The annual IFA expo in Berlin, drawing to a close this week, has always been Europe’s poor relation to the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas. Where CES kicks off the year by playing host to the biggest array of product announcements at any technology event in the world, IFA tends to wrap up the year by bringing many of those same products to market.
The result is that many observers tend to yawn about the seen-it-all-before sense they get from IFA. However, there is a vast difference between what is seen and what is experienced. Many of the products on display may look like variations on what has gone before, but their capability or functionality has advanced dramatically.
In other cases, new technology is not of the dazzling, stand-out variety, but seamlessly and surreptitiously integrated with existing technology.
The best example is the smartphone, which offers little room for superficial innovation. The last big shift in format came 18 months ago, when Samsung introduced the curved screen to its Edge devices.
This year LG launched a “modular” phone with a slide-out bottom to allow the battery to be replaced by the likes of camera and sound modules. Lenovo followed up with a razor-thin Motorola Moto Z handset that allows sound, battery and projector “Mods” to be clamped to the rear.
However, the emphasis on the physical shape of the devices – and the recent absence of format innovation from a market leader like Apple – has meant that the innovation happening under the hood has largely gone unnoticed.
The best case in point from IFA 2016 was the new flagship smartphone from Sony, the Xperia XZ with 5.2” screen. Along with Huawei and Alcatel, Sony was one of the few manufacturers to use IFA for the launch of a major new smartphone.
Predictably, casual visitors to the Sony stand primarily saw a more sleek design and little else. Those who picked it up and played with it may well have got a sense of the fast and dazzling clarity provided by the phone’s camera. This is made possible by a 23MP rear camera and a dedicated shutter release button, which means going “from standby to capture in 0.6 seconds”, as Sony put it.
The electronics giant rightly claims that its new new models, including a 4.6” trimmed down version of the flagship called the Xperia X Compact, feature “one of the most advanced cameras in a smartphone”. Along with an already powerful image sensor, it includes two additional assisting sensors that add up to what Sony labels “triple image sensing technology”.
“This allows you to capture beautiful images in motion with true to life colours in virtually any conditions,” according to the company’s announcement of the new phone. “The technology is comprised of Sony’s original Exmor RS for mobile image sensor, which provides a powerful blend of high quality image and autofocus (AF) speed, combined with Predictive Hybrid AF to intelligently predict and track subjects in motion for blur-free results.
“Added to this is the Laser AF sensor with distance sensing technology, which captures beautiful blur-free photos in challenging low light conditions. And … true to life colours thanks to the RGBC-IR sensor with colour sensing technology which accurately adjusts the white balance based on the light source in the environment.”
That combination of technical and marketing speak does add up to one truth: this is probably the most complex camera system yet built into a smartphone. Manual settings for shutter speed and focus control add to the sense of this being a photographer’s phone.
But an even more remarkable innovation is built into the handset. Drawing on a legacy of image stabilisation developed for Sony’s Handycam camcorders under the SteadyShot brand, the technology has been enhanced on the XZ with “five-axis stabilisation”. This means it compensates for movement in any direction, allowing for smoother videos when filming while walking. Video can also be shot in 4K – currently the highest resolution that can be displayed on any but the most advanced displays in the world.
The front camera is also one of the best in the smartphone market, with a 13MP and 22mm wide angle lens. High light-sensitivity up to ISO 6400 allows for exceptional low-light performance.
For Sony – and many other smartphone manufacturers – the real problem with such innovation in the mechanics of a device is that it has to be experienced to be believed. The device has to prove itself in the field rather than in the showcase.
When word of mouth eventually kicks in and the world wakes up to inner beauty, such invisible innovation will come into its own.