Samsung introduced updated models of its trendsetting Galaxy Note line of giant-screen smartphones and a few accessories, including a pair of virtual reality goggles, hoping the new gear will rekindle excitement at a company that desperately needs a hit.
The South Korean electronics behemoth on Wednesday launched two new Galaxy Note series phones, one with a screen that cascades off the right edge of the phone, like an electronic waterfall, and a new stab at virtual reality that will likely be among the first out of the gate in a new generation of the technology.
Samsung needs a winner — fast. The goal here is to boost adrenaline and sales at a company that dominates the global smartphone industry in sheer sales volume if not in ingenuity. But even that position is at risk as Chinese phone makers chip away at the low end and Apple at the high end. Samsung suffered a decline in smartphone and tablet sales in the second quarter. Its share of the global smartphone market fell to 25 percent in the second quarter, compared to 33 percent in the year-ago quarter, according to researcher Strategy Analytics.
The timing of Samsung’s announcement gives it a week’s jump on rival Apple’s highly anticipated Sept. 9 press event, when the company is expected to unveil its new iPhones and its first entry into wearable computing.
The Galaxy Note Edge introduces a new way to interact with apps and information. The curved portion of the Note Edge’s screen operates independently of the main display — providing a second display that can act as a shortcut for accessing a user’s favorite applications, display notifications such as sports scores, news headlines from Yahoo or show trending topics on Twitter. The panel can be customized with personal photos, images from a favorite video game and a signature. And it adapts to how the phone is being used, so the edge will display camera controls when the phone is being used to snap a picture.
Phone makers are searching for eye-catching features to coax consumers to replace their existing devices, which are already plenty powerful for routine tasks.
But not every innovation ignites consumers, as Amazon learned with its smartphone. The Fire phone, which boasts such innovations as a screen that creates the illusion of depth, has met with a damp reception.
In addition to the Edge, Samsung also launched the Galaxy Note 4 — a more evolutionary advance to the series. Due out in October, the Note 4 addresses criticism over Samsung’s reliance on plastic materials even on its most expensive models. It now boasts a new metal frame, improved screen quality, better image stabilization and improvements to its stylus that allow the S-Pen to be used like a computer mouse (for highlighting and moving text).
The selfie-obsessed can also rejoice: The Note 4’s front-facing camera features a wider angle lens, which means you can fit more of your friends into the frame and new ways to snap photos more easily. Instead of reaching awkwardly for the shutter release, you can simply say “cheese” to take the shot.
The Lawnmower Man
Samsung’s Gear VR goggles were developed in partnership with Oculus. The head-mounted display is powered by the Galaxy Note 4, which snaps into a cradle that places its screen in front of the device’s binocular lenses. A protective cover holds the phone securely in place.
If Samsung’s approach to virtual reality sounds a bit familiar, it is. Google offered up a lower-tech take at Google I/O with Cardboard, an eye-piece designed to turn an Android device into a virtual reality experience.
In demonstrations, Samsung showed off 360-degree concert footage of British alternative rock band Coldplay performing “A Sky Full of Stars,” complete with confetti bursts and decorative stars hanging from the ceiling; took wearers on a virtual helicopter flight over Manhattan, feet dangling disconcertingly high above the skyline; and afforded the opportunity to don Iron Man’s mask and inspect objects within fictional billionaire Tony Stark’s “lab,” including Captain America’s shield and the Avengers’ Quinjet.
Virtual reality, and the notion of being visually transported to another place or time, has been around since the mid-20th century, but it has failed to break through to the mainstream market. For the moment, it’s primarily used for military training or in industrial applications, such as car or theme-park design. (For a comprehensive look at the technology, check out The Verge’s excellent history of the Rise and Fall and Rise of Virtual Reality.)
Facebook’s $2 billion purchase of Oculus VR earlier this year spurred renewed interest.
Samsung executives said the Gear VR’s success will hinge on the experiences it can offer users. A spokesperson said the company is working with “content providers,” though it has no deals to announce.
“The story’s going to be written by content, at the end of the day,” said Justin Denison, Samsung’s vice president of product strategy. “How the content is made available to consumers will drive whether this is a success or not.”