I’m jumping into hyperspace.
That’s what it feels like as I walk down a dark hallway, the only illumination coming from streaks of white and blue shooting backward across large displays mounted to my left and right. Glancing from side to side re-creates the feel of an X-Wing from “Star Wars” rocketing forward into deep space.
Even more jarring is the fact that just a few moments ago, I was in one of the reception rooms of the historic Park Avenue Armory in Manhattan, its interior a mix of classic dark wood and leather furniture, historic paintings and ornate metal railings — decidedly not space themed.
But after following a crowd that was making its way deeper into the building, I find myself in that starry hallway.
Am I being transported to another world?
Not quite. I’m at Samsung’s Galaxy Note 8 unveiling on Wednesday.
Tech product unveilings are a dime a dozen and generally follow the same template: There’s a slickly produced video with loud, headache-inducing bass. The head honcho comes out, gives a little preamble and shows off the gadget. Lower-level executives come out to talk about specific features. Then the bigwig returns to offer a few concluding thoughts. Cue the stampede of tech journalists and product reviewers rushing into the demo room.
While Samsung generally follows the same template, its “Unpacked” events take things to a completely different level. True to its reputation as one of the world’s largest consumer electronics companies and the top global phone maker, Samsung has honed its showmanship skills to put on some of the more lively and over-the-top launch events in the tech industry.
“Unpacked events are always a spectacle, and the selections for venues have been pretty inