A close look at the Gear VR for the Galaxy S6

The old and the new

The Verge (by Sean O’Kane):

Earlier this week, we saw some big news in the world of virtual reality when HTC announced the Vive, a new VR headset made in partnership with legacy video game company Valve. But the most important news for the adoption of virtual reality came from Samsung, Oculus, and Facebook: there’s a new version of the Gear VR that can be powered by both the Samsung Galaxy S6 and the S6 Edge.

Virtual reality is quite obviously still in a nascent state. Even the best headsets still face myriad problems like poor resolution, bulky headsets, and social stigma. “What we want to do is we want to get down to sunglasses,” says Max Cohen, head of Oculus Mobile.

But that’s not going to happen anytime soon. Cohen couldn’t comment on a time frame, but admits how far Oculus has to go before VR glasses are a reality. “Every aspect of this technology, both on Gear VR and the Rift, still needs to improve to get it where we want it,” he says. “We’re not going to declare victory any time soon.” Until then, headsets that use phone drop-ins might be the best consumer solution available.

The original Gear VR, which works with the Galaxy Note 4, took a step towards solving some of VR’s problems, but left much to be desired. The resolution was good enough, but not great. It was wireless and light, but got uncomfortable after extended use. And it did little to change the fact that people inevitably view you differently once you have a VR headset on your face, and you’re unavoidably cut off from the world. Perhaps most important, not many people owned the Galaxy Note 4, whereas the new version will work on a mainstream phone.

The first two issues are alleviated in the newest version of the Gear VR. At first blush, the new version is not much different than the Gear VR that uses the Galaxy Note 4. But once you put it on the differences are profound. To start with, the whole unit is much lighter, thanks in part to the fact that the Galaxy S6 weighs less than the Note 4. The straps are more comfortable but still fit tightly, and there’s a vent on the left side of the headset that helps reduce lens fogging. Overall, Oculus has really gotten the headset to feel, well, less like a headset.

The other big focus for Oculus is increasing the screen resolution, which is another place Cohen is ready to admit that the company — and virtual reality as a medium — still has a long way to go.

The reality is we need to go a lot further. We need 4K screens, potentially even 8K screens. So there’s still some time before we feel like we’ve hit the point where that “screen door effect,” as we call the impression of a pixelated display, goes away entirely. But the 1440p looks pretty darn good.”

He’s right. The Galaxy S6’s 5.1-inch screen is smaller than the 5.7-inch one found on the Note 4, but that means the pixel density is noticeably higher — 577 ppi compared to 515. That might not sound like a lot, but it made a big difference when I got to try it here at MWC. Everything I queued up — games, a new Cirque du Soleil demo, a 360-degree 3D photos app made by Otoy — was more impressive than anything found on the Note 4 version of the Gear VR.

But the difference from the old version to the new was most stark in the videos featured in the Oculus Cinema section. On the Note 4 version of the Gear VR, this was by far my least favorite content — it’s where the weaknesses of the resolution and lower pixel density were most apparent. My eyes would strain after just 10 or 15 seconds of watching a video, and the experience was worse with 3D content. But on the Galaxy S6 version, all the videos I previewed were not only watchable, they were enjoyable. That screen door effect was majorly mitigated here, and in its place was a much smoother and visually comfortable experience.

It’s hard to understate how important this could be for the success of the Gear VR, and Oculus’ efforts in the mobile space in general. The biggest barrier to the Gear VR so far hasn’t been the social awkwardness of wearing a head-mounted display, it’s that it only worked with a niche device. The idea of a $199 consumer VR device was attractive to many, but shelling out nearly $1,000 more to get a Note 4 off-contract kept the reality of it out of reach.

The new headset will likely be priced the same, though Samsung will ultimately set the price when it releases it to market — it’s not yet clear when that will happen. Cohen told us before that he thinks the ideal price is free. Alongside the new headset the company also announced that paid content is making its way to the Gear VR (it should be available in the Oculus store now, and to Note 4 users as well).

