applications for treating a number of psychological conditions, and helping with rehabilitation, exposure therapy, or specific phobias.

“In terms of being able to diagnose deficits in cognition or visual perception, in a 3D environment it’s just far far better [for treatment than] the things we still rely on paper and pencil for, or 2D computer screens,” he said.

Earlier this year, Victoria-based Build VR rolled out their Solis VR unit for Australian care homes, a Gear VR handset that features video scenarios that try to trigger positive emotions for dementia patients, even for those in the later stages who are often responsive to very little.

Marc Pascal, co-founder of Build VR, said that ideally the company wanted to customise a VR experience for those living with dementia. Potentially, personalised video content, such as a grandchild’s birthday party, could be uploaded on the same day it happened, allowing less active patients to experience the event as if they’re there.

“You could have, potentially, in the near future, an old man connecting with his grandson and doing a trip through his hometown together,” Pascal said. “In terms of dementia, it’s really about doing everything we can to bring back those memories.”

In a slightly different take, Alzheimer’s Australia Vic and Deakin University released a free app in September, allowing anyone with a smartphone and Google Cardboard to see through the eyes of a person living with dementia in an attempt to create empathy for those with the condition.


Spark launches ‘gigabit’ broadband at 700-900Mbps speeds

New Zealand telecommunications provider Spark has launched its Ultra Fast Fibre MAX broadband service, providing customers with claimed “gigabit” speeds of between 700Mbps to 900Mbps down and 400Mbps up.

Spark said that the new plan, which achieved speeds of up to 930Mbps in trials, is the fastest residential broadband service that they offer.

The telco is offering Ultra Fast Fibre MAX phone and broadband bundles with unlimited data for NZ$149.99 a month or broadband only for NZ$139.99; for businesses, broadband and landline bundles cost NZ$212.85 with unlimited data or NZ$179.85 for broadband only with unlimited data.

Spark customers connected to New Zealand’s Ultra Fast Broadband network can purchase a package in all areas apart from Queenstown, Greymouth, Oamaru, and Whakatane, where network upgrades are still being performed.

All plans come with Spark’s TV streaming service Lightbox and 1GB a day of free public Wi-Fi.

Spark also announced on Thursday that it is acquiring the remaining 50 percent of construction joint venture Connect 8 from partner Vocus Communications for an undisclosed amount, and will now own the venture outright.

Spark and Vocus formed Connect 8 in February last year for additional fibre construction and delivery capability, with Spark acquiring half of the joint venture for an upfront cash payment and an agreed annual construction spend.

“Spark already connects cities, exchanges, and datacentrres around New Zeland to fibre,” said Mark Beder, chief operating officer for Spark. “Given our extensive existing fibre footprint and our goals to be the market leader in data and digital services, full ownership of Connect 8 makes strategic sense. It gives us even more flexibility, capacity, and control over our fibre construction and delivery.”

Spark said the venture will continue to construct fibre and telecommunications assets for New Zealand telco providers. The purchase will provide the telco with extra capability for its fibre replacement program and the expansion of the Optical Transport Network, as well as support its goal of establishing CBD-owned fibre position in Wellington and Auckland, it added.

Spark recently announced its partnership with Chorus for a week-long trial of Spark’s “street in a week” fibre installation program. The trials, which begin in Whakatane on December 12, will offer 400 premises a fibre upgrade from their legacy copper service.

Spark highlighted the importance to move people off of the “fault-prone copper” service.

“Chorus copper lines are a legacy technology; they are getting older and are increasingly prone to faults,” the telco said.

Earlier this year, Spark recorded NZ$370 million in net profit for the 2015-16 financial year, attributed to an increasing mobile and cloud users. Earnings before interest, tax, depreciation, and amortisation (EBITDA) came to NZ$986 million, up 2.5 percent from the NZ$962 million reported for the previous financial year.

It had previously announced changes to its executive teams as part of their proposed “strategic transformation” from a traditional telco towards a digital services provider. As part of this, the telco’s Spark Connect business was split in two to form Spark Connect, which will focus on connectivity, and Spark Platforms, which will “design, develop, and operate best-practice digital platforms and the core products enabled by them”, according to Spark managing director Simon Moutter.


Broadband monitors TrueNet has found that it is quicker to download an Australian webpage from a New Zealand ADSL connection than it is using ADSL in Sydney, as shown in its October 2016 Urban Broadband Report.

