Unpacked for Friday November 11, 2016

Snap Starts Selling Spectacles Through Bots of a Different Kind – by Jan Dawson

Snap (formerly Snapchat) on Thursday started selling its Spectacles camera glasses through a vending machine (dubbed a Snapbot) in Venice, California, close to its headquarters. A line quickly formed and the vending machine sold out of the Spectacles at least once before being refilled. Snap also employed Ellen DeGeneres as an early tester and had her share her experience, appropriately enough, through Snapchat. The company also launched a Snapchat filter allowing users to virtually try on a pair of Spectacles.

Snap has always indicated it had a small production run in mind for Spectacles, at least at first, and its distribution strategy certainly reinforces that idea. A single vending machine is never going to sell a large number of Spectacles, even if it’s moved around from place to place roughly every 24 hours. But, of course, selling a large number of Spectacles isn’t Snap’s goal here – creating buzz, excitement, and a sense of exclusivity is. Given the high markup for Spectacles currently selling on eBay, it seems the strategy is working and the company certainly got plenty of buzz through what’s essentially a viral marketing campaign.

At some point, Snap will have to evolve beyond this early strategy if it’s to sell Spectacles in any sort of volume. The question is, just how many people will want to buy the glasses, which are relatively expensive, fairly obtrusive and, of course, better suited to the summer months than the winter (which should theoretically be arriving any day now despite the warm weather people in many parts of the US are currently enjoying). This start, though, with artificial scarcity coupled with social buzz, is a great way to test the market and seed early adopters with devices. It’s telling that Snap isn’t making review units available to journalists or traditional gadget reviewers – this will be very much a word of mouth marketing campaign, as befits a social company.

The big question is where Snap goes from here. It will likely have to move to some combination of direct online distribution and third party retailers over time to support significant scale. It’s a safe bet it will pick retailers other than those who typically distribute consumer electronics, likely including some fashion brands. In some ways, this will be the most interesting tech product launch from a distribution perspective since the Apple Watch, which also played to fashion and jewelry audiences not usually associated with tech products.

In some ways, the most amazing thing about the launch was no one was really talking about whether the Spectacles actually work well. Towards the end of the day, some tech blogs managed to grab some of the early buyers and get their feedback and it seems to be largely positive. The simplicity of the glasses is their strongest point and, of course, their integration with Snapchat is a huge strength, though it seems as though the videos can also be shared to other social media. I’m guessing we’ll be seeing circular videos shared more extensively on Facebook and Twitter in the coming months, but it’ll be a slow build given the limited distribution, at least for now.

Foldable Phones Might Be Better Off  Not To See The Light of Day – by Carolina Milanesi

The Verge reported this week that Samsung filed a patent back in April for a foldable phone. The drawings show a narrower phone with a hinge similar to what you see on a Surface Book that bends inward to close on itself like an old fashion flip phone. The folding movement is said to be automatic or semi-automatic.

A couple of weeks ago, Patently Apple uncovered an Apple patent that refers to a bendable, foldable iPhone using nanotube structures. The iPhone differs from the Samsung design in that it looks like it closes like a book.

I do not really want to get into the details of what is needed to make bendable phones that are commercially viable. Lenovo showed a concept earlier this year and so have other manufacturers.

My question is really about the need to have a bendable phone. There seem to be two main reasons: giving us more screen and protecting that screen. While I do not think smartphones should be growing much more in size, there is still room for giving us more screen without growing the overall real estate of the device. I also think there is a balance we have to think about when it comes to a device we have with us all the time. The reason why there are still consumers who like the less than 5” phones is they want something compact. Foldable might help with the size of the device but it is unlikely to help with the thickness. When I saw the iPhone patent design, I immediately thought of the many 2-in-1s that have a foldable design vs a detachable one. The weight of those devices is less than ideal and hinders the experience. As far as screens Gorilla Glass is getting better and better and our data shows major screen breaks are actually less common than we are lead to believe.