The Gear VR is about to face its sink-or-swim moment. Instead of being a cool idea burdened by the requirement of owning a niche device, it’s now going to be an affordable accessory to a phone that millions of people will own. If you still don’t think that’s a big deal, you probably haven’t tried it. And imagine the hype if it were compatible with an iPhone.

By leveraging the new revenue source with paid content and spreading the user base by building a headset around a flagship phone, the idea of dropping the price of the Gear VR to zero doesn’t seem so crazy anymore.

Until then, people are going to have to understand a few simple facts: virtual reality still needs headsets, and headsets are inherently awkward. But that doesn’t mean that the experience isn’t outrageously cool.

 

HTC (Taiwan) teams up with Under Armour for a fitness wearable

HTC has announced it will be releasing its first wearable with the help of Under Armour, who will be supplying the tracking software for the fitness band. The waterproof Grip wrist band is the first in a series of co-branded products, and will feature a pedometer, GPS and an integrated “Record” tracking portal which aggregates sleep, steps, active time, distance, workouts, calories burned and weight. It can also be connected with a phone to receive and respond to notifications via the 1.8-inch curved monochrome touchscreen.

Though an official release date has yet to be announced, expect the HTC Grip to be available at select retailers in North America beginning in Spring 2015.

Meet the New HTC One M9 (Taiwan)

HTC has finally unveiled its new flagship phone, the One M9. Following months of speculation and rumors, the official release confirms that the leaks were, for the most part, accurate. There is no major aesthetic change in the physical form from its predecessors, the M8 and M7, which means the One M9 features a similar all-aluminum unibody design, with a 5-inch 1080p display framed by HTC’s trademark BoomSound speakers.

In place of major aesthetic changes are upgrades in specs, which include the addition of Android 5.0 Lollipop, Qualcomm’s octa-core Snapdragon 810 CPU, supported by 3GB of RAM. Many will fancy seeing an upgraded battery capacity, which has been bumped from 2,600mAh to 2,840mAh, hopefully able to last a full day in cooperation with Snapdragon. Perhaps the biggest change comes in the rear-facing camera,with HTC replacing its UltraPixel technology for a more conventional 20-megapixel sensor set in a square camera unit. Touting its 27.8mm f/2.2 lens and increase in pixel count, HTC promises great image capacity.

HTC (Taiwan) develops new virtual reality headset with video game developer Valve

HTC continues its expansion from the smartphone market by teaming up with video game developer Valve, for a new virtual reality headset that will be the latest competitor to the Oculus Rift. The Vive features a 1,200 by 1,080 pixel screen for each eye and an astounding refresh rate of 90 frames per second, ensuring a crystal-clear, jitter-free image.

Powered by Valve’s upcoming StreamVR platform, the “Full Room Scale 360 Degree Solution” lets the user get up and walk around inside a virtual world for a fully immersive experience in spaces up to 15 by 15 feet.

Check out the video above for a better look at the visual experiences the headset has to offer, and expect the Vive VR headset to be available for purchase later on in the year.

How Samsung won and then lost the smartphone war

samsung mobile ceo jk shin introduces galaxy s5

Samsung Mobile CEO JK Shin

 

Business Insider:

In November 2011, Samsung released the first of a series of ads that would define the company for the next three years.

It started with a bunch of hipster-looking people waiting outside a mock Apple Store for the next iPhone. As the hipsters tick down the hours until they have the right to get Apple’s new iThing, they spot others on the street using something better.

The phone, Samsung’s former flagship Galaxy S II, had a big screen and a 4G wireless connection, two major features that were missing from Apple’s new iPhone 4S. And unlike the iPhone, you didn’t have to wait around to buy a Galaxy S II. You could get it now. But you didn’t see anyone lining up to buy a Samsung, or anything other than an iPhone, in those days.

Things started to change with the first “Next Big Thing” spot. Just like Apple poked fun at Microsoft with its “I’m a Mac” campaign in the 2000s, Samsung’s goal was to tap into the same strategy — a little guy taking swings at the dominant player in the industry — and for a while it worked.

