Samsung's Galaxy S9 launch sprinkled 'AR magic' into my hands
This is what it's like to attend one of the biggest tech events and the marquee conference at the Mobile World Congress trade show.
Roger ChengFormer Executive Editor / Head of News
Roger Cheng (he/him/his) was the executive editor in charge of CNET News, managing everything from daily breaking news to in-depth investigative packages. Prior to this, he was on the telecommunications beat and wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal for nearly a decade and got his start writing and laying out pages at a local paper in Southern California. He's a devoted Trojan alum and thinks sleep is the perfect -- if unattainable -- hobby for a parent.
ExpertiseMobile, 5G, Big Tech, Social MediaCredentials
SABEW Best in Business 2011 Award for Breaking News Coverage, Eddie Award in 2020 for 5G coverage, runner-up National Arts & Entertainment Journalism Award for culture analysis.
For the last several hours, my
media badge was, well, a plain media badge: a rectangular piece of cardboard with rounded edges connected to a plastic clip and lanyard that hung around my neck, like so many press credentials I've collected over the years.
Its seemingly sole value was the ability to get me into Samsung's launch of the
, held Sunday on the eve of the
Mobile World Congress
2018 trade show in Barcelona.
But with a hover of my
camera over it, the badge suddenly transformed into a digital rendering of a Galaxy S9 -- and a prime example of a technology called
, which overlays digital images over the real world. In this case, on the display of my own phone was Samsung's latest flagship device. I could move it side to side, or raise it for a closeup. When I flipped the badge around, I got a rendering of the back of the phone.
It's the latest trick from Samsung's showmanship playbook, which over the years has put interesting spins on the staid and formulaic tech product launch with its "Unpacked" events. Given that many of the Galaxy S9 details leaked ahead of time, and that the launch of
iPhone X is still fresh in many people's minds, Samsung needed to make a strong impression.
"I actually thought they did quite well as far as energy, considering how much of it was already known," said Carolina Milanesi, an analyst at Creative Strategies.
That its most memorable stunt involved augmented reality underscores Samsung big move in this area, particularly with the AR emojis found in the new phones. The allure of AR has swept up some of the largest players in tech, including
and Apple. Consider, for example, the animojis that Apple brought exclusively to its iPhone X when that top-of-the-line device went on sale toward the end of last year.
Watch this: How does the Galaxy S9 compare to the iPhone X?
The event also marked a return to Barcelona for Samsung, which has traditionally used MWC as its platform for the global launch of the newest members of its successful Galaxy S franchise. Last year, Samsung opted to hold a separate event in New York after the conference, allowing other
to take the MWC spotlight -- notably the nostalgia-tapping
Unpredictability is a common trait when it comes to big product launches like these, so I lined up at the gates of the Fira Montjuic convention hall in central Barcelona three hours early. Yes, three hours. Already ahead of me were 10 people, including a rowdy group of foreign bloggers who regularly shouted a countdown as if the gates were opening, only to have security guards behind the metal barriers shake their heads. The stunt was funny the first time they did it.
After they began letting us in, my colleagues and I made a beeline for the main hall along a path flanked by two rows of waitresses with hors d'oeuvres and drinks. Near the back of the outside area was a row of Samsung employees with white jackets and black pants forming a human barrier protecting a light-up daffodil sculpture.
We gave all that hardly a glance as we entered the hall, a gigantic hangar setup with rows of chairs forming an octagon-like ring around a square black stage. Hanging above the stage were four massive black displays, each facing a different side, ensuring there would be no bad seats.
Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus: Sizzling photos from every angle
Last year's Unpacked events ran the gamut. There was an MWC show most memorable for the unexpected visit by Greenpeace protestors. (There were some forgettable tablets, too.) Then came the more straightforward launch of the Galaxy S8, which took place in New York's Lincoln Center. The company was trying to rehabilitate its reputation and bring the buzz back to its name after the
Galaxy Note 7
, which had an unhealthy tendency to overheat and catch fire. There were fewer gimmicks during the presentation, in which the company played it safe and kept its focus on the phone's new edge-to-edge "Infinity Display." It did offer a stunning video display that flowed from the back of the stage toward the ceiling, creating a wraparound visual effect.
This year's presentation lacked that visual pizazz, but included more interactive elements like a booth set run by YouTube stars The Slow Mo Guys to highlight the phone's "Super Slow-Mo" capability, which captures video at 960 frames per second, compared with the iPhone's 240 frames per second.
"The experience has to be something different than what you can get online," said Maribel Lopez, an analyst at Lopez Research. "Samsung delivered a few that made it worth being there."
So while Sunday's event didn't have me walking on water, it did, for a brief moment, let me hold a digital Galaxy S9 in my hands. In some ways, it was more interesting than the real thing.