The firm measured Australian-based TPG ADSL users in Melbourne and Sydney against ADSL users on several New Zealand ISPs.

Maximum, minimum and average times to download a single Australian web page.

(Image: TrueNet)

For the total time to download three Australian websites with ADSL, Spark, Slingshot, and Orcon took 1.1 seconds, Flip and 2Degrees took 1.2 seconds, and Vodafone NZ 1.5 seconds. TPG, on the other hand, took 1.7 seconds to download.

TPG also clocked the longest download time for three US-based web pages with ADSL, at 3.7 seconds, as well as for the New Zealand based web pages, which took the Australian provider a total of 18.5 seconds, compared to Slingshot’s 6.7 seconds and Spark’s 9.2 seconds.

TPG was the worst at downloading Australian and US websites than any New Zealand ISP they measured, according to the firm.

“Their performance downloading Australian websites (from Australia) demonstrates how far behind NZ they are, with all NZ ISPs having a far better performance for downloading the same Australian websites,” TrueNet said in its report.

The Australian Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO) revealed last month that complaints about internet services in Australia had risen 22 percent between 2014-15 and 2015-16.

According to its Annual Report 2015-16 [PDF], new complaints about iiNet rose 48.2 percent across all service types throughout the year, while its owner TPG saw an overall increase in complaints of 7.4 percent.

The TIO also reported that complaints about Optus increased during the year, jumping by 18.2 percent. Complaints about landline and internet services increased, while complaints about mobile services decreased.

Optus CEO Allen Lew previously said during Optus’ financial results that Optus’ complaints statistics “remain an area of concern” for the telco.

“I think we certainly take a look at the TIO data very closely, we are not happy with the fact that our numbers … are still high,” Lew said.

With AAP

Digital Transformation Agency chief digital officer Paul Shetler resigns

Paul Shetler has resigned from the position of chief digital officer for the Australian Digital Transformation Agency (DTA) after just over a month in the position.

Shetler was the inaugural CEO of the Digital Transformation Office (DTO), from which the DTA spun off in November, before being appointed as the DTA’s chief digital officer.

Interim chief executive officer Nerida O’Loughlin said Shetler had played an instrumental role in establishing the government’s agenda to transform its digital presence and service delivery.

“His creativity and vision have been a great inspiration, and have been crucial in helping the government to deliver the first phase of its digital transformation agenda,” O’Loughlin said. “This has included the delivery of six transformed ‘exemplar’ services and the establishment of the highly successful Digital Marketplace.”

O’Loughlin added that the agency expects to fill the vacant chief digital officer role in the new year.

The DTA was formed to push Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s digital agenda and IT policy and procurement operations.

“We are more mobile, more connected, and more digitally reliant than ever before. Government needs to consistently challenge itself, to ensure world-leading practices are being employed to make Australians’ lives simpler,” Assistant Minister for Digital Transformation Angus Taylor said when announcing the DTA.

Then-Communications Minister Turnbull created its parent department, the DTO, early last year to unify government agencies and services online. It was initially tasked with creating a single online myGov portal for dozens of government-related services.

Labour MP Ed Husic later on Wednesday raised concerns over the high turnover of senior figures in the Turnbull government’s “much hyped” digital unit.

“Mr Shelter was clearly restructured out of his chief executive role when the government revealed last month its supposedly ground-breaking move to re-name the Digital Transformation Office the Digital Transformation Agency,” he said.

“While questions have been asked about the speed at which the DTO (now DTA) has delivered results, we have certainly seen its agile revolving door work its way through senior managers.

Husic said it was concerning that five different senior managers had departed in quick succession.

Internet Archive looks to take digital collection to Canada

The Internet Archive is looking to replicate its database in Canada in the face of potentially increased surveillance powers under a Donald Trump presidency in the United States.

The San Francisco-based organisation said in a blog post that it is seeking donations for an “Internet Archive of Canada”, which had been set as a goal in response to the November 9 election result and the greater web restrictions that will likely follow.

“[The election result] was a firm reminder that institutions like ours, built for the long term, need to design for change,” the post says. “For us, it means keeping our cultural materials safe, private, and perpetually accessible. It means preparing for a web that may face greater restrictions … government surveillance is not going away; indeed, it looks like it will increase.”

