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Smartphone makers bring us virtual reality headsets

As the Mobile World Congress 2016, draws to a close in Barcelona, one thing is for certain: the days of the smartphone being the be-all and end-all are over. We’re now in the second coming of the accessory, with virtual reality (VR) headsets leading the charge.

Samsung, LG, Sony, Xiaomi, HP, Alcatel and others all lined up to announce their latest smartphones, some garnering interest, others less so. But although the shiny new smartphones were plentiful, they were dwarfed by the volume of add-ons.

The mainstay of accessories used to be your typical cases, serving as protection for that phone you might have just spent £500 or more on. They came in all colours, with clips, bungee cords, screen protectors and flip-out pads. Remember the days when Nokia’s Xpress-on shells were all the rage for the 3310?

Want a slide-out keyboard protector like the Matrix phone? No problem. Want to make your phone a gaudy heap of gold-coloured plastic? You got it.

Though plastic adornments from third-party manufacturers are undoubtedly still numerous today, smartphone-makers have switched focus to value-adding devices or grander gadgets that plug into the smartphone to extend its capabilities.

Rory O’Neill, head of brand marketing for Samsung, says: “The smartphone market in the United Kingdom has hit saturation point. It’s still changing faster than other electronics categories, but now we have to do more than just a smartphone. We have to redefine what a phone can do and reach out with a broader ecosystem.”

Virtual reality and 360° content lead
Judging by the volume of accessories, smartphone-makers have decided that this “broader ecosystem” should be hung on virtual reality and 360° content.

Almost every smartphone launched at Mobile World Congress included either a 360° camera to go with it or a virtual reality headset.

Samsung launched the Gear 360 ball camera, LG the 360 Cam and Sony had a concept Xperia Eye 360° camera, all of which are controlled or interacted with through their respective new smartphones.

At the same time, even more companies launched VR headsets in one form or another. Samsung updated its Gear VR accessory made in partnership with Facebook’s Oculus for the Galaxy S7, including a visit from the social network’s chief executive Mark Zuckerberg to a conference hall full of Gear VR-wearing attendees – it looked like some sort of sci-fi film, where a leader strode through legions of unaware humans jacked into a virtual world.

LG also joined the VR world with a headset that, unlike most others, wasn’t just a holder for your smartphone to slot into, but rather plugged into the company’s new G5 smartphone for processing power. It looked more like Geordi La Forge’s visor from Star Trek than the others. Whether that’s a good thing remains to be seen.

Even budget smartphone-makers such as Alcatel jumped on the bandwagon by turning their smartphone packaging into a Google Cardboard-like smartphone case you hold to your face.

The outlier here is HTC with its Vive headset that, rather than being an accessory to your phone, has phone functions built in, but still requires a PC to power it.

Accessories weren’t limited to VR, of course. LG launched a robotic ball with cameras, an IR blaster for controlling your TV or other equipment and a laser pointer, which could entertain your cat, perhaps?

Even HP, which launched a Windows 10 smartphone, also launched a range of accessories as the device’s main selling point, including a dock to turn it into a pseudo-PC with monitor, mouse and keyboard, and a “Mobile Extender” to turns it into a laptop.

Building brand loyalty 
But why are smartphone-makers so keen on accessories? There are several likely reasons, the first being simply more things to sell that don’t necessarily have the same minimal margins that smartphones do.

That’s not only beneficial to the manufacturers, but also to the retailers hawking the manufacturer’s wares as it gives them more incentive to give a particular smartphone a solid showing in-store and online. In days gone by, electronics retailers barely made any money selling TVs at £1 000 and more, and only really generated any profit on the cables that they sold you with your television – those they would buy for 50p and sell for £10.

In a world dominated by Android, which allows users to switch between different smartphone brands with ease, one of the only ways to keep brand loyalty is to offer something exclusive to your brand.

A Samsung Gear VR will only work with a Samsung smartphone, which means, when you’ve sunk £80 or more into an accessory, it acts as an incentive to stick with a Samsung smartphone when you upgrade. That is true when consumers buy their phones subsidised with mobile phone contracts, which disguise the true cost of a smartphone and makes the cost of the accessory appear disproportionately high, when in fact it’s likely only one-fifth or less of the cost of a high-end smartphone.

Outside the world of Android, where transferring your apps from one manufacturer to another is practically impossible, the need for accessories is lessened.

The apps and media you buy lock you into your smartphone operating system, and if only one manufacturer such as Apple makes phones with that operating system, you’re stuck.

But for the majority of the rest of the smartphone world in developed and saturated markets such as the UK, the United States and parts of Europe, the hard sell on add-ons and “ecosystem” starts now.

Welcome to the second coming of the smartphone accessory. – © Guardian News & Media 2016

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