By the end of 2012, Samsung’s profits were up a whopping 76%, fueled by the growth of the mobile division, which suddenly became the most profitable part of Samsung. Samsung was the only company other than Apple making a profit in mobile, and it seemed to be closing in on Apple’s dominance, prompting The Wall Street Journal to publish its famous “Has Apple Lost Its Cool To Samsung?” headline in January 2013.

samsung galaxy s ii commercial

Samsung’s Galaxy S II commercial made fun of Apple fans waiting for the new iPhone

By the time the Galaxy S4 launched in March 2013, the anticipation surrounding Samsung’s products could only be rivaled by Apple. It was officially a two-horse race.

But it only took another year for things to come crashing down. Profits tumbled in 2014, even during the normally lucrative holiday season. Throughout the year, Samsung blamed increased competition in mobile for the downturn.

Now, Samsung is gearing up for its most important smartphone launch ever on March 1. The question is whether or not the Galaxy S6 will be enough to help Samsung recover from its slump, or if it will share the same fate as former kings of mobile like Nokia, BlackBerry, and Motorola.

How did Samsung get so big so fast and how did it all go so wrong?

Competition from new players like Xiaomi and a renewed Apple were central to the decline, but corporate turmoil at Samsung, including a rift between the company’s South Korean headquarters and its suddenly successful US group, also played a major role.

Samsung Galaxy S5 iPhone 5S Fingerprint Side by side

The Samsung Galaxy S5 and the iPhone 5S

The birth of “Galaxy”

As the post-iPhone smartphone era began in 2008 and 2009, Samsung, along with many others, was hopelessly behind the curve. It relied mostly on carriers to sell its smartphones, but even then, there wasn’t any distinct branding to separate Samsung’s devices from the slew of other generic phones on the shelf. Depending on their carrier, consumers chose between iPhone, BlackBerry, or whatever their carrier threw in for free with a two-year contract.

By about 2009, Samsung decided it needed to come up with a new brand for its upcoming line of flagship phones designed to run Android, according to sources familiar with Samsung’s plans at the time. Samsung had a revolutionary new screen technology called Super AMOLED that it at first wanted to put in someone else’s device, perhaps a phone built by a major wireless carrier like Verizon. Samsung has always provided chips and displays for other manufacturers, and it wanted to license its Super AMOLED tech the same way.

Eventually, Samsung decided to make its own high-end smartphone to compete with the iPhone, but it had no way to market it. The “Samsung” name was synonymous with cheap flip phones and nice TVs. It was never mentioned in the same breath as Apple, BlackBerry, or Nokia. That could’ve set up the new device for failure before it even launched. Plus, Samsung tested its brand against Apple with consumers and learned it was barely recognizable as far as smartphones go. It needed a change.

So Samsung created a luxury sub-brand for its Android phones moving forward, the Lexus to its Toyota.

It chose Galaxy.

In March 2010, Samsung unveiled the Galaxy S, the first in what would become its successful line of Android phones and tablets. The Galaxy S had hardware specs that rivaled the iPhone but was also heavily criticized for copying the iPhone’s software and physical appearance. That didn’t seem to matter. There were hundreds of carriers in the world that still didn’t offer the iPhone, and AT&T still had an exclusive on the device in the US.

Samsung made deals with wireless carriers to promote the Galaxy S in stores when it launched that June. Even better, Samsung got AT&T to agree to sell the Galaxy S, even though it was sure to be a strong rival for the iPhone.

htc president jason mackenzie with htc ceo peter chou htc one launch event

It wasn’t that long ago HTC was king of Android

Two-horse race

Even with the successful launch of the Galaxy S, Samsung was still behind Android rivals like HTC. Both companies were making decent phones, but neither gave customers a good reason to choose one over the other. As Samsung prepared to launch its successor to the Galaxy S, the Galaxy S II, in the spring of 2011, it also formulated a new strategy to market the device, at least in the US.

According to sources familiar with the company’s thinking at the time, Samsung’s Korean executives wanted Galaxy to be the number-one smartphone brand within five years. (It ranked fifth in consumer surveys at the time.)