Increased surveillance powers will be a priority under the Trump presidency, according to Bloomberg, with the president-elect recently appointing Jeff Sessions as attorney-general and Mike Pompeo as director of the CIA — both of whom advocated government spying under George W Bush’s stringent surveillance policy.

The surveillance laws that were overturned or amended following whistleblower Edward Snowden’s revelations are likely to revert back to how they were under Bush, the report added, including mass data gathering, internet activity, and email content collection.

Earlier this month, encrypted email provider ProtonMail encouraged users to switch to encrypted email following the election result.

“Regardless of which side of the political spectrum you are on, Trump’s control over the NSA is now an indisputable fact,” it said.

“As a federal agency, however, the activities of NSA are governed by federal law, in particular, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. However, with Republican control over both houses of Congress, President Trump would have broad power to rewrite FISA as he sees fit, or introduce a new law.”

Trevor Timm, executive director at the Freedom of the Press Foundation, warned that the US’ vast intelligence-gathering machinery will be turned over to a “maniac”.

“[Trump will] control a vast, unaccountable national security and military apparatus unparalleled in world history,” Timm said. “The nightmare that civil libertarians have warned of for years has now tragically come true: Instead of dismantling the surveillance state and war machine, the Obama administration and Democrats institutionalized it — and it will soon be in the hands of a maniac.”

Snowden had previously warned of the surveillance threat of a new leader immediately following his disclosure of National Security Agency (NSA) and Five Eyes documents in 2013.

“A new leader will be elected, they’ll flip the switch, say that because of the crisis, because of the dangers that we face in the world … some new and unpredicted threat … we need more authority, we need more power,” he said in his interview with the Guardian.

“And there will be nothing the people can do at that point to oppose it.”

Despite Internet Archive looking to back up its data in Canada, one Snowden document revealed the close collaboration between the NSA and the country’s Communications Security Establishment Canada (CSEC).

The document mentioned “the exchange of liaison officers and integrees, joint projects, shared activities, and a strong desire for closer collaboration in the area of cyberdefence”, as well as Canada being a large consumer of US intelligence-gathering equipment.

Canada is also one of the Five Eyes nations, along with the US, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. The alliance allows the sharing of citizen internet and surveillance data among members.

Internet Archive collects and stores a vast collection of webpages for public access. Its Wayback Machine saves 300 million web pages each week to ensure that “no one will ever be able to change the past just because there is no digital record of it”.

The organisation says it has only 150 staff members running one of the top 250 websites in the world, and due to its privacy policy does not collect IP addresses or accept ads that track user behaviour.


ASX-listed DroneShield launches signal-jamming DroneGun

Drone detection company DroneShield has unveiled its handheld rifle-style DroneGun, a device that jams communications between drones and their pilots in an effort to help fight terrorism.

The DroneGun can signal-jam a drone device up to 2km away in a range of environmental conditions, and enables a controlled landing of the drone and its payload, either dropping vertically or returning to its starting point.

The DroneGun can also track down the drone user for certain models, and offers an optional GPS-jamming capability for customers outside of the United States.

Delaware-based DroneShield said on Monday that there is a “substantial need” for the product, due to an increase in the use of drones for terrorism. The company cited reports of an Islamic State drone rigged with explosives that killed two Peshmerga fighters and wounded two French soldiers in Iraq. Another instance last month saw Kurdish forces shoot a small hobby drone in northern Iraq, a stronghold for ISIS, which then exploded upon examination.

DroneShield has sold, piloted, and trial-installed approximately 214 sensor units. The company’s system detects acoustic signatures of drones, which are analysed by a signature database. This then issues an alert on an approaching drone.

The company filed its Initial Public Offering (IPO) in May, raising AU$7 million to complete its listing on the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX) the following month.

The company said at the time that it expects to use the IPO funds to further scale DroneShield’s existing technology, expand into new markets, and pay any ongoing intellectual property, legal, insurance, and administration costs.

DroneShield LLC was formed in January 2014, and in November last year, DroneShield Limited was incorporated. The company’s board includes Robin Brims, former commander of the British Field Army; Dr Samantha Ravich, former deputy national security advisor for US Vice-President Dick Cheney; and former Australian Minister for Defence Robert Hill.

The company estimates that 12 million drones will be in use by 2020.

