How Samsung's VR exec persuades customers to 'strap a phone to their face'
Nick DiCarlo began working at Samsung in 2007, when flip phones and swivel phones were all the rage. He helped Samsung develop and market its high-end Galaxy smartphones and tablets.
In the past three years, DiCarlo has focused on a very different use for smartphones: virtual reality. He's helped roll out the Gear VR, Samsung's virtual reality headset, and the Gear 360, a camera that records immersive video.
Dicarlo works in Richardson's Samsung office. He leads a five-person team as vice president of immersive products strategy and product marketing for Samsung Electronics America. In his role, DiCarlo helps launch and market new products and tries to predict future trends.
DiCarlo recently spoke about Samsung's virtual reality strategy at its Richardson office. His comments have been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: What role do you and your team play at Samsung?
A: We try to represent the voice of the consumer, the voice of the market back into product development and product strategy. ... The most busy, day-to-day task is launching new products and talking to the market and explaining new features. Every product always has new technology, and it's really different than consumer packaged goods where you're only talking about needs people have, like soap or cereal or something. We are always explaining something to you that you maybe didn't know that you needed or you didn't know that you wanted, and we're trying to illustrate why that's useful to you.
With virtual reality, starting out, it was this really improbable product where you're strapping this phone to your face. And nobody was asking to strap a phone to their face. That's a really strange thing to propose, so how do we present this product in a way that makes it relevant to people and they can see how it fits in their life?
Q: When did you first hear about VR and have your first VR experience?
A: My co-worker showed me a (prototype) 3-D printed mask with a Galaxy S3 or S4 slipped in it with a very simple game scene. I said, 'That's a bad idea. We shouldn't do it.' ... It made me nauseous. It didn't have that smooth, low-latency motion. I was getting sick from this, and nobody wants to buy a product that makes them sick. That's the basic story of VR for the 20 years prior to 2014. It was 'VR makes you sick' and 'All we're doing is working on trying not to make you sick.'
That was basically the magic that Oculus and (the company's chief technology officer) John (Carmack) brought to the table was finding a way to make it so smooth that it doesn't make you sick, that almost everybody doesn't get sick wearing it. What happened between 2013 when I tried it and when we launched the product at the end of 2014 - almost two years - was that leap of getting it to run smooth enough and fast enough on a phone that it would be comfortable for almost everybody.
Q: Despite your hesitancy, what eventually sold you on VR as part of Samsung's future?
A: When you start thinking about it, the whole world is in rectangles: books, newspapers, photographs, phones, televisions, stages, musical performances. Everything is in a rectangle. So the whole world of media has been crammed into this rectangle. But the world is around us, right? And so there's never been a way to sort of digitally replicate the world around you, and it's hard to even really fathom 'Why is that different or why is that better?' until you actually see it (virtual reality) work.
I have given millions of product demos for 15 years in this industry, but you can give a VR demo and have people still be impressed.
Q: What potential or current uses of VR do you find the most intriguing?
A: I've been really encouraged by the education side of it, the health care side of it. It can help seniors who feel isolated, giving them really resonant, memorable experiences. There's a company out of Missouri called StoryUP Studios that's doing stuff for World War II veterans, for example.
Where we'll start to see the breakthrough - and you're starting to see the seeds of it planted now - is communicating in VR. Even in my career, we used to type a document in (Microsoft) Word, print it, put it into an envelope and FedEx it. Now we can transmit documents much faster than that by email. Then, you think about what VR can do. It can essentially transmit my physical presence over distance in a high enough fidelity and resolution that we feel like we are together.
Q: What's been a tech bet you've made that's flopped? And what did you learn from it?
A: A year before the Galaxy S (Samsung's touchscreen smartphone) was created, there was this concept out there that was internally called 'ticker tape.' It was a phone screen and had another display below it that showed tweets and status updates and RSS feeds.
It was a Verizon-exclusive device called Continuum. It was a total disaster. We'd spent two years developing it (the phone). It had all of these futuristic ideas. I had staked my personal reputation on it. And it was a total failure. We made lots and lots of them, and nobody bought them.
The product was too weird, too ahead of its time and it wasn't explained properly to the market. (After the flop,) we actually created whole functions within the team to better explain innovations. An innovation is not self-evident. You have to explain it properly. VR, even today, I think is weirder than Continuum was, but it's become much more successful because we - and the industry - have done a much better job at explaining it to people.
Hometown: Grew up in Glastonbury, Conn.; lives in East Dallas
Education: Bachelor's degree in engineering from Bucknell University; MBA from University of Texas
Family: Married with two young children
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