In the home, Samsung is everywhere: you can find its logo on everything from televisions and smartphones to vacuum cleaners and ovens. With ventures such as acquiring a family of smart home devices and releasing its own virtual reality headset, it has been aggressively expanding into new territory in recent years.
Yet all signs at the Samsung developer conference in San Francisco pointed towards a company that wants to become even more ubiquitous in our daily lives. Several new products were announced or confirmed at the event, giving us the clearest glimpse yet at the connected universe envisioned by the South Korean technology giant.
A vision for virtual
Piggybacking onto the Oculus platform for its cut-price Gear VR headset provided owners of Galaxy phones an easy route into the world of virtual reality, but Samsung’s ambitions don’t appear to be limited to a bit-part role in this technology space. The company’s head of R&D for software, Injong Rhee, confirmed at the conference that Samsung was developing its second VR headset and stated that it is focused on ‘wireless and dedicated VR devices – not necessarily working with our mobile phone[s]’.
Two things stand out here. Firstly, a wireless headset would compare favourably to its mainstream rivals, all of which have the drawback of needing extensive cabling to link them back to a high-end computing device. Secondly, by taking away the mobile phone element (and presumably replacing it with an in-built screen and processing unit) Samsung opens its product up to an audience beyond its current smartphone user base. While such a device is unlikely to match the quality of the HTC Vive or the Oculus Rift, it could be successful as a cheaper mid-range alternative that bypasses many of the inconvenient set-up issues that currently affect other headsets.
Samsung also revealed that it is looking at incorporating hand- and gesture-tracking in future versions, but that this is more of a long-term goal that might not arrive in time for its next handset iteration. Having provided its technology as a baseline the first time around, it would make sense for Oculus to be involved in the creation of the second generation Gear VR, but this has yet to be confirmed.
All aboard the Artik
As well as wanting to play host to your virtual world, Samsung has renewed its efforts to take over the smart home with Artik, an ecosystem it hopes will be the universal platform for IoT systems to communicate through. This comes with a few interesting additions, including an in-built rules engine (crucial for intelligent applications such as voice recognition) and a set of Artik chips designed with the IoT in mind.
The company had a few example applications on show at the conference that made use of this hardware, including an Amazon Echo-like device designed as a hub for the smart home named Otto. As well as being controlled by voice or through an app, users can have it display information visually and even swivel its head to see what is going on in a particular room.
More importantly, Samsung is attempting to overcome the security gaps that currently affect the majority of the IoT market through a collaborative project with Thales e-Security to develop a cryptographic tool that provides secure authentication of devices on a network. The idea behind this is that these uniquely generated IDs cannot be replicated by hackers, thereby offering a fail-safe check on whether another device is genuine or not.
Getting this element of its IoT offering right is going to be make-or-break for Samsung’s smart home ambitions. It has come under fire for the lax security of its SmartThings platform following the publication of research from the University of Michigan that showed that SmartThings was seriously compromised security-wise, with 55 percent of its apps asking for more access rights than they needed – giving hackers the opportunity to unlock and reset smart locks in certain cases. The loopholes highlighted are now fixed, but this was a damaging blow to Samsung’s security credibility – and something that it needed to show it was serious about fixing.
Samsung not only has its eyes on almost every aspect of the connected home – one of the minor attractions of the conference was an adapter that adds smart functionality to your car – it also aims to be the blanket standard upon which everything in the smart home is built. Unsurprisingly, it’s competing with several other titans in this space – from Microsoft Azure to Amazon’s AWS IoT and IBM Watson – but Samsung will be hoping that its broad portfolio and position in the connected home market will push adoption of Artik as a generic platform.
In short, Samsung is pitching itself as the one-stop-shop for a connected lifestyle, yet its approach is scatter gun, ranging from smart fridges and wearables to home hubs and cloud platforms. In pushing out in all directions, it has perhaps over-extended in some areas at the expense of user security, while it is late to the party with other crucial products that knit it all together.
As one of the largest companies in the world, Samsung has the resources and financial clout to create a interconnected web of products that few others will be able to match in terms of scale – the question is whether it can continue making everything for everyone while also providing the backbone for everything else to communicate over. Even for Samsung, that’s a tough ask.