The big picture: While many in the gadget industry love to talk about the technological advances hidden within their devices, the truth is that nothing makes quite the impact like an apparent change in the device’s physical design or form factor. For example, the debut of foldable smartphones like the Samsung Galaxy Fold or Motorola’s updated Razr continue to surprise and delight customers and potential buyers, which many companies would like to have.
Advanced new processors, additional connectivity ports, improved cameras and other internal improvements are of course also important, but at a time when so many products are starting to look alike, an intriguing new design of a popular device is bound to get a lot of attention. So it’s no big surprise that the unveiling of both a Lenovo-branded notebook PC design and a Motorola-branded smartphone with expandable displays at last week’s Lenovo Tech World 2022 event drew a lot of attention.
Both devices are based on flexible OLED display technology that uses a rollable design, which allows the screens to be expanded to a larger size at the push of a button.
Both devices were clearly labeled as conceptual designs with no set release date, but they offered an intriguing look at new ways to think differently about some of our most popular gadgets. Each design, in its own way, addressed the almost-universal desire for larger screen sizes without the equally universal concern of not having to carry large devices, which made them immediately appealing.
Unfortunately, given the state of manufacturing of roll display technology and the physical demands faced by consumer-level devices, it will likely be several years before we see commercial implementations of this technology in these types of devices. (LG introduced a rollable screen-based OLED TV, but it took many years to finally hit the market and currently costs around $40,000.)
Still, it’s great to see Lenovo pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, and it’s another example of the company’s long history of driving innovation in physical design. Lenovo’s original Yoga series of notebooks, for example, was the first example of a 360-degree foldable hinge design for PCs, which has since become commonplace. The company also continues its second-generation foldable PC design with the latest iteration of the ThinkPad X1 Fold, as well as the second version of its Motorola Razr foldable smartphone. In all cases, they’re interesting examples of the strong focus the company has placed on form factors.
Remember that Lenovo bought out the IBM PC business in 2005 and the innovation-driven culture that led to the development of the ThinkPad notebook PC – which recently turned 30 took the reins. Of course, not all innovative designs turn out to be commercial successes, and Lenovo, like all other major PC vendors, had some interesting concepts that didn’t get much acceptance. However, when it comes to exciting new possibilities or exciting new form factor innovations for PCs, there’s no doubt that Lenovo is probably the first company to try them. In many cases, that means they’re also the first companies to bring them into the mainstream.
The same spirit of experimentation and new thinking is starting to spread to other product categories as well, as Lenovo has recently put a big focus on XR (eXtended Reality) headsets and other metaverse-related developments. Last year the company introduced its ThinkReality A3 AR (augmented reality) glasses and last month it was one of the first companies to introduce an advanced, enterprise-focused VR (virtual reality) headset, the ThinkReality VRX, which features color video Passthrough feature provides. This allows the device to switch from a full VR mode to an AR-like Mixed Reality (MR) experience, where digitally created content can be overlaid on the real-world view provided by two high-resolution cameras on the front of the headset.
While both headsets share similarities with existing devices, they also integrate some unique hardware to set them apart. In the case of the A3, Lenovo opted for a tethered design that requires a wired connection to either certain models of Lenovo PCs with a GPU or certain Motorola smartphones. While that means the device can’t function on its own, it scales the design down to a much slimmer, more glasses-like design than devices like Microsoft’s HoloLens 2.
Lenovo’s VRX shares some similarities with the recently released Meta Quest Pro (although Meta Quest Pro debuted after the Lenovo VRX). Both devices are based on Qualcomm’s latest Snapdragon XR Gen2+ chipset and feature the latest pancake optics for a wider field of view. Lenovo’s new headset can work standalone or connect to a PC for a higher quality experience. In fact, Lenovo has partnered with Nvidia for cloud-based, GPU-powered experiences via Nvidia CloudXR.
The Lenovo device is also the first VR-enabled headset capable of working with Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Spaces, a software development environment originally created to create content for AR headsets. By equipping the VRX with the hardware (and software) required to support Snapdragon Spaces, Lenovo again reflects its desire to bring new types of features into existing product categories.
Like all device manufacturers, Lenovo continues to drive important advances inside its devices with its technology partners. Additionally, the company is working on major new software tools, services, and development environments for many of them, including the multi-vendor Engage XR effort for its headsets. However, the company’s focus on form factor innovation presents it with a unique opportunity as the world looks for more unique and differentiated designs.