SAN FRANCISCO — For the most part, Samsung Electronics is staging its Unpacked product launch event in Northern California to reveal a trio of new Galaxy S23 smartphones, plus a handful of laptops. But that’s not all.
Extended reality, or XR, is a blanket term to describe a handful of related technologies that include virtual reality, augmented reality and mixed reality. And because these technologies reflect different ways of physically looking at your software, services and the world around you, Samsung’s announcement all but confirms the company is developing a new wearable display or headset.
“Many different companies … have been making these announcements about different realities,” TM Roh, the president and head of Samsung’s mobile experience business, told The Washington Post in an interview. “So we have also been making similar preparations, no less than any others.”
Roh would not elaborate on the specifics of Samsung’s first new XR product, which will not appear at Wednesday’s launch event. “We’re getting there, but we’re not too far away,” he said.
“For the chipset, it is going to be a strategic collaboration with Qualcomm. The hardware will be us,” Roh said. And the software, he added, will be provided by Google.
“For the ecosystem, we were trying to determine which platform to work with,” Roh said. “And in the end, we decided that it was going to be Google,” he added, referring to a new, previously unannounced version of the Android operating system meant specifically to power devices such as wearable displays.
Google and Qualcomm separately confirmed the partnership on XR.
“We’re excited to work with our partners to build a new generation of immersive computing experiences that will further elevate what users can do with Google,” said Google spokeswoman Kaori Miyake.
Qualcomm CEO Cristiano Amon said at the launch event that with the shared expertise from its partners, “we have the foundation to make these opportunities a reality and drive the future of the spatial internet."
Roh also said Samsung’s venture into extended reality would involve service partnerships with Meta and Microsoft, although he declined to elaborate on specifics.
Creating reasons to use — and continue using — these kinds of extended reality devices is arguably more important than word of a new gadget, which is why Samsung played up its partnerships instead of a concrete product announcement at its launch event.
“We believe that the ecosystem has to be somewhat ready for the product to be launched and for the product to be successful as well,” Roh said. “And as you know, there have been many attempts by other companies so far, but not as successful as had been hoped because perhaps the ecosystem was not as ready as it should have been.”
That Samsung is working on a head-worn computing gadget should not be a surprise — it has a lot of history there. In 2015, it offered people an affordable first taste of virtual reality with the Gear VR headset, into which users inserted their smartphones. (The company periodically updated the headset’s design until it stopped developing new ones a few years later.) Then, in 2017, it debuted the Odyssey — a headset meant for use with Windows PCs — and released a revised model the following year.
After that, Samsung backed away from building such products while companies including Facebook owner Meta made immersive computing devices the cornerstone of their corporate strategies. Since then, however, layoffs have recently forced Meta and other companies, including Microsoft, to scale back their extended-reality teams, in the process casting some doubt on their visions of the metaverse.
Meanwhile, Apple is widely expected to reveal its first XR device as early as this spring. That product — a reportedly pricey mixed reality headset — is said to track hand and body movement, as well as offer immersive visuals that can fade into a view of the real world, according to Bloomberg News. Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Although much of the extended-reality hype has been focused on Meta and Apple, a tie-up of three companies with collective expertise in screens, software and chip design may help this new endeavor find its footing in a soon-to-be crowded market. And that could mean more options for consumers as the devices we use to be productive and stay connected change in shape and scope.
But this first peek into Samsung’s next frontier comes at a critical time for the company. Smartphone shipments shrank by 12 percent globally in 2022, according to the research firm Canalys, and depressed demand for consumer gadgets recently led to Samsung’s lowest quarterly profit in years.
Roh conceded that market demand for smartphones could remain weak through the first half of this year as consumers remain cautious about purchases.
Even as Samsung gears up for what may be its next project, Roh said he doesn’t look at this work as an existential risk for the rest of Samsung’s mobile business. Despite shrinking demand, he said, he believes more cautious consumers will continue to invest in “premium” products for the added benefits they provide.
In the case of this year’s new Galaxy S23 smartphones, that includes improved processor performance and a continued focus on cameras. The $1,199.99 Galaxy S23 Ultra, for example, includes a new 200-megapixel sensor the company says will produce better nighttime photos.
“[Smartphones] will continue to build on the features and the needs of consumers and will provide even more new experiences,” Roh said. And among those experiences, he said, are more immersive ones that could change the way we view and interact with our phones.
When it comes to augmented reality and mixed reality, “of course there are devices for that as well,” Roh said. “But perhaps they can be joined with the smartphone and develop further from there.”
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