MWC: smartphone makers’ quest for virtual reality

From thermies and add-ons to VR headsets, manufacturers want to make more of handsets’ capabilities
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You have to feel a little sorry for the global smartphone makers. Almost everyone has one now and those who don’t are unlikely to pay much for a fancy new handset.


Most people use only a tiny part of their phone’s capabilities, which means the extra gimmicks the manufacturers unveil at the annual Mobile World Congress in Barcelona often feel designed to impress first-mover idiots like myself.

Which is why — as that idiot — I was nonplussed when Samsung showed its new smartphone, the Galaxy S7, at a ridiculously lavish event this week. The new phone looks, feels and acts a lot like the S6 Edge. My first impression was that it has a slightly more rounded edge and larger screen.

But then it dawned on me — I loved the S6. It was easily the best smartphone of last year in my view, so naturally I think the new one is excellent too, especially as Samsung has eschewed its tendency to throw in a lot of unnecessary extras to focus instead on what people care about.

So the S7 has a bigger battery, expandable memory and is waterproof: those, in a nutshell, are the three things mobile users want for everyday use. Four, if you count the always-on display.

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Feel the heat
There were some more eye-catching designs on show elsewhere. I loved the Cat S60 phone made by Britain’s Bullitt Group, which allows you to take detailed thermal images.

This is a first for a smartphone, allowing a range of uses from detecting points of heat loss when insulating a room to finding a lost pet in the garden or making sure a sausage is cooked through. It has thus inadvertently invented the “thermie” — a selfie with added body heat.

I was intrigued by the LG G5’s modular approach where you switch the base of the phone according to whether you want to focus on listening to music, by making the sound quality better, or adding a better grip with zoom and battery pack for taking photos.

I’d be surprised if this works out in everyday use given that few people will want the hassle of carrying and swapping components about. The G5’s screen and camera are good enough for most users anyway.

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But this year many of the leading manufacturers at the show were more focused than usual on what a smartphone can do — rather than the look or feel — as well as connected accessories and new services.

So while Sony’s new Xperia X phone was uninspiring, its Agent connected home hub and projector is a lot more fun. The idea is that it will automate some mundane tasks around the home by linking devices, from the thermostat to the television, and adding in a bit of machine learning so that it picks up on the habits of the household.

The best thing so far is the interactive display, which can be projected on to any flat surface — a calendar or to-do list that can be updated, for example, or a contacts list that can be used to make a call through the hub.

The accompanying connected earpiece, which can take commands and make suggestions, feels like a step back, however. Any tech company claiming that the future of connectivity involves a bluetooth ear piece — a look that shouts part-time Uber driver — should have a long, hard think about whittling down its devices.


Headsets ahead
A renewed focus on a smartphone’s powerful applications meant Mobile World Congress was flooded with virtual reality and augmented reality headsets.

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However, none in my view improved on what is already available from Samsung’s Gear VR, powered by its smartphones, whose updated version with the Galaxy S7 refined the experience of virtual immersion.

The proliferation of VR hardware on show — like the glut of wearables last year — made the problems facing virtual reality all too clear. There was no killer app or content feed that would persuade me to wear one for any length of time.

Indeed, Sony Mobile’s chief executive Hiroki Totoki emphasised this when telling me why, despite having the hardware ready, Sony was holding back until its PlayStation-based version was ready because of the games that would be accompanying it.

Samsung is hoping to help circumvent the lack of virtual things to look at by encouraging people to create their own, with the launch of a virtual reality camera, the Gear 360, which can take a single surrounding image or video when paired with the phone via bluetooth.

And this begins to point to one potential version of the mass virtual reality market. I will be able to video my young son’s birthday party in full 360-degree immersion, and then in years to come watch him blow out the candles on his cake, and turn my head to see his friends cheering.

If I still cringe at some of the photos my mother likes to show of me as a child, imagine the full 360-degree embarrassment potential when there are 18 candles on the cake.

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