Monday, July 25, 2011

Ask a Korean! News: How LG Made the World's First 3D SmartPhone

Here is an interesting report on the development of LG's Optimus 3D, the world's first 3D SmartPhone, which provides a nice caricature of how Korean companies not only come up with a new idea, but stick to it until a new product is born.

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March 2010. Another miserable day passed by for LG. The media was saturated with stories about Apple's iPhone. Samsung developed Bada, its own SmartPhone operating system, and was preparing for its own response to iPhone, Galaxy S. But LG Electronics had nothing, as it exclusively focused on regular cellphones based on a flawed strategy. It could not even attend the Mobile World Congress, the world's largest mobile communication device trade show held in February, because it had nothing to show. It was pure humiliation. The first quarter sales for cell phone business dropped by 19.7 percent compared to the same period previous year, and profit fell by 88.9 percent. The company leadership was being questioned.

The employees at Mobile Communications Department of LG Electronics -- the department that created such legends as The Chocolate and Prada Phone -- could not get accustomed to the suddenly new reality created by iPhone 3GS. It became a dead weight for the company. The department hastily conjured up SmartPhone projects. It had to prepare for the period after iPhone 4, considering the development time. It essentially had to give up on 2010. (In fact, the Mobile Communications Department was in the red between second quarter of 2010 through the first quarter of 2011.) Vice President Nam Yong resigned, and in October the owner-CEO Koo Bon-Moo stepped in as an emergency relief pitcher.

"Will it really work?"

Back to March 2010. The head of Roh Hyeon-Woo, executive researcher of the Technology and Strategy Team, was clouded with thoughts. At least by the new year, he needed something to show LG's presence. Technology and Strategy Team and Product Design Team met every day. Then somebody piped up:

"Do you think 3D will be a hit? The television department was all about 3D."
"Oh yeah, 3D! How come no one thought about 3D on cell phones? We shouldn't wait until 3D becomes a hit. We should do it first."

Thus began the 450-day journey of creating a 3D SmartPhone that did not require 3D glasses. For the Projects Team to actually build the product, the idea must be tested to examined whether it can be actualized. The process normally takes two to three months, but not this time -- the team had to battle with the internal skepticism as well. There were concerns that it was too early, because there was not enough contents to view in 3D. When the business was good, such skepticism would not have had much effect; when the business was shaky, the skepticism shook the convictions of the team members as well.

(More after the jump)

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But whenever there were doubts, the veteran developers continued to led the charge. Chief researcher Lee Nam-Su, whose focus is multimedia for cell phones, encouraged his team: "I have a feeling that the 3D SmartPhone will be a special model that fits well with multimedia." He also suggested: "We always had a great camera for regular phones. Let's do that again with a 3D camera."

Manual Labor Becomes Know-How

In the office of LG Electronics R&D Center in Seoul, on a day in late August, 2010, a sign was placed that reads: "Cosmopolitan Project." 170 team members gathered in a 661 square-meter room, to truly begin the 3D SmartPhone project. Why "Cosmopolitan"? Chief research Lee made an embarrassed smile: "Project names are usually meaningless. We got the name from the women's magazine, just to say we should also make a phone that gets ahead of the trend."

 Members of the Cosmopolitan Project

But despite the chic name, the actual work was manual labor, beginning with the 3D camera that took the most effort. Humans perceive three dimensions because the left and the right eye each capture a different image. Executive research Roh decided to have two lenses with a gap in between, like human eyes. He began by reading through medical journals first. Upon learning that there is on average a distance of 6.5 cm between two eyes, he shot a 3D image with two lenses, 6.5 cm apart. It was a mess. Human eyes are not fixed in one place, which makes the optimal distance different. After a sleepless night, Roh called Kang Jae-Hyeok, a researcher in charge of materials:

"Build me a rail."

With the rail, the experiment began. He took one picture with the camera affixed on the rail, and slid the camera by 5 cm to take another picture. Eventually, he had to change the distance at the millimeter level. He also dissected all 3D cameras available in the market. In the end, he found the sweet spot -- 2.4 cm.

