At an LG Developer Conference in San Francisco, Ubergizmo sat down for a chat with Dr. Ramchan Woo. Dr. Woo is the Vice President of Product Planning at LG Electronics in Korea, where he is responsible, among other things, for the mobile products line, and its associated accessories, including VR and consumer robotics. The most recent LG product launch he oversaw was the LG G5 and the LG Friends accessories.
LG is currently promoting its new smartphone module API and specifications to both software and hardware developers. The hope is to create a robust eco-system that will supplement LG’s own module. LG has always been keen to work with 3rd parties, but in the LG mobile space, this is the first time that such a developer outreach has been done.
Context: The LG G5 has a module port, which allows the battery to be swappable, but also extensions to be created, whether it is battery extensions, or camera grips, or additional sensors. “LG Friends” are either module or external devices (like a camera) that can pair with LG phones (starting with the G5) via a simpler protocol – hence the “Friends” name, for a friendly setup. Those devices can conceptually work with non-LG phones too, but will have to go through a more complex setup process.
What’s the difference between a module and a USB tethered device?
Dr. Woo points out that the communications protocols for an LG Module are similar to USB-C protocols. The main difference is a perfect integration of a module with the phone, the alternative being having a device dangling at the end of a cord.
As of today, which is the most popular LG Friend?
It has been only three weeks since the LG G5 is available in Korea, but Dr. Woo already sees trends, and they differ depending on the location. For example, in Korea, the HiFi module has been the most popular because there’s a healthy existing eco-system for hi-definition music files. In Europe, the 360 Camera is generating a lot of interest.
LG Trying to keep modules form-factor compatibility as long as possible
Because modules could are an investment by the customers, we asked Dr. Woo if LG was going to “commit” to a long-term compatibility going forward.
The answer was that LG has thought very hard about this, and will try to preserve the compatibility for as long as possible with future phones. At the moment, it is however not possible to “commit” because it’s too early.
For example, it’s fair to point out that the iPhone space is the most successful mobile accessory eco-system. Even there, cases and things that are tightly coupled with the phone’s design rarely last for more than two years, so that length could be seen as a timeframe that consumers would be comfortable with.
LG makes it easy for developers
I asked if there was a super-tight approval process over the modules. Apparently, it’s not very strict. Of course, any module that uses radio waves (BT…) may need approval from local state regulators, but LG doesn’t seem to have a very strict approval process at this point. Instead, the company will try to help developers as much as possible to build great devices and apps.
Medical module a firm possibility
Interestingly, Dr. Woo mentioned that medical devices or health devices have been the object of strong interest from partners. Essentially, this would allow for a better integration with the phone. Conceptually, there are many sensors that could be linked to a smartphone, so this makes complete sense. I wonder if an IP (waterproof and shock resistance) would be required for a hospital use, but it’s too soon to know what kind of devices are being worked on.
LG may be able to keep the same battery for a couple of generation
If you like swapping batteries (it’s very popular in Korea), you have noticed that each new phone generation comes with a new battery format, which makes it difficult to re-use the ones already owned.
Dr. Woo agrees and explains that battery technology makes steady 5%-10% yearly incremental improvements, which is why companies always opt for a new battery format, to get a better size/energy density ratio. However, it is not inconceivable that LG would keep using the same battery format for two generations of phones. No promises though.
What about a fully modular phone?
It’s fair to say that the idea of a modular phone is very popular. The noise around Google’s Project ARA is a good example. What would LG think of a 100% modular phone (display, battery, processor, camera – all are modules)?
Dr. Woo says that the idea is interesting but at the moment, the industrial design must come first. At this point, fully modular phones require a tradeoff that puts too much pressure on the design. The appearance of the phone is too important to LG customers.
Virtual Reality will drive display technologies
I mentioned to Dr. Woo that smartphones seemed to have reached a plateau regarding display pixel density (~500 PPI), and asked him if VR would be the driving force behind further progress. He unequivocally said “yes”. In his opinion, Virtual Reality (VR) is certainly a technology driver for display technologies, but also for computing in general. Even an 8k resolution won’t be enough. “We need at least 1000 PPI” he says.
LG believes that the VR experiences enabled today by using a smartphone display (such as Google Cardboard) will be replaced by dedicated headsets, with larger, denser and more immersive displays. There’s no compelling reason to have a 1000 PPI phone display today. The field of view has to be wider as well says Dr. Woo.
He also thinks that VR photo and videos, or VR experiences (going to a virtual place built from real images) will be the most popular applications (by quantity), even though VR is largely being popularized by “3D gaming” right now. In time, the image-based content will be plentiful, relevant, and easy to access/use. Note that LG makes the LG 360 CAM and VR headset (camera priced at ~$70) for this exact reason.
Talking about this, the 360 cameras are also appealing because the person who shoots the movie or picture can finally appear in the video as well. This is the feedback that Dr. Woo got from users, so far.
Latency (the time it takes for the VR image to reflect action/reaction/changes) remains a challenge in VR. We have reached a point where VR is usable and enjoyable, but Dr. Woo says that a 20 millisecond of total latency target would be a good goal for now, and that includes sensing, computing and refreshing what the user see. Today, it’s common to see latency of 50ms to 200ms depending on the system.
There’s no question in Dr. Woo’s mind that mobile VR will end up being the dominant form of VR, because we simply don’t spend that much time on PC anymore. Of course, it remains very difficult to track the user body with mobile VR, but mobile VR is just more accessible.
In San Francisco, LG will be working hard to promote the LG G5 modularity and its friendly approach to setting up accessories, using the LG Friends protocols. The company has embarked on a change of course that led it from competing based on technical specifications to competing on the user experience, and on the emotional response – “fun and simplicity” are the features of the LG G5 that LG wants people to remember.
Our chat with Dr. Woo has given us a peek into a possible future at LG, and while he could not commit to any new products, we take away a few things: LG will do everything it can to maintain modules compatibility for as long as possible. VR will be mostly mobile, and it will drive better and dedicated display technologies. Modularity is a very desirable feature, but the industrial design remains a higher concern for LG.
We’re looking forward to seeing the LG-compatible modules created by 3rd parties.