Under the US head of marketing Todd Pendleton and his team, Samsung was able to do it in 18 months.

At first, the Korean leadership at Samsung wanted to pick off the competition one at a time, starting with HTC, then Motorola, then BlackBerry, and finally, Apple. But the US team decided on a different approach. It was going to start a war with Apple, kicking off the smartphone world’s equivalent of Coke versus Pepsi.

It was a gamble. By attacking Apple directly, Samsung risked looking petty and desperate.

But “The Next Big Thing” campaign, developed by the ad agency 72 And Sunny, was a massive hit. For the first time since the launch of the iPhone, someone had created the believable perception that there was something better out there.

Tim CookApple CEO Tim Cook

Out-innovating Apple

With the launch of “The Next Big Thing” campaign came a lot of glowing press coverage for Samsung. There was a company out there willing to take swipes at the king of smartphones, and consumers were responding.

And for all the criticism Samsung got along the way for copying Apple, it did prove that the world was hungry for something the iPhone didn’t have yet — smartphones with giant screens.

In the fall of 2011, Samsung announced the Galaxy Note, the first so-called phablet with a 5.3-inch display. (The iPhone 4S only had a 3.5-inch screen.) Compared to most phones at the time, the Galaxy Note appeared absolutely massive. When it launched in February 2013, critics blasted the Note for being too large. The Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg, one of the most famous tech reviewers in the world, compared using the Note to holding a piece of toast against your ear.

 

samsung galaxy note 3Samsung’s Galaxy Note created the phablet market

The initial reception was so bad at first, sources say some US carriers almost didn’t want to sell the Galaxy Note II the following year.

But the phone sold well outside the US, especially in Asia, and eventually Samsung was able to prove there was a market for phablets. Samsung’s phones kept getting bigger and better screens, while iPhone users were stuck with tiny devices.

A powerful narrative began to emerge in the press: Apple was in trouble if it didn’t catch up with Samsung and start offering phones with bigger screens. Many asked if Apple had lost its knack for innovation following the death of Steve Jobs, and Samsung was doing a good job at making that theory seem plausible. Apple’s stock dropped as low as about $380 from its all-time high of about $705, largely on fears that Apple didn’t have a revolutionary new product up its sleeves.

Meanwhile, Samsung continued to climb. Sources familiar with Samsung’s sales at the time said its marketing of the Galaxy S line of phones had residual effects and boosted sales of Samsung’s other products like washing machines and refrigerators. In fact, the US team was outperforming Samsung’s headquarters in South Korea, and other international offices were itching to adopt “The Next Big Thing” in their respective countries.

The campaign was clearly a success. Unfortunately, not everyone at Samsung saw it that way.

Missed opportunity

The success of Samsung’s Mobile in the US began a rift with the Korean headquarters. Sources say the more successful Samsung was in the US, the more complicated the relationship with headquarters got. Instead of getting credit, the US team felt they were being chastised for doing their jobs well. (Samsung declined to comment on this story.)

It got so bad, a source told us, that Samsung flew a plane full of executives to the mobile division’s office in Dallas for an unannounced audit that lasted three weeks in 2012. The Dallas-based employees had to go through all materials they used to sell and market Samsung’s mobile products. They were accused of falsifying sales, bribing the media, and a bunch of other damaging actions that hurt morale in the office. The same US-based office that helped turn Samsung into a brand as recognizable as Apple was suddenly being punished for its work.

After three weeks, the Korean auditors found nothing wrong with the way the US office had been operating and went home. But the damage had been done, and the perception remained at the Korean headquarters that despite its success, the US team was up to no good.

In fact, during one meeting with the global teams at Samsung’s headquarters in Korea, executives made the US team stand up in front of several hundred of their peers in an auditorium. The executives told the employees to clap for the US team as encouragement since they were the only group failing the company, even though it was clear to everyone the opposite was true.

That all but killed any hope of translating what the US team pulled off to other regions. They were able to continue in North America, but Samsung’s global messaging remained disjointed.

