On the day of its opening on 11 September at the historic Opera House in Bengaluru, the scene at Samsung’s new experience centre—the largest in the world at 33,000 sq. ft—is riotous. Journalists and bloggers have arrived from across the country, and groups of visitors are being led by brisk, microphone-sporting young men and women on tours of the premises.

At the VR zone, a young man strapped to a Whiplash Pulsar 4D chair—it makes 360-degree movements in step with the VR video playing on his Samsung Gear VR headset—turns upside down with loud whoops. Two Samsung employees “race" each other on stationary bikes while the giant screens in front of them display their speed, heart rate and calories burnt, showcasing the capabilities of the Gear Sport range of smartwatches.

It might feel as if tech has taken a backstage to drama at the Samsung Opera House but there’s ample evidence here of the company’s technology innovation too. Take the futuristic smartphone display units, for instance. Motion sensors on the display panel detect a customer approaching a phone or tablet. The panel then automatically pulls up an interactive LED touchscreen with a menu of its features, allowing the customer to browse without having to bother store attendants.

On the other side of the hall is a “photo booth", where customers can explore the features of the company’s phone cameras; they can click selfies and see how filters and low-light options work out, and watch the results on a wall-mounted screen. Upstairs, beyond a spacious gallery from where people presumably watched the entertainment below in the building’s heyday, there’s a home theatre with an 88-inch TV screen and high-quality acoustics. The room will be available for groups to hire for movie-screening parties and other personal events.

It is certainly a unique space—and the first of its kind in the country, comparable to Apple’s much-lauded brand experience centre in Brussels and Samsung’s own 837 Centre in New York’s Meatpacking District. Over the past few years, global brands have been investing heavily in creating experiential, interactive spaces for customers to be wowed into buying: take the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, which is a cultural repository as well as a factory tour; or L’Ecole Van Cleef & Arpels’ in Paris, which educates customers on topics like art history ; or the BMW Brand Experience Center in Tokyo, which showcases the brand’s evolution and culture.

The decision to carve a tech experience centre out of an existing heritage building presented a set of challenges. But the juxtaposition between the almost 100-year-old Opera House (it was built in the 1930s and hosted musical performances and balls) and the technology it now hosts provide a handy talking point. “We were looking for a space in Bengaluru already when we stumbled upon the Opera House and thought, ‘why not?’" says Mohandeep Singh, senior vice-president, mobile business, Samsung India. “But once the vision was clear—that we wanted to preserve as much of the space as possible and not tear down anything unless it was a safety hazard—it became much easier to reimagine the space."

The two-storey Opera House’s carved ceiling, pillars, and arched doorways have been retained, along with the original brickwork and granite capitals on the pillars. Its main stage has been reinforced and will serve as a podium for tech events and launches. And it’s not just tech—the space will also serve as a venue for book launches, music shows and start-up events, while an in-house cooking studio will host workshops.

But with online sales of electronics showing an upward trend —a June report by Counterpoint Research showed 38% of all smartphone sales in India during Q1 2018 happened online with e-commerce growing faster than offline—does it make sense to invest in a brick-and-mortar store? “The new customer doesn’t just value convenience, they also value experience. We expect people to experience the full range of our technology here and if they choose to buy the products later at their own convenience, that’s perfectly fine," says Singh.

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