Apart from phones, however, there is a lot of opportunity for bendable technology, especially if you think about wearables. Here we have seen some curved displays but not yet a bendable one that has the guts of the device spread around your wrist — the wristband is not just an accessory but a functioning part of the device. Think how much more accurate the heart monitor could be if the sensor was where you usually take your pulse without you having to wear your watch with the screen positioned there.

VR and AR seem like another area where bendable could benefit the experience. While you can turn your head to see things around you, there would be a benefit if the headset was stretching more around your head so your eyes would have less of a blind spot and a more fluid field of vision. I am very shortsighted and I see a big difference between wearing glasses where I clearly have blind spots vs. contact lenses which allow me to really see more. Curved TVs, although not changing your experience dramatically, do help to immerse you more in the content.

There are still hurdles to a commercially viable, bendable phone but even if it could be done it does not necessarily mean it should. We also might see different iterations rather than what we have seen in the patent drawings, more aligned with what the market will call for by the time the technology is ready.

Oculus Software Update Lowers PC Requirements for VR Headset – By Bob O’Donnell

One of the more exciting developments expected to drive growth in the PC market is interest in virtual reality and head-mounted displays. The problem is the hardware requirements for the PC used to drive those headsets has been very high. That, in turn, translates into expensive new PCs—typically at least $1,000, but sometimes even more—which severely limits the potential market size for these exciting new devices.

Yesterday, Oculus took a big step toward reducing those costs—and expanding the potential audience for their Rift VR headset—with a new software update. The update leverages technology the Facebook-owned company calls “asychronous spacewarp.” Though similarly named to the “asynchronous timewarp” technology the company introduced with the official Rift launch back in March, “asynchronous spacewarp” is different and has a key advantage: it essentially allows the Rift to deliver what’s said to be a quality experience at just 45 fps (frames per second) instead of the minimum 90 fps typically required.

Translated, that means you can now get away with a less powerful (and less expensive) video card to drive a Rift experience. In theory, that means you buy a cheaper new PC and still successfully use the Rift. Realistically, though, it means a large collection of existing gaming PCs can likely be pressed into service—at no extra cost for their owners.

Specifically, instead of requiring an nVidia GTX 970 or AMD Radeon 290 GPU, the Rift can now be run on a system with any nVidia 900 or 1000 series or any AMD RX 400 series GPUs. As you might expect, the experience isn’t supposed to be as good as you would get with a newer GPU but, for existing gaming PC owners who have been dying to try a Rift, this could be a good option.

Over time, of course, the CPU and GPU requirements necessary to do high-quality VR and AR will fall into mainstream price points and be available to virtually anyone who buys a new PC. Until then, however, these kinds of software innovations will be increasingly important to introduce a wider audience to the wonders of VR.

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Carolina Milanesi

Carolina is a Principal Analyst at Creative Strategies, Inc, a market intelligence and strategy consulting firm based in Silicon Valley and recognized as one of the premier sources of quantitative and qualitative research and insights in tech. At Creative Strategies, Carolina focuses on consumer tech across the board. From hardware to services, she analyzes today to help predict and shape tomorrow. In her prior role as Chief of Research at Kantar Worldpanel ComTech, she drove thought leadership research by marrying her deep understanding of global market dynamics with the wealth of data coming from ComTech’s longitudinal studies on smartphones and tablets. Prior to her ComTech role, Carolina spent 14 years at Gartner, most recently as their Consumer Devices Research VP and Agenda Manager. In this role, she led the forecast and market share teams on smartphones, tablets, and PCs. She spent most of her time advising clients from VC firms, to technology providers, to traditional enterprise clients. Carolina is often quoted as an industry expert and commentator in publications such as The Financial Times, Bloomberg, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. She regularly appears on BBC, Bloomberg TV, Fox, NBC News and other networks. Her Twitter account was recently listed in the “101 accounts to follow to make Twitter more interesting” by Wired Italy.

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