Amid these tensions, Samsung introduced the Galaxy S4 in 2013 at an over-the-top event at Radio City Music Hall in New York. Instead of the traditional product announcement, Samsung put on a Broadway-style musical that incorporated features of the new phone.

It was weird, one of those things you had to see to believe. And a lot of people criticized Samsung for putting on a show that seemed to objectify women. CNET’s Molly Wood called the event “tone-deaf and shockingly sexist.”

Samsung Unpacked Event 92Samsung’s Galaxy S4 event was criticized for objectifying women

Aside from the awkward unveiling, the Galaxy S4 also launched to mostly negative reviews. Samsung packed a ton of features into the phone like touch-free controls, eye tracking, and a whole suite of camera modes that were either unnecessary or didn’t work as advertised. Still, the phone was Samsung’s most successful ever, and 2013 was another very good year for the company.

But 2014 was going to be a wakeup call.

The rough year

At the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona last year, Samsung boasted it had sold more than 100 million units from its Galaxy S line over the last four years, a sales figure for a flagship series that only Apple could beat.

Then it unveiled the Galaxy S5, a phone that toned down a lot of the superfluous features of the Galaxy S4 while including some useful new stuff like an improved camera and water-resistant body. Like previous Galaxy S phones, the S5 had a plastic body and sold for about $650 unlocked. Based on the success of the Galaxy S4, the company had no reason to believe it had a dud on its hands.

It was wrong.

There were a lot of factors for Samsung’s major slip in 2014, but the biggest culprit appears to be Chinese smartphone manufacturers. Chinese companies like the startups OnePlus and Xiaomi appeared to have perfected the magic formula for making beautiful, high-quality smartphones that cost at least half as much as the iPhone or Samsung’s Galaxy S series.

Xiaomi was the biggest success story of the year. By some estimates, it was the top smartphone vendor in China, the next big market where millions of people are making the transition to smartphones. Xiaomi’s phones are made out of premium materials like metal, so they look better than Samsung’s phones. They also have similar specs like fast processors, sharp screens, and high-quality cameras.

xiaomi ceo lei junXiaomi CEO Lei Jun. Xiaomi was the top smartphone vendor in China in 2014

Xiaomi’s rise meant Samsung’s decline in China. Since Xiaomi phones are also Android phones, there was very little Samsung’s pricier models could do that Xiaomi’s phones couldn’t do. Plus, Xiaomi is a marketing success story. Fans snap up the devices with the same fervor Apple fans buy new iPhone models in Western countries. And most of Xiaomi’s marketing is done through social media or word of mouth, so it doesn’t have to rely on the multimillion dollar ad campaigns Samsung uses.

But Xiaomi is just one factor. A lot of Samsung’s success came because it was able to get a head start and distribute its phones on a broader scale before the rest of the non-iPhone competition could, according to tech analyst Ben Thompson, the author of the Stratechery blog.

For example, the iPhone was only available on about a third as many carriers as Samsung phones were. In the US, Samsung phones were one of your best options unless you were an AT&T customer and had access to the iPhone.

It was the same story on China Mobile, the largest wireless carrier in the world with over 700 million subscribers. Apple finally brought the iPhone to China Mobile early last year. Ever since, China has been one of Apple’s biggest growth areas for the iPhone business. Everyone else seemed to be choosing Xiaomi, Lenovo, or another cheaper rival to Samsung.

I think it’s always dangerous when you don’t know why you’ve won,” Thompson said in an interview. “One of the reasons Samsung succeeded is they pivoted in ways Nokia and others didn’t. They were able to leverage everything they already had, but weren’t able to sustain it because there wasn’t anything special about their phones. Samsung got crushed on the high end by Apple and the low end by Xiaomi in China.”

Thompson continued, “At the end of the day, there’s nothing to differentiate a Samsung phone, so they’ll have to compete on price.”

However, that doesn’t seem to be Samsung’s plan.

