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Lenovo ups its game with modular and AR-driven smartphones

Chinese vendor taps into its Motorola assets to respond to market slowdown, unveiling Phab2 Pro and Moto Z

Smartphone makers are under intense pressure, and are packing new capabilities into their devices to try to accelerate the upgrade cycle again, especially in the premium end of the market. They are pinning high hopes on virtual reality (VR) and augmented reality (AR) and, by squeezing the underlying technologies into smaller form factors, they can push VR well beyond its traditional place in gaming platforms and immersive video, and out to the mass market.

Lenovo is leading the way with its launch of the Phab2 Pro, a hybrid between an Android smartphone and a dedicated AR device. The key difference from specialized VR/AR products, as far as the unconverted are concerned, is that there is no need for headgear. Instead, users look through the handset as though it were a mirror.

The launch demonstrates two trends. One, smartphone makers will need to be increasingly creative if they are to succeed in the shrinking premium market, where it is becoming harder to differentiate just as consumers are becoming more demanding. A bit of extra memory, or even a larger screen, is no longer enough to impress users into upgrading or paying extra. Lenovo is rising to the challenge, tapping into the brains and design heritage of its Motorola acquisition to try to inject new momentum into its mobile business.

Second, Google’s hand will be felt more directly on a wider range of its partners’ devices, as well as its own-branded offerings. Google chief Sundar Pichai said at the recent I/O developer conference that the company planned to have more input into Android hardware and user experience. As the results of R&D activities like Project Tango and Project Ara feed into real world devices from Android OEMs, Google will have another shot at asserting control over the Android experience, something it has only partially achieved so far, and mainly in the commercially insignificant Nexus platform.

The Phab2 Pro implements Project Tango technology, which has only been seen before in prototypes, often created by universities or hackers. Tango supports AR experiences using four specialized cameras which can be programmed to understand the world around them. Lenovo already introduced a phablet with Tango machine vision capabilities at Mobile World Congress in February.

The Chinese company has worked closely with Google, it said, to shrink the technology into a smaller form factor and make it more energy efficient. They have also cooperated with camera and sensor suppliers to make it possible to cram all the Tango components into a conventional and attractive smartphone case (some prototypes had large bulges to accommodate the cameras).

Lenovo is clear that, to achieve its commercial objectives, 3D and AR/VR must go well beyond a novelty factor. Once people forget the technology and accept machine vision as a normal user interface, then it can start to power truly useful apps – the company used Google Maps as an example of an app which had changed the way people operate, because they use it many times a day without thinking about how it works. The right Phab2 Pro apps, including those in the location and navigation areas, could have the same impact on daily behavior, taking AR into a far bigger arena than gaming.

Product leader Jeff Meredith said at the launch: “We believe that … [Tango] could become so pervasive that you would take it for granted. That it would disappear into the background.”

Lenovo showed off various apps in conjunction with software partners, including one for interior design and another, shown off by Google’s Tango engineering chief, John Lee, in which dinosaurs and the solar system were overlaid on real surroundings.

On the smartphone side, the new device has a 6.4-inch quad HD display, 16-megapixel camera, fingerprint scanner and 4050 mAh battery, and is powered by Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 652 processor. The four Tango cameras consist of an 8-megapixel front camera, a 16-mp rear RGB camera, a depth-sensing infrared camera with an imager and an emitter, and a motion-tracking camera. The price is $499.

The next challenge, as for any new user experience, is to attract a broad base of developers and usable apps. Lenovo’s track record is not particularly strong in this area, but some of its Motorola inheritance will help as will – more importantly – the close partnership with Google, Motorola’s former owner.

The Chinese company, owner of the Motorola products and brand, was one of the hardest-hit, among the recent round of quarterly results from smartphone makers, but the stalled growth of the segment. In a saturating market, vendors can consolidate to chase market share, or innovate. Lenovo is going for the second option, unveiling not just the Phab2 Pro, but two modular handsets under the Motorola brand – the Moto Z and Moto Z Force.

These represent another key direction which Google has set to push the user experience and economics of smartphones. In this case, however, Lenovo has gone further than the search giant in delivering real world products. Both companies are tapping into work pioneered by Motorola when it was still independent, but Google’s Project Ara has not yet resulted directly in commercial handsets, with repeatedly delayed launches.

By contrast, the Moto Z duo are the first Moto-branded launch under Lenovo’s ownership, and they are compatible with Moto Mods, a family of snap-on modules to add extra memory, sound components, display projector and other options. They will go up against the first big-brand modular platform, LG’s G5 Friends, as well as some offerings from more specialized vendors.

With nostalgic memories of the Motorola RAZR, the Moto Z has gone for ultra-slim and extremely light design, though the Z Force is slightly thicker and designed to be more robust, with a shatter-proof display and a bigger battery. Both models have a 5.5-inch quad HD display, Snapdragon 820 processor, 4GB of RAM and Android 6.0.1.

Both handsets will be available this fall. The Moto Z will be sold unlocked, but the Moto Z Force will be a US exclusive for Verizon.

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