With the proliferation of cheap drones has come a rising misue, and governments and agencies have been pushing counter-drone technology as a result. The US military’s Black Dart exercise series tests various commercial and military solutions, while the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) trialled its Anti-UAV Defense System (AUDS) to detect and identify potentially dangerous or hostile drones close to airports.

The anti-drone ray, which uses thermal imaging for drone detection, was developed in response to the concurrent issue of people flying private drones far too close to airports, reports of which total around 100 per month, the FAA said.

Fellow ASX-listed American company Department 13 this month unveiled its counter-drone device Mesmer, which “mesmerises” intrusive drones by manipulating their radio transmission protocols.

With Mesmer, Department 13 can manipulate radio transmission protocols that are used to control drones. This is made possible because most commercial drone radio controls operate in established frequency bands and use standard command protocols. The company wanted a counter-drone method that reduced the risk of any potential danger to nearby personnel or infrastructure.

“We believe that making drones fall from the sky is a bad thing,” chief executive Jonathan Hunter said, who pointed to an incident last year when a drone carrying radioactive material was found on the roof of the Japanese prime minister’s office.

“If they had shot that out of the sky, they would have dispersed radiological material everywhere,” Hunter said. “That would have shut down Tokyo for at least a month.”

Department 13’s demonstration in Queensland was hosted at the Metricon Stadium, the primary venue for the 2018 Commonwealth Games, which the company said “represents the sort of use case scenario which could be rolled out by Department 13 globally”.

Aside from drone defence, the company has 13 patents and 22 patent applications in areas such as cellular communications and networking, data bandwidth, and cybersecurity for mobile devices.

Cabcharge chair slams lack of government support for taxi industry

The chair of taxi payments platform Cabcharge has used his final appearance at the company’s annual general meeting to criticise Australian state and territory governments for failing to support the country’s taxi industry.

At the meeting in Sydney on Thursday, outgoing Cabcharge chair Russell Balding said that regulatory changes to Australia’s transport industry in the face of ride-booking services like Uber have so far failed.

“I do not believe state and territory governments around Australia truly understand the taxi industry, as the regulatory changes they have introduced to accommodate ‘ride share’ have not resulted in a level playing field; quite to the contrary,” said the chair, who will be replaced by Rick Millen.

“I am confident the young and energised management team under Andrew [Skelton, CEO]’s leadership, with the support of the board, is more than up to those challenges,” he added.

Also speaking at the meeting, Skelton took the opportunity to highlight recent changes to the transport industry, and how the company plans to adapt in order to keep up with them.

“By 2021, Australians will be taking 27.6 billion motorised trips per year,” the CEO said. “Currently, the taxi and ride-share market is worth about AU$6.1 billion … Despite the size of the market, less than 1 percent of personal trips are undertaken in taxis and ride share, leaving us a huge opportunity for growth.”

Last year, the Transport Workers Union of Australia said tech companies should pay compensation to workers who have been displaced by the rise of ride-booking services, and who had seen their income drop by 20 percent since the arrival of Uber in Australia.

“We know that some disruption from the current digital revolution is inevitable; some people will be left behind,” Tony Sheldon, national secretary for the union, said at the time.

“For those people, it’s critical that we retain a decent pension, Newstart payments that allow recipients to make ends meet while they look for work, universal free healthcare for those who can’t afford it, and comprehensive superannuation policies that mean workers can accumulate savings no matter what their employment situation.”

In July, the New South Wales government began offering compensation grants to select taxi licence holders whose business may have been affected by the rise of ride-booking, after the state declared the service legal in December last year.

A AU$1 ride-booking levy to compensate taxi drivers for the legislation was passed in June, which is expected to account for AU$100 million of the AU$250 million industry transition package.

At the time, NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance described the package as one of the most generous in the world for taxi licence holders.

“Nowhere else in the world have we seen such a generous compensation package to assist industry adjustment when it comes to the taxi industry; nowhere else in the world have we made available the capacity for the transport economy to evolve like we’re going to see,” Constance told reporters.

Uber’s general manager countered this by saying he wanted more transparency in the industry in how compensation was determined.

“If consumers are going to be asked to reach into their pockets and pay an extra levy to fund any hardship in the taxi industry I do hope that there is some transparency over that hardship,” he said.

Earlier this month, Tasmania made ride-booking drivers exempt from requirements to obtain a taxi or hire vehicle licence, in effect legalising Uber in the state.

