Inside SRI-Bangalore, Samsung’s powerhouse for innovation
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Bengaluru/Mumbai: There was a perceptible sense of pride and satisfaction at the Samsung R&D Institute Bangalore (SRI-B) when Injong Rhee, executive vice-president and research and development head for software and services at South Korea-based Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd, on 20 March announced the launch of the company’s artificial intelligence (AI) virtual assistant Bixby.
The reason was understandable. “A fairly large part of the Bixby AI development was done out of our R&D centre here,” SRI-B managing director Dipesh Shah said in a recent interview. Not only was the development of Bixby Voice capabilities for Indian consumers carried out at SRI-B but the centre also helped Bixby understand the Indian accent.
“If someone from Kerala, Assam, Gujarat or from Himachal is speaking to Bixby, we need to understand if he is speaking English since there are many accents. We addressed these issues at our research centre. Bixby is learning all the time (using deep learning—a machine learning technique),” added Shah.
The Samsung Group has a network of about 30 R&D centres across the world to cater to its flagship electronics unit and other businesses which cover the chemicals, fashion, hotel, hospitality and defence sectors. The R&D unit in Bengaluru, with about 3,000 engineers, is the largest software research arm of the company outside South Korea.
Samsung’s vision is to create the future using technology, innovation, and a consumer focus, said Shah, adding, “When it works in the lab, you need to make sure it reaches the consumer. Therefore, R&D is a core as part of our business strategy.”
SRI-B was set up in 1996, 21 years ago, and Shah was its first employee. The unit broadly addresses three areas. The first is what the company calls “modem or wireless communication”. The other is “multimedia—typically camera, gallery and video players”, and the third is “artificial intelligence”, Shah explained.
The modem unit is not just about wireless communication in the mobile phone. It is much broader and includes Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and other wireless technologies. For instance, “quite a bit of Samsung’s 4G (fourth generation) LTE (long term evolution) protocol” was developed out of Bengaluru, according to Shah. “We start such projects six-seven years before they can actually see the market,” he said, adding Samsung had already started helping in work on fifth generation (5G) technology.
The second centre of excellence is the multimedia area with the image processing work of the camera being done from the Bengaluru R&D unit. The team led by Balvinder Singh, vice president—who heads the camera service experience division at the research centre—works on improving the quality of images in mobile devices. There is a sharp focus on looking at India-based innovations, according to Singh. The recently-launched ‘social camera’ on the Samsung J7 Max and J7 Pro models, for instance, was developed with “some insights into how millennials take pictures and instantly share those with their friends and family members,” according to Singh.
The third area is AI, and the most recent contribution to that is the development of Bixby, which involves many technologies like natural language understanding and speech recognition.
The Tizen operating system (OS) is another of the global projects that Samsung is working on in Bengaluru. The company wants Tizen to be a full-fledged OS for the internet of things (IoT), which will include smartphones, smart TVs, cameras, wearables and virtual reality (VR) solutions. “It’s hard to imagine what you will experience when your mobile, TV and refrigerator get connected to each other. The Tizen OS is built for these kinds of IoT experiences. That’s why our IoT strategy is primarily based on Tizen. And in this R&D unit, we have a significant amount of engineers working on the Tizen platform to enable these IoT experiences,” Shah said.
‘Make for India’ focus
In addition to the three technology areas that SRI-B addresses, there is a sharp focus on “Make for India” at the research centre. Till even a decade ago, recalled Shah, “we would simply introduce products launched in Europe and change the version number. Then we would add Hindi, Tamil, Kannada or any of these languages and ship the product. We would call this localization”.
However, with the Make for India initiative, “we understand a consumer’s lifestyle and pain points every day, and try to solve them,” Shah said.
He cited the example of “ACTIVWash”—Samsung’s washing machine that includes a dedicated sink and water jet to help wash the dirt off collars and sleeves before putting them in the washing machine. “The idea emerged from India,” says Shah. It seemed simple, recounted Shah, but the innovation could have contradicted the idea of having an “automatic” washing machine, especially since you have to wash the clothes before the machine begins washing for you. Today, fortunately, “ACTIVWash” is accepted globally too, according to Shah.
In the telecom space, SRI-B developed the so-called “ultra data saving” (UDS) feature that helps users choose the application they want to run while the other apps stop running in the background. “This is a very India-specific innovation. UDS also compresses data, so eventually you end up using 50% less data,” said Shah.
Samsung also has the “S bike mode”. Launched in March 2016, the S bike mode allows callers to hear a pre-recorded message that alerts them if the user is riding a two-wheeler and is unable to take the call. In case the call is urgent, the caller may choose to press 1, which allows urgent calls to go through. “The phone will not allow the incoming call to get answered due to motion lock. This safety feature is designed to encourage responsible riding,” said Shah. “It is a very small innovation, but has worked very well,” he added.
This “mindset” of innovating for India, according to Shah, “has caught up with all our engineers. Even in the Note 8, you can write a text message in Hindi using the S-pen and it will recognize and convert the text into Hindi script”.
SRI-B has also contributed in a significant way in localizing the Samsung Pay mobile wallet. “We were the first ones to bring mobile tokenized payments, working with the card networks (Visa and Mastercard) to India,” said Amit Dayal, senior vice-president (VP) of the services division at the research centre.
