MWC 2015: virtual reality surprises, curved screens and connecting the world

Author

Rhiannon Williams in Barcelona

March 5, 2015

This year’s Mobile World Congress was about so much more than mobiles, says Rhiannon Williams. It offered the shape of things to come

Barcelona is a city more widely known for its love of tapas, football and Gaudi rather than being a hotbed of technological innovation. But each spring, the Spanish city groans under the weight of Mobile World Congress (MWC), which draws to a close today.

An estimated 90,000 attendees descended upon Barcelona this year, generating an estimated €436m (£316m) for the Spanish economy and creating some 13,000 jobs. Naturally, the impact of MWC extends far beyond the financial – the event is a key arena for some of the biggest names in the technology world to show off their latest and greatest phones, gadgets and ideas.

This year’s event was a whirlwind of flagship smartphones, virtual reality headsets and the next generation of wearable technology, namely smartwatches, before all eyes turn to San Francisco on Monday March 9, when Apple is expected to reveal more details about the long-awaited Apple Watch .

Predictably, it was the east Asian giants that dominated proceedings. South Korean behemoth Samsung launched its latest smartphones the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge, the latter of which sports a three-sided curved display, to a crowd of thousands in a lavish presentation complete with smoke machines and an Inception-esque soundtrack. Taiwanese firm HTC also launched a high-end smartphone, the HTC One M9 alongside fitness tracker the HTC Grip.

But it was surprise announcement of virtual reality gaming headset the HTC Vive that had the audience on its feet craning for a better look. The company deserves enormous credit for keeping such a product entirely under wraps, bypassing the inevitable internet rumour mill and systematic leaks of key specifications and features. The Vive is easily the best VR headset I’ve tested to date, and with the company hoping to bring it to market before the end of 2015, HTC is poised to become the shock forerunner in a fascinating field.

LG shied away from showcasing a flagship smartphone to follow its wildly successful LG G3, instead exhibiting a series of mid-range models alongside its latest smartwatch, the LG Watch Urbane, aimed firmly at the luxury end of the market. Plucky American company Pebble also made a splash with the surprise launch of customisable smartwatch the Pebble Time Steel, a mere week after its Pebble Time watch raised more than $15m on crowdfunding site Kickstarter. The fledgling Pebble has sold more than one million smartwatches within two years thanks to their week-long battery life and low prices, and their positioning as the Apple’s Watch’s most powerful contender is truly deserved.

Yet MWC isn’t purely a gadget playground. Connectivity was another key theme of the conference, with Google’s senior vice president Sundar Pichai announcing the corporation’s plans to launch a virtual mobile network in the US, allowing users to switch seamlessly not only between cellular and Wi-Fi connections, but between the masts of competing mobile phone networks. While the project will be rolled out on a small scale at first, Google has the technological and financial muscle to compete with the biggest mobile network providers in the world and change the way we communicate.

Later that evening, Facebook co-founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg admitted he’d “love” to work more closely with the search engine giant in bringing internet connectivity to the developing world during a keynote speech.

Facebook launched its Internet.org project, which provides individuals and businesses in developing countries with affordable affordable internet access, in 2013. Zuckerberg praised Google Search, one of the project’s first apps, as “an important product and piece of functionality people around the world want”, but smirked after Mario Zanotti, senior vice president of operations at mobile network Millicom, accidentally referred to Facebook as Google, prompting an outburst of laughter from the crowd.

Among the accusations levelled at MWC in the past is that those few days in Barcelona serve as nothing more than a vanity project for the great and the good of the technology world to compete for attention in an increasingly crowded market through a series of minor innovations. Most of the major announcements, including Samsung’s event and Zuckerberg’s speech, were livestreamed on the internet, removing the need for a sizable portion of the attendees to leave their respective countries and fly to Spain. Apple, the biggest company of them all, bypasses the conference entirely, preferring to limit its launches to a number of carefully orchestrated events each year. But to discount MWC is to ignore the shaping of the world we live in.

Cynics are being disingenuous if they dismiss the Samsung S6 Edge’s curved screen, or the utrapixel front-facing camera on the HTC One M9 – which is designed to serve the growing selfie craze – as gimmicks.

All high-end phones will continue to focus on becoming larger, lighter and more powerful, and the battle between the brands for market supremacy is fierce. As it stands, the market is still dominated by two players. Apple has a devoted fanbase who swear by the look of its devices, while Samsung is known for pushing innovation to the masses. The other challengers must try to carve their own path between the US and South Korean company.

This year, smartwatches and virtual reality headsets also took centre stage. These products are at a crucial developmental stage – we’re witnessing the launch of products that will either define their categories as the go-to device, or fail to make their mark entirely. For these reasons, MWC has never been more essential.

This article was written by Rhiannon Williams in Barcelona from The Daily Telegraph and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.

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