The Australian Capital Territory was the first Australian state or territory to legalise ride-booking in October 2015, with added regulatory conditions enforced for taxi drivers, such as driver history checks and vehicle safety checks.

Uber was then deemed legal in Western Australia under a major taxi industry reform in December last year, with the proviso that drivers had to obtain special “omnibus” licences in addition to their standard driving licences.

A decision passed by a Victorian County Court judge in favour of a Melbourne Uber driver effectively gave the service the green light to operate in Victoria in May.

South Australia followed suit in July, while Uber drivers in Queensland have been operating legally since September following new transport reforms for the state.

The Northern Territory government, however, is still refusing to allow Uber to operate.

The impact of ride-booking services such as Uber contributed to sliding fortunes for Cabcharge this year. In August, it posted a 45 percent fall in full year profit to AU$25.61 million; while revenue was down 10.2 percent to AU$168.8 million.

Despite this, Skelton said Cabcharge is looking to work closely with passenger, client, and driver expectations to achieve growth in the near future.

Skelton also said that as Australia moves away from a cash-based society, Cabcharge will offer new products with a focus on digital payments. This includes its two-tap booking functionality for 13CABS and Silver Service apps; a driver engagement app; separate handheld terminals for taxi drivers and hire cars; an improved FastCard; and configurable “flex e-tickets” that allow clients to customise single-use products.

“Our key focus is providing better service to our passengers, and we are increasingly achieving this through the use of better technology,” Skelton said.

In 2016, the company also rolled out its payment device FAREWAYplus, which uses a touchscreen payment system to process payments more quickly; launched its premium Silver Service; and improved efficiency and connectivity by integrating its networks.

Cabcharge claimed it is the market leader in non-cash taxi fare processing, and processed over AU$1 billion in taxi fares in FY16.

New software could get Facebook back into China: Report

Facebook has developed a censorship tool that could allow the social media site back into China after a seven-year ban, according to reports.

According to The New York Times, the software suppresses posts in specific geographies from appearing in users’ news feeds. The company will offer the software to a third party, which will then monitor popular stories and topics, and will have full control over whether they show up in users’ news feeds.

Facebook employees, who wished to remain anonymous, stressed that the software is one of many solutions the company has considered to get back into China, and it may not see the light of day, according to the report.

Facebook’s founder Mark Zuckerberg has also met with top internet executives in the country, including China’s propaganda tsar Liu Yunshan, in an effort to strengthen exchanges and mutual understanding with internet companies there.

“We have long said that we are interested in China, and are spending time understanding and learning more about the country,” Facebook spokeswoman Arielle Aryah said in reports. “However, we have not made any decision on our approach to China.”

China banned the social media giant in July 2009 in an effort to restrict the flow of information about ethnic unrest following the Urumqi riots that left 140 people dead. Despite this, there are a number of users in the country who are said to circumvent the country’s firewall through the use of virtual private networks (VPNs) such as Astrill.

Reports circulated three years after the ban that there were over 60 million Facebook users in China who still used the social media site through the use of proxies and VPNs; however, Facebook’s own statistics had the figure at around 600,000 registered users in China.

Last year, China revamped its internet filter to make it more difficult for users to work around the ban. A senior official at the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology at the time said the move was designed to foster the “healthy development” of the internet in China.

Social media in China is largely dominated by Baidu, Tencent’s WeChat, and Sina Weibo, the latter of which has around 100 million daily users.

Google’s Gmail service was also blocked in China in December 2014 as part of efforts to further regain control over its citizens’ access to content.

Earlier this week, Zuckerberg detailed Facebook’s plan to prevent fake news from circulating the site, including stronger detection to classify misinformation, easier reporting for users to catch misinformation faster, third-party fact checking, flagging more stories, disrupting the fake news economy, and improving the quality of related articles.

“The bottom line is: We take misinformation seriously,” Facebook’s chief explained. “Our goal is to connect people with the stories they find most meaningful, and we know people want accurate information. We’ve been working on this problem for a long time and we take this responsibility seriously. We’ve made significant progress, but there is more work to be done.”

In China, spreading fake news on social media platforms such as Weibo and WeChat can result in criminal punishment of between three to seven years of jail time, as stipulated by an amendment made to Chinese law in November last year.