Tokenisation, he explained, increases the security of credit-card transactions “significantly because your real credit card number or personal details are never revealed to the merchant or to anybody like the man in the middle”.
Samsung’s magnetic secure transmission (MST) technology allows the company to use Samsung Pay with phones by simply tapping and paying on any point of sale, or PoS, machine without the need for near field communication (NFC) technology (which is also supported by Samsung). MST is a technology that emits a magnetic signal which mimics the magnetic strip on a traditional payment card.
Samsung Pay has integrated Paytm as well as the government’s Unified Payments Interface (UPI) into the app. The Samsung Pay UPI solution is powered by Axis Bank and facilitates peer-to-peer (P2P) transfer of funds between bank accounts on a mobile platform instantly. Samsung Pay also allows Indian consumers to integrate their Paytm accounts into Samsung Pay, enabling them to pay by scanning QR codes securely, generating one-time codes for merchant payments and also do P2P money transfers.
Samsung Pay will also be available on the Samsung Gear S3 smartwatch shortly, allowing users to pay through their wearable device. “Samsung has also launched a lighter version of Samsung Pay which is called Samsung Pay Mini—a non-card version which will allow us to take Samsung Pay to any price point. This (India) is the only market where we launched Samsung Pay Mini. It is on mid-end to low end devices,” Dayal pointed out.
Samsung typically analyses consumer trend reports; intellectual property (IP) trends—the patents; economic growth rate to understand which segment is growing or not growing; and evaluates standards because technologies need to be interoperable to work well with each other, according to Shah.
Once that is established, a lot of proposals get floated from various parts of the globe, following which a steering board in Korea decides on the areas it wants the entire company to focus on. Then, Samsung charts a road map for these technologies, which the company calls the Samsung Experience Platform (SEP). Finally, the work gets allocated according to the expertise of each of the Samsung R&D centres across the globe.
SRI-B was recognized as a ‘Great Place to Innovate’ at the prestigious Zinnov Awards 2017. Samsung R&D Institute India filed the maximum number of patent applications in the IT sector in 2015-16, followed by Tata Consultancy Services Ltd (TCS) and Wipro Ltd. The other top applicants include premier Indian Institute of Technology (IITs) and HCL Technologies Ltd. Samsung R&D Institute India, TCS, Wipro, IITs and HCL have filed 229, 213, 149, 60 and 49 applications, respectively.
The patents filed by Samsung include one for “India identity SDK” (software development kit), which according to Aloknath De, chief technology officer of the Samsung research centre in Bengaluru, is being used by around 125 companies building different applications for governance.
The Samsung India Identity SDK enables companies to develop applications for the India market that can take advantage of Aadhaar-based iris authentication. They do so by taking advantage of the IR (infra-red) camera capability supported by Samsung devices. The apps can make use of the encrypted iris data to authenticate the user, or to get the e-KYC data from the Aadhaar server.
According to Jayanth Kolla, founder and partner at Convergence Catalyst—a research and advisory firm, “although a number of large, global technology companies such as Microsoft, Google, Facebook, Huawei and young and emerging ones such as Xiaomi have R&D teams based in India, not many of them have technology innovation and solutions cutting across software applications, hardware and OS platforms across all digital technologies—current and emerging, as Samsung does”.
SRI-B, noted Kolla, works on solutions across multiple technologies including semiconductors, mobile devices, wearables, natural language processing (NLP)-based AI products (Bixby), augmented reality/virtual reality (Samsung Gear), IoT platforms (Tizen), and the like.
SRI-B personnel also “participate actively in various Indian regulators’ policy making dialogue”, said Kolla, adding that the company has “also set up a team to actively reach out and interact with the start-up ecosystem in the country, to integrate the innovation from the start-up world”.
Samsung, for instance, also conducts many hackathons and codeathons to encourage innovation and problem solving in India. One such exercise is currently underway along with the T-hub in Telangana. In addition, the company also has an India Research Network, where professors from universities present work that “hopefully will kick-start a new project with their university as a collaboration”, according to De.
Samsung conducts events such as Tech Glance and Nipun and also has a Creative Lab (C-Lab) aimed at encouraging islands of innovation that can foster research further.
Going forward, with all the other technologies that Samsung is working on, 5G networks are also on its radar. Samsung India announced a joint project with Mukesh Ambani-owned telecom services provider Reliance Jio Infocomm Ltd in February to upgrade the latter’s long-term evolution (LTE) mobile communication services across India by expanding both the current network capacity as well as network coverage. Earlier, Samsung had also provided the LTE core, base stations and solutions required for Jio’s voice over LTE (VoLTE) services.
According to Mohan Rao Goli, senior vice-president, protocol and platform division, SRI-B, the company is now actively working to introduce 5G in India. “4G gave us a huge advantage because we were quickly able to ramp up with many new devices in the market. In India, data throughput poses challenges so we are working on developing software for higher data throughput and addressing latency issues,” Goli said.
As digital technologies evolve from the “internet and mobile eras to convergence technologies such as AI and IoT”, according to Kolla, Samsung has managed to develop “important and relevant solutions from its India R&D centre based in Bangalore”. He concluded, “Over the last two to three years, Samsung has systematically restructured its Bangalore R&D centre workforce through training, re-skilling, reorganization and recruiting relevant talent from top Indian colleges to optimize and deliver on forward-looking technologies and solutions with global context. And, it is showing results.”