BARCELONA // When friends ask if I’ve been to Barcelona, my answer is always yes and no.
Yes, I’ve been to Barcelona for a week’s visit three times. No, I haven’t visited the Sagrada Familia or Camp Nou, or the Casa Batlló.
Why on earth not? And what better uses of my time might beckon?
Well, I did get to go to a really cool virtual reality demo. And I came back with all these neat Android pin badges.
Despite what my editor in Abu Dhabi might believe, five days in one of the cultural gems of Europe for the annual Mobile World Congress does not leave that much time for sightseeing, with time and energy absorbed by a dizzying array of press events, conference keynotes, exhibition visits and interviews.
As I close my laptop for the last time for this visit, not much time nor energy remain to amble around the city’s famous sites before I head to the airport to catch my flight home.
But then again, I’m told Sagrada Familia might not be all it’s cracked up to be. “I went there a few years ago,” an executive based in Dubai told me last year. “It was okay, but they should have got Emaar to build it. It would have been finished ages ago.”
I’m pretty sure he wasn’t joking.
If you’ve been reading The National’s coverage this past week, you should know by now that the Mobile World Congress (MWC) is a smartphone geek’s nirvana. All of the industry’s big brands are here in force to show off their newest flashy devices, and it’s a great place to meet operators, device manufacturers, retailers and everyone else who matters in the industry.
While it’s not as large as the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, the sheer scale of MWC – about 100,000 people attending a five-day conference and nearly 1,900 square metres of exhibitions – makes the four- day event (five if you count the press conferences on the Sunday before the show’s official start) feel like a Haribo eating marathon.
The wow factor and rush soon give way to a feeling of over-saturation and queasiness, which in turn becomes a loathing of any object containing a microchip by the time you head to the airport. By Wednesday evening the press room (providing a vital lifeline of fast Wi-Fi, charging points, free coffee and stale cookies) is a pretty sad sight.
For a subspecies that is pretty sceptical of anything new (and everything else for that matter), few things make a tech journalist more irritated than the constant parade of chief executives or “product experts” at exhibition stands earnestly spouting verbal drivel such as “innovation breakthrough”, “heart-driven design” and “next-level technology” – for five straight days.
The platitudes are typically used to describe either a “new” device that is to all intents and purposes indistinguishable from the one demonstrated from the exact same spot last year (“now available in rose gold”), or the latest “breakthrough” technology cooked up by a team of engineers in an isolated research facility to transform the lives of everyday customers, the likes of which they may never have actually encountered.
Each new presentation of a breakthrough technology – whether it is Motorola extolling the virtue 10 years ago of being able to using your phone as a walkie-talkie, or more recently being able to scroll up and down on the Samsung Galaxy S4 with your eyes – reminds me of the words of David Murray the former chief executive of Kuwait’s Wataniya Telecom (now Ooredoo Kuwait).
At one of my first mobile conferences, in Dubai in 2003, a member of the audience – probably an engineer – urged delegates to educate customers about what the latest technology breakthrough could do. “Better to educate engineers about customers – how they behave and what they like,” was Mr Murray’s pithy response.
At the same conference, the du chief executive Osman Sultan, then in charge of Egypt’s Mobinil, pointed out that the then-nascent mobile data technology would not be much good if it was used only to tell you about weather and traffic – two of the earliest mooted uses for the technology – given the near permanent state of hot weather and traffic gridlock in Cairo.
The jury is still out on virtual reality, the hyped technology of choice at MWC this year. If I was to make a prediction, however, I would say that VR has staying power, and that the engineers (some of whom are my closest friends, I should add) have done their homework, interacted with real people and might have got the formula right this time.
Samsung’s Gear VR headset has been commercially available since December 2014, and offers a very decent experience (which wowed even the hardiest luddites on The National’s business desk) at a reasonable cost.
With the increased availability of 360 degree cameras, user-generated VR content should significantly boost take-up of the technology.
For those who’ve got a bit more cash to spend, HTC’s Vive, due for launch in April, has to be experienced to be believed, offering an incredibly immersive experience for gaming. Sony’s long-awaited PlayStation VR experience is set to be demonstrated at San Francisco’s Game Developers Conference next month.
While most of us leaving MWC have had more than our fill of gadgets and hype for the time being, the event always has its joys and surprises, with this year being no exception.
Samsung’s VR-driven launch event on the Sunday was a genuine break from the norm that won over even the most cynical tech journalists, who, upon removing their VR headsets, were treated to the sight of the real life Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg on stage.
While innovation is a horribly overused word at MWC, LG’s G5, with its removable bottom and modular add-ons, is a genuinely innovative leap for the company and the industry, and one which third-party developers will hopefully get behind.
Finally, for this journalist at least, there’s a genuine nerdy pleasure about going around the various Android device stands collecting the customised Android pin badges.
So adéu, as the Catalans say, Barcelona for another year.We look forward to doing it all again in 2017. Maybe, just maybe, I’ll have a few hours to get to the Sagrada Familia next time around. Or perhaps I will have already visited it then, via a VR headset.
THE GADGETS THAT GOT ME THROUGH THE EVENT:
The light laptop – Macbook Air
A laptop that doesn’t weigh a tonne is essential when running around a gargantuan conference and exhibition venue. The 11 inch Macbook Air does the trick nicely; it weighs just 1.08kg, has a nine-hour battery and provides a nice enough screen to watch movies on the plane and in the hotel.
The digital first aid kit – wires and batteries
Technology is great when it works, but it pays to be prepared for when it all goes wrong. Which it will. Right in the middle of the Samsung press conference. An airline sponge bag containing a power pack for mobile charging, USB cables, a spare pair of headphones and spare batteries for the dictaphone saved my skin more than once.
The tranquillity generator – Bose Quiet Comfort 25 headphones
My Christmas present to myself seemed like an expensive luxury at the time (especially to my wife). But a pair of noise-cancelling headphones have made my MWC experience infinitely more bearable this year, allowing me to sleep on the plane, transcribe my notes in the middle of a noisy press room and achieve inner peace via Icelandic whale song in the middle of a busy conference hall.
The portable coffee maker – Aeropress
Don’t be put off by its plasticky appearance; the Aeropress means you don’t have to put up with bad hotel coffee that puts you in a foul mood for the rest of the day. It’s light, easy to use, cheap (just Dh169 from the Virgin Megastore) and, most importantly, makes a delicious cup of coffee, especially with Raw Coffee of Dubai’s special Working blend.
The Swiss Army device – iPhone 6 Plus (and yes, plenty of Android phones do the job as well)
I attended my first MWC in 2003 with a heavy laptop, thick notebook, chunky dictaphone, pages of printed maps and a clunky camera. 13 years later? The modern smartphone replaces even the laptop, with shorter articles filed on the fly. What a fascinating modern age we live in.
Tags: Abu dhabi | Ajman | Dubai | Fujairah | Middle East | Ras Al Khaimah | Sharjah | Technology | UAE