The new strategy

On March 1, Samsung will unveil two new versions of its next flagship phone, the Galaxy S6. According to sources familiar with Samsung’s plans, one version will have a metal body, a departure from the plasticky phones the company has made in the past. The second version will have a curved screen, similar to the Galaxy Note Edge that launched last fall.

But both models are still going to priced as premium products. According to one leak, the “Edge” version of the Galaxy S6 could cost over $1,000 without a contract, at least three times the cost of a Xiaomi phone.

Unless Samsung has a special trick up its sleeve on the software side, it’s unlikely that its new phones will be enough to justify the extra cost over similar Android devices. And if that happens, Samsung is almost certainly up for another messy year. The glow surrounding Samsung’s smartphone business has almost certainly faded for good. Time to find something new.

Samsung CEO BK Yoon

Samsung CEO BK Yoon at the opening CES keynote

That doesn’t mean the company is hosed. Samsung is a massive organization that makes everything from dishwashers to air purifiers. It has the scale and manufacturing power to harness the next big thing after smartphones, even if that next big thing doesn’t come from it’s own R&D labs.

Plus, its chip business is already very profitable, and is due to get a nice boost thanks to a reported agreement with Apple to make processors for the next iPhone due to launch later this year.

One key area Samsung is focusing on in the near term is the “internet of things” (IoT) trend, which means connecting everyday objects like light switches and toasters to the internet for a deeper level of control. At the Consumer Electronics Show in January of this year, Samsung announced that every product it makes will connect to the internet within a few years. In theory, this will build a valuable ecosystem connecting everything in your home and create a whole new category of Samsung customers.

Still, the company may always look back longingly on those brief years when it went head-to-head with Apple.

It sounds like HTC’s new phone is going to have an incredible camera

htc-one-m8-12

RocketNews 24:

The new phone will look similar to HTC’s current flagship One phone, which is one of the best Android phones available.

The smartwatch will be focused on fitness, thanks to a new partnership HTC now has with Under Armour, according to the report. HTC and Under Armour announced their partnership a few weeks ago.

The phone will also have a 20 megapixel camera, which is much higher than the standard 8 or 12 megapixels used in high-end phones today.

As HTC’s smartphone sales continue to struggle, the company is looking for new product categories. One key area will be smart appliances, similar to what Google’s Nest division makes with its thermostats and smoke detectors, Business Insider has learned.

HTC is planning to launch at least one “smart appliance” later this year, but probably not at the same time as the new watch and phone.

Monster CEO Noel Lee files fraud lawsuit against Apple-owned Beats

The HTC deal was a “sham transaction” to “exclude Monster and Lee from future profits from the sale of the “Beats By Dr. Dre” product line and, ultimately, the sale of Beats as a company, to Apple,” the suit alleges.

Having severed ties with Monster and approving the acquisition by Apple, the Beats executives “made millions off the work of Lee and Monster,” the suit says. And since Beats “misappropriated the ‘Beats By Dr. Dre” technology and manufacturing and distribution channels, Monster and Lee lost millions of dollars,” the complaint says.

In the aftermath, “I came to realize that I think I’ve been duped,” Lee said during the interview here.

Apple declined to comment on the lawsuit and Beats has not responded to a request for comment.

Beyond the financial and intellectual property harms that Monster and Lee claim, they also say that Beats aims to “deceptively rewrite history” by erasing Monster’s participation in the rise of the premium headphone lineup.

Beats co-founder Iovine is described in the suit as “a respected but ruthless music mogul.” As for Dre, “other than his celebrity status as a rapper, Dre’s primary contribution was to bless Monster’s headphones when he exclaimed: ‘That’s the shit!’” the suit says.

That’s one of the reasons for filing the suit, Lee said. “To right the record.”

The U.S. headphone market amounted to about $2 billion in 2014, according to The NPD Group, with half made up by premium products such as Beats By Dr. Dre. Beats has about 60% of the premium market, compared with Monster’s single-digit percentage.

As the smaller company, Monster is trying to strike back at Beats, which is now attached to Apple, NPD analyst Ben Arnold said. The move could also be an effort to help Monster “gain market share,” he said.