The 3D screen to be seen without glasses was made with the help from LG Display. A thin membrane was applied on the LCD, creating a thin dividing line on each pixel of the screen. Then the screen was adjusted such that each side of the divided pixel would arrive at each eye. Chief researcher Jeong Dong-Su said: "Every member of the project team had to go through this kind of manual labor, including building our own experiment devices," and said: "Amazingly, all that manual labor became LG's know-how in the end."

The Drama in Spain

The team was getting exhausted; it went through continuous late nights without any weekend off. Managing director Lee Hyeon-Joon, leader of the group, jumped into the fray of development as well. Facing off the situation in which the CEO and head of cellphone business were replaced and the entire company was in the red because of SmartPhones, the team was desperate for success.

But the wireless providers, the primary customers, were skeptical. At the first meeting in December between executive researcher Kim Yeong-Hee, responsible for the entire Korean market, and the wireless providers, the first question was: "Why are you even making something like this?" Kim was rendered speechless. He was also sleepless over the concern that the 3D functionality would not be completed by the World Mobile Congress, to be held on February 14, 2011. He could not afford to lose this chance to tell the world that LG is not dead yet. Chief researcher Chung also had a heavy heart, overseeing the exhausted team. All he could do was to console them and say, "We are all on the same boat, we just have to dig deep."

The night of February 11, the night before leaving for Spain. An unbelievable drama unfolded. All 170 team members cheered. They built a real 3D camera functionality with image stabilization and HD capacity. The victorious warriors headed straight to the airport from the R&D center.

Chief researcher Roh stood at the exhibition hall for 10 hours. He could not figure out if he was dreaming. He explained the product to the crowd without even using the restroom, but he felt no fatigue. The travails thus far flashed before his eyes. "I had so much energy, it felt like I was high." Executive researcher Kim felt a thrill down his spine with just one sentence from a wireless provider: "This is really fun." Soon, the questions from wireless providers around the world overwhelmed the department.

Chief researcher Lee, in charge of multimedia, was also excited. Although he was at the manager level, he took to the streets himself -- to check the compatibility with televisions made by other makers, like Samsung or Sony. He went to an electronics store, grabbed "a nice sales person" and explained the situation. Then he camped out on the store floor, connecting his phone to every television to check if the images and games are run. He became an expert gamer in the process.

The three-piece set of pat-on-the-back arrived as well: the "CEO pizza" from vice president Koo Bon-Joon, the "power up chicken" from Park Jong-Seok, head of Mobile Communications, and "cheering donuts" from Jeong Ok-Hyeon, the head researcher for Mobile Communications. There are few other teams in the company that received all three.

"My wife says this is the best phone I ever made."

The SmartPhone made by the Cosmopolitan Project team was named "Optimus 3D". It is set to be sold in 60 countries and 100 carriers. It began selling in late June in certain parts of Europe including Spain and Great Britain, and in Korea in July. It will enter American market by late July. As of July 18, approximately 200,000 units were sold. But HTC of Taiwan also presented a 3D SmartPhone in North American market. Although LG Electronics made the world's first 3D SmartPhone that can take 3D images that can be shared on television and Youtube, the competition for this market already began.

But the developers are confident with the pride of being the world's first. On July 15, when ten core members of the project got together for an interview, some people welled up in the eyes. Someone asked Chief researcher Kim Hyeon-Joong: "Is your family ok, with all those late nights so far?" He laughed: "My wife says this is the best phone I ever made." Executive researcher Kang, who spent numberless nights awake to make the product, said: "This will be the time we restore our pride."

세계 첫 3D 스마트폰 개발 LG 코스모폴리탄팀의 450일 [Dong-A Ilbo]

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  1. Its not about the camera, hardware, warranty, blah. It's all about the software and design, it's these reasons why apple is conquering the market from sanding and LG. nokia, who was once the leader of the mobile industry, is pretty much a dead beat company!!

  2. We are all on the same boat, we just have to dig deep.

    I really liked this combination of metaphors from the article :)

  3. Joo Ann, think of it this way ... while some technologies kick off out into outer space in some places, it won't in others. So cloud computing is all the rage here ... maybe it just didn't get off the ground at all in Korea because it was not something the general public wanted. And if the public doesn't embrace something there, it won't take off. There are also the differences in world cultures to consider, too.

  4. I think putting 3D in a smartphone is pretty effing pointless... but that's just me.


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