Samsung Reinvents Flagship, goes all in on VR

I’ve never particularly like Samsung as a brand. The only product of theirs I’ve owned was a hand-me-down Note tablet from by brother, which I used almost exclusively as a shinier Kindle reader. Countless mornings my eyes would wander to the space just above the screen, with that “Samsung” in faux-futuristic font. Sigh. Companies that plaster branding all over their products just reinforce my bond with Apple’s subtly elegant metallic, geometric silhouette of the fruit, no words necessary.

The Versions After Party hosted by Kill Screen at at Samsung’s 837 NYC in the Meatpacking District was the first branded event I’ve been to in a while that felt like a genuine campaign to build a community focused on emerging tech. Lofty predictions aside, I left the event thinking of a turning tide for Samsung; they’re finding they’re voice through a growing community of users, futurists, and tech enthusiasts. The conversation used to be how Samsung incessantly copied Apple; now it’s about what new products the company will dive into next.

What’s In Store

Even before walking into the space, the bustle of people inside resembled a trendy gallery space not uncommon in the neighborhood. The somewhat chaotic overlaps of glass, marble, iron, and screens inside made for a dynamic experience; shoppers look for a phone while a couple stops at the cafe upstairs, while a private party unfolds in the sunken auditorium. Phones on sleek, cylindrical pedestals greeted us at the entrance, but that’s the only moment Samsung will force their phones on visitors. The streetlevel room at 837 is all about VR.

The Mainstage

During the event, the stage was packed with people chatting and squeezing their ways to the bar for free drinks, but the space is fantastic for large, intimate conferences, lectures, discussions, and presentations. It surely reminded me — and most architecture geeks for that matter — of OMA’s Prada Store in Soho, with its stepped surfaces that blend circulation, seating, and auditorium programming. The space has a nice sense of drama, where the upper two levels can peer down at the stage at the occasional discussion or presentation. Well done, Samsung.

Upstairs

After messing with some of Snapchat’s new filters and grabbing some hors d’oeuvres I ate too fast to savor, we went upstairs to the living room. I can imagine groups of kids hanging out up here, getting a coffee at the adjoining cafe, taking a break and playing with Samsung devices. Stores of the future will be all about programming and serendipity, come to the event and play with our devices after. Even the Apple store feels old-world after coming here; does anyone go to a store just to test and buy electronics anymore?

“837 signals a big shift for Samsung — at least to consumers — from an electronics company to an innovation company.”

Why 837 is So Interesting

I’m sure tons of people have walked into 837 and scoffed at Samsung criticisms of trying too hard or wasting valuable Meatpacking District real estate, but the I walked out feeling pretty excited for Samsung, for many reasons.

First, what other electronics company hosts major tech events in their space, that are not overtly about the company’s products? Here, the bulk of Samsung’s showroom and display devices are tucked toward the back end, on the second floor. This makes a statement: “We make cool stuff, but we’re not going to force it down your throat.” Even so, I found myself fiddling with the Samsung Gear Watch, ogling at the use of the outer dial as a navigation tool (really, this is something no other smartwatch manufacturer has done successfully).At no point do consumers come to the store to buy something, and that’s the point. In today’s saturated marketplace, brands win by connecting with consumers on a higher level than the simple financial transaction. It’s why Apple went from the outsider to the only laptop you see in every coffee shop. Samsung understands this, and values the events, discussions, and parties that bring people together more than showcasing their devices in the best fashion.

Further, the all-in attitude on VR is the only case of a phone manufacturer investing this highly in new technology. Sure, HTC’s Vive is fantastic (I tested it, thanks Iris!), but HTC doesn’t treat the Vive as a sister product to their phones. It actually seems like more of an aberration than strategy — perhaps the lackluster performance of the HTC One precipitated a more sever pivot for the company. Samsung on the other hand, is literally giving away Gear VRs with the pre-order of every new phone. Who’s not just a little curious about what you can do in VR? And how many of those consumers will be converted, adopting later, more robust VR devices? I’m sure Apple will reveal a fantastic (last-to-market) VR device sometime in the 2020’s, but their customers’ loyalties will have likely shifted back and forth multiple times.

Lastly, there are huge ramifications, or at least indicators, of what customer-company spaces will look like in the future. Commerce has already been majorly disrupted by the internet, and B-to-C companies have only just begun to reimagine what their spaces mean to people. Frankly, retail spaces are still pretty uninspiring. In the case of 837, the act of selling Samsung products is almost an after-thought. The centerpiece of the space is a void — only activated by speakers, panelists, founders, enthusiasts, and bystanders that come on board — inspiring when inhabited, still impactful when empty. If this isn’t the prequel to a Kubrick-esque white hall of emptiness only activated by digital experience, I don’t know what is.

I leave you with a blurry photo of us riding the VR Rollercoaster. I was skeptical too, until I unbuckled my seatbelt with light perspiration and a rush of adrenaline. VR is blowing up, and Samsung is all-in.