Busy Samsung stirs many pots, from smart home to VR to health tech

It shows off a sensor-filled new Simband, its blueprint for future wearables, along with the 360-degree cameras of "Project Beyond" and much more.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
5 min read

Samsung's second annual developers conference, held at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, includes sessions on virtual reality, smart home and digital health. James Martin/CNET

SAN FRANCISCO -- Samsung on Wednesday detailed its latest tools for developers -- including a new sensor-filled wearable reference design -- to get them excited about making apps customized for its devices.

"We believe in open platforms and strong partnerships because together we can better serve our customers," Samsung President Won-Pyo Hong said Wednesday during a keynote at Samsung's developers conference here. Hong oversees Samsung's Media Solutions Center, the group working on software and services for Samsung devices and also the group hosting the developers conference.

"The hundreds of products in our homes...all need to work together in a simple and permanent way," Hong said. "We know Samsung cannot build every single one of these products alone."

Samsung Gear S: curved, big, and it's a phone (hands-on pictures)

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Samsung is hosting its second annual developers conference at the Moscone Center in downtown San Francisco, the same venue where Apple and Google host their yearly confabs. The conference is part of Samsung's effort to work with startups and become a bigger part of Silicon Valley. The South Korean company has long been at the forefront of hardware advancements, but it has struggled with software and services.

Samsung hasn't said how many people have registered to attend, but last year's event, which was held at a smaller venue, had 1,300 participants. The company has more than 200 people lined up to speak over the course of three days.

In particular, Samsung's developers conference will be focus on digital health, smart home, virtual reality and wearables.

The company introduced software development kits for the sectors, including the Samsung Digital Health SDK, a beta SDK for Samsung Smart Home and an S Pen SDK. The New Look SDK allows developers to take advantage of the curved screen of the Note Edge phablet, and a Gear S SDK lets app makers create software that applies to the smartwatch's standalone features. The Gear S includes its own cellular modem, making it the first Samsung smartwatch that doesn't need to be constantly connected to a smartphone.

The company also talked up Samsung Flow, which lets users to access programs and information across its various devices. Similar to Apple's "Handoff" feature, users can start reading something on their phone and then move to their tablet. They also can defer items to pick them up again when ready or get notifications about incoming messages and calls across devices -- that includes receiving texts on Samsung TVs.

Ram Fish, Samsung vice president of digital health, shows off the second-generation, sensor-filled Simband wearable. James Martin/CNET

During the keynote, Ram Fish, Samsung vice president of digital health, showed off the second generation of its Simband wearable reference design -- basically a blueprint for future wearable devices from Samsung and other companies. In May, Samsung's Strategy and Innovation Center unveiled the first version of the wearable, which contained a host of sensors for measuring advanced health characteristics, as well as a cloud-based software platform called Samsung Architecture for Multimodal Interactions (SAMI) that can collect sensor data from the device for analysis.

The second-generation Simband device looks like Samsung's Gear S smartwatch but with extra sensors embedded. Developers will be able to access Simband to make new sensors and applications, and it's now available for ordering. Samsung also unveiled an SDK for its cloud digital health platform.

"Digital health is one of the biggest, most meaningful opportunities of our generation," Fish said. "To crack it, we need to collaborate."

The conference comes as Samsung feels the heat from Chinese vendors willing to undercut its product pricing and from the steady competition of Apple's iPhone franchise.

Samsung has also struggled to develop apps and services that are widely used by consumers, and its homegrown Tizen software -- an alternative to Google's Android mobile operating system -- has been a nonstarter in smartphones.

Eric Anderson, Samsung vice president of content and product solutions, said the company will be rolling out the Tizen operating system across its product portfolio in 2015. That includes televisions and other items. Currently, Tizen runs most of Samsung's smartwatches, including the Gear 2 and Gear S.

Samsung unveiled Project Beyond to place 360-degree cameras around the world to gather immersive video for virtual reality. James Martin/CNET

It's vital for Samsung to partner with startups and other app developers to provide software customized for its devices. Being just another Android player is not enough, at least not if Samsung wants to hold onto its position at the top of the electronics food chain. Instead, the company has to set itself apart from everyone else in the market. It needs something that boosts its own ecosystem and connects its various devices together. Samsung also must make customers loyal to its devices and offer software and services they really use. And it needs to put itself on the same level as Apple and Google, owning the relationship with consumers instead of simply selling them gadgets.

Samsung on Tuesday debuted new appliances controls via its newly acquired home automation platform, SmartThings . With a SmartThings hub plugged into a home router, users are able to monitor the status of their Samsung smart appliances right on their phone via the SmartThings app. Samsung constructed a smart home in the conference center to show off the SmartThings capabilities.

"Going forward, every connected appliance in the Samsung lineup will be connected to the SmartThings platform," SmartThings CEO Alex Hawkinson said during the keynote. Samsung is "taking a big, bold step into the future."

For virtual reality, Samsung showed off "Project Beyond," new 360-degree cameras that shoot immersive video for its Gear VR headset. Examples included footage from the San Francisco Museum of Fine Arts.

"We're going to put it all over the world," said Pranav Mistry, vice president of research for Samsung Research America. "Once you have your Gear VR, you'll be able to teleport to those places and events."

Gear VR will be available in early December, said Nick DiCarlo, Samsung vice president and general manager of immersive products and virtual reality. Oculus late Wednesday said it will sell the device for $199 on its own or $249 for a bundle with a Bluetooth gamepad (Samsung confirmed the pricing to CNET). It also requires a Note 4, which starts at $300 with a two-year contract.

DiCarlo told CNET that Gear VR won't be made compatible with older devices because of the hardware requirements, including the processor and the display.

Update, 10:15 a.m. PT: Adds details about SDKs. Update, 5:45 p.m.: Adds details about Gear VR pricing and comments from Samsung executive.

Samsung Gear VR turns a smartphone into virtual reality (hands-on pictures)

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