Home/ Companies / Samsung looks to India R&D team in bid to stay ahead of competition

Bengaluru: Dipesh Shah, research and development (R&D) head at Samsung Electronics Co. Ltd, made several trips over two years to the small city of Kolar in Karnataka to figure out a mobile phone that would appeal to first-time users in India. Kolar was one of the cities chosen for consumer research.

Insights gleaned from the research went into the low-end smartphone Samsung Z1 the company launched in January for the Indian market that runs on its operating system Tizen. Now it’s using that operating system globally for devices based on the Internet of Things (IoT, or devices connected to the Internet) including smartwatches and smart TVs.

That’s not all. The South Korean electronics maker is increasingly looking to its team of R&D engineers in India to develop future technologies to stay ahead of the competition and cement its position as the world’s No. 1 smartphone maker.

India, which has been a key research base for Samsung over the past two decades, is home to three of its R&D facilities and employs 10,000 engineers—the biggest talent pool globally for the company—to work on smart devices and semiconductors.

The company’s Bengaluru R&D centre, the biggest outside South Korea, occupies two large buildings where research is being done on smart devices, semiconductors, printers, modems, Internet protocols and networks.

Visitors have to pass several layers of security to enter the centre. Except for the third floor where the top management team sits, all other floors have themes. For example, the fourth floor where the advanced research team is housed and works on new technologies and products that have not yet hit the market, is forest and nature themed to inspire creativity.

Post-it notes scribbled with ideas—on subjects ranging from what to do on the weekends, the best ways to chat with family and friends to how you can make your phone more personal—are stuck on glass walls.

In an effort to create fusion of the two cultures, the hallways are decorated on one side with posters showing Korean culture—K-Pop and stunning high-rises—and on the other with Indian icons such as the Taj Mahal. In addition, each team has a Korean in it to help it work seamlessly with Korean counterparts.

The Tizen operating system is one of the global projects that Samsung is working on in Bengaluru.

“A significant portion of the Tizen operating system has come out of the India research team," said Shah, who is also deputy managing director at Samsung’s India unit. Apart from efforts to launch more Tizen-based smartphones, the team is working on the operating system for other smart devices such as wearables and television sets.

Tizen was initially pegged to be an alternative to Android, but that never panned out. Samsung then made it the operating system for low-cost smartphones and smart devices. Samsung is now working on making Tizen a full-fledged operating system for the IoT, which will include smartphones, smart TVs, cameras, wearables and virtual reality (VR) solutions, among other things.

It will rival opponents such as Google Inc.’s Brillo, announced in May, and Microsoft Corp.’s Windows 10, which is being promoted as a platform for all devices.

In another instance of the Indian team contributing to global products, a team of 1,000 Indian engineers worked on developing Samsung’s flagship S6’s applications processor—which makes the platform, the drivers and the applications talk to each other—and the communication processor, which connects a mobile phone to a network.

This was in addition to building six of the eight features in the device’s much talked about high-resolution camera.

Researchers in the Bengaluru-based facility are also working in tandem with Korean counterparts on the next generation of technologies including virtual reality, natural language processing, wearable devices, artificial intelligence, machine-to-machine communication and IoT.

One project the India team is currently working on is an engine that can understand what users want, using natural language processing and artificial intelligence.

“Now people want to use specific menu structures while just speaking to the phones," said Shah, who has been with Samsung’s R&D unit in India since its inception in 1996. “Catching (users’) intent is artificial intelligence for us," he added.

“Artificial intelligence has a range of technologies. For us, it’s very easy to understand what we are speaking but for the computer to understand, it’s very difficult. Not the accent or anything, but the intent," he said. “The word has a meaning, but many a time, the intention is different from the words. (We are working) in the natural language processing to understand the human intent when he is trying to execute a service."

Two big areas of focus for the R&D team are music and cameras. Consumers are big users of both these elements and the researchers are trying to understand usage patters to customise phones for consumers.

“For instance, we understand that every time the consumer uses the player—when he’s jogging, he’s listening to this music; when he’s in the car he’s listening to this music," he explained. “These things are learnt with the consumer’s permission, if he wants us to use that information and provide an awesome service, we are willing to provide. That’s the scope of artificial intelligence."

Samsung expects the next round of innovation to be led by wearables and IoT and has a dedicated team working on these areas.

“The wearable case, if it tries to do everything, then it’s overwhelming for people. So, we need to choose what wearable solves which consumer’s problem for day-to-day events," said Shah. “In case a person is jogging, he can leave the phone at home and wear the Gear S (a wearable) which can receive calls after being forwarded from the cell."

The Bengaluru team is looking at how the S6, S5, Note 4 and Note 3 devices can connect to the Gear S quickly and what kinds of notifications are exchanged between these two. The idea is to “create a new digital lifestyle for the consumer," Shah said.

Last December, the company launched a virtual reality head gear called Gear VR for Galaxy Note 4. The headset, when plugged in to a smartphone or tablet, becomes the VR display. Consumers can see on their device a 3D view of whatever they may be watching—a video on NetFlix, YouTube or games. This was another global product the India R&D team worked on. The Gear VR has not been aunched in India yet.

According to Jayant Kolla, co-founder of a Bengaluru-based research firm Convergence Catalysts, Samsung has all the pieces of the puzzle and if executed correctly, it can gain a definitive competitive advantage.

“In the past, firms such as Motorola and Nokia depended on their India team for innovation for the global products. Most of the innovation in devices, user interface and mobile Internet happened in India. Samsung is no different. The technological development happening here gives the company an edge in an ultra-competitive environment."

The global battle to become the top smartphone seller has been joined by the likes of Lenovo Group Ltd, with the acquisition of Motorola last year, and Xiaomi, known as the Apple of China.

“The R&D in India is important from the long-term perspective for companies such as Samsung. Most of the big companies have research and development activities based out of India," said Rajat Agrawal, editor of BGR.in, the Indian avatar of BGR.com, one of the top electronics and gadget news websites in the US.

“As compared to countries such as China and Japan, India offers multiple advantages. While India is one of the largest markets for the company, it also has a large talent pool for them as well."

And while it works on products for a global market, it can also cater to local needs, Agrawal said.

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Updated: 23 Jul 2015, 01:47 AM IST
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