As this year’s Mobile World Congress draws to a close, the big takeaways from Barcelona’s annual tech-fest are:
- smartphones have all gotten a little better, again
- smartwatches are landing in a big way this summer
- VR is going to be mainstream by Spring 2016
Whilst the likes of Samsung – with the slick new Galaxy S6 and Galaxy S6 Edge – and HTC with their One M9 have done a decent job of bringing improved phones to the market, mainstream wearable tech – products that the majority will actually buy – is what’s getting everyone inside Fira Gran Via really excited.
The smartwatch going mainstream is largely due to Apple’s Watch hitting the market this April. As with any technology, Apple getting involved adds instant legitimacy and vastly raises the prospect of mainstream adoption due to their superior design of hardware and software, launched with seductively-crafted marketing. But can the smartwatch become more than just a notification platform for your phone, with some health tracking thrown in? To really break smartwatches Apple needs to:
- give developers a platform to do more than add notifications to existing services or apps
- look beyond health, which is only of interest to health geeks for now at least
- have battery life that doesn’t pale in comparison to Pebble’s 10 days
- create a watch that feels as good to wear as a luxury watch, after all $350 is a lot for a poorly put together accessory
- make Siri work for his/her money – the wrist could be where Siri becomes truly useful and widely adopted by the majority, so Apple must nail the integration
Unfortunately, there are still way more reasons for Apple Watch and the whole smartwatch category to ultimately fail. The most challenging one is that even the cult of Cupertino will struggle to convince the average smartphone user they need a fancy watch. Smartphones and tablets play movies, TV, games and offer a full internet experience. We were doing all that stuff when those new touchscreen devices came along so were happy to sate our existing appetite on a high quality, portable platform. The smartwatch however requires us to adopt totally new behaviours, and history shows we’re not so great at that. It will take a killer app or piece of functionality to compel the masses to buy one, and what that is is anyone’s guess right now.
Like smartwatches, VR headsets are coming to the market heavily tied to specific platforms. The main players are the Vive by HTC and Valve, Samsung’s Gear VR, Project Morpheus for Sony Playstation and of course the Oculus Rift, the crowdfunded headset now owned by Facebook that got us interested in VR all over again. Then there is a second tier of highly affordable headsets into which you simply slot your phone and run compatible apps, a category not to be dismissed due to its accessibility and backing by Google. Their Cardboard prototype has inspired a slew of similar products including its own collaboration with Mattel to create the retro View-Master, a 21st century redux of the popular 3D slide-viewer we loved as kids.
Whilst comparisons with 3D TV are probably unfair – VR clearly has more consumer and industrial uses – the big question that will always hang over any new technology is why? Why do I need to spend money to get this? Why do I need to change the way I do stuff? Why should I convince all my friends this is the best thing ever so they get on board and share the benefits with me? So many questions, but think about how easily the iPhone answered all those and ushered in the smartphone era, and then think how impossible it is to find an answer when they are asked of 3D or curved TV. Can VR answer these? Quite possibly, and the winner of the battle for VR supremacy is likely to be one who is already in our home, delivering content we love. That’s why it may well be Sony Playstation who have the most users of VR by Christmas 2016, with the rest battling it out for PC gamers’ hard-earned cash, likely a larger but more fragmented and competitive market.