Barcelona – the name normally fills the mind with visions of Gaudi’s beautiful Sagrada Familia, the sublime front three of Messi, Neymar and Suarez at the Camp Nou, or delicious tapas washed down with a cool beer. But in February every year the city swells by nearly 100,000 people with only one thing on their minds – the latest phones and technology to come from Mobile World Congress.
This year I spent a day snooping around the eight gigantic halls at MWC16, filled to bursting with smartphones, VR headsets and all manner of assorted gadgets that we can expect to get our grubby hands on over the next year. Here’s what caught my eye:
Samsung Gear VR
Pretty much everywhere throughout the show businesses were showing off their latest products cashing in on the zeitgeist that is virtual reality, and for the most part they used the Samsung Gear VR. I’m not surprised the savvy marketeers at MWC have chosen to use it as it is readily available now (unlike the Oculus Rift or HTC Vive), ruggedly built and at only £80 it is a relatively affordable way to show the incredible potential of virtual reality outside of gaming. Samsung themselves used it to take visitors on yet another VR rollercoaster and troll everyone at their Galaxy S7 press conference.
The biggest news from HTC during MWC16 is that they have finally pinned a release date and price to their virtual reality headset, the HTC Vive. From 29 February you can put down $799 of your hard-earned cash to pre-order the VR headset, which should start delivering in April (no word on UK price yet). That’s quite a lot, and like the Oculus Rift you need a serious gaming rig if you are going to run it. That said the experience is a delight. I got to play Elite: Dangerous, zipping through an asteroid field shooting up enemies using flight paddles to control my space ship – it was a blast!
Update: HTC has announced that the Vive will cost £689 in the UK
Oral-B GENIUS smart toothbrush
Yes, I was surprised as anybody to see a toothbrush at MWC, but there it was, so I couldn’t argue with its presence and had to find out more. The Oral-B GENIUS Bluetooth toothbrush is designed to make sure that you spend long enough brushing your pegs every day and get that brush nestled into all the right spots. By sticking your phone to the mirror using a ‘practical smartphone holder’, the app actually watches you as you brush and communicates using Bluetooth to make sure that you have given each part of your mouth a good scrub.
We’ve all missed a brush or two now and again, but according to Oral-B you should be brushing for two minutes every day. Not going to lie, when using the app two minutes feels like a looong time, but you do feel like you have given them a proper clean by the end of it. The GENIUS toothbrush is available from July if you really want your morning ablutions connected to the Internet of Things.
Sony Xperia X-series
I’m just going to say this now, the new Sony Xperia smartphones are lush. Despite not being a new Z6, Sony continue to make smartphones with a thin design, long battery life and a great camera. It’s just a shame that the rest of what Sony had to offer was just so lame. They are:
- The Xperia Ear - a tiny headphone that does everything you would expect a modern earpiece to do (calls, read messages, notifications).
- The Xperia Eye - a camera you wear around your neck that looks suspiciously like a life tracker (and we all know how popular they are).
- The Xperia Projector – a brick-sized block you put on a desk or a near a wall that throws an image against the surface which you can interact with (albeit sluggishly).
- The Xperia Agent – an adorable robot that blinks at you but other than that it doesn’t appear to do any more than tell the weather and other useful nuggets of info (a bit like the Amazon Echo).
It is worth noting that the last three are concepts, but if that is Sony's vision of the future they’re hardly inspiring.
Samsung Galaxy S7
It seemed remiss of Samsung to not let you anywhere near their new flagship phone, instead protecting it behind a glass shield, turning heads as it slowly turned 360 degrees in its see-through shell. I imagine it would be dreamy to hold, but then what do I know…?
LG G5 and Friends
One thing you tend to notice when mooching around 240,000m2 of floor space filled with phones is that they all tend to look a lot like, well, phones. Long have we been at the point where the latest smartphones are a bit faster, a bit sleeker and a bit bigger/smaller than their last iteration. The Samsung Galaxy S7 and the new Sony Xperia X-series are both highly desirable pieces of kit, but they don’t really break the mould. That’s why it was a breath of fresh air when the day before the conference started LG showed off their latest smartphone, the LG G5 with an unusual twist in the tail.
The phone itself looks great, is well refined and holds well in the hand, but rather than trying to cram as many features as possible into the body, LG have decided to go modular, offering a selection of "Friends" that you can use to bump the potential of the smartphone. The most interesting of these you plug straight into the booty of the phone when you want to mix things up a bit. The LG Cam Plus gives the phone better camera controls and functionality, while the LG Hi-Fi Plus with B&O PLAY upscales the music coming from your phone to make it crisp and spacious. The camera module gives the phone a good bit of heft when taking photos on the improved camera (the wide angle lens is a treat), while A-Ha’s Take on Me sounds suitably epic over the general drone of MWC visitors.
The other Friends include a VR headset (with the ubiquitous rollercoaster demo), a 360-camera, a drone controller and a bizarre orb that rolls around a bit like BB-8 and is designed to bother your pets when you aren’t around.
The halls of MWC16 in Barcelona were quite literally buzzing with the sound of drones (or was that a toothbrush?), gadgets, bleeping phones, electric cars, smartwatches and much more, so I'll be keeping an eye out to see what else comes from the show, though with my aching feet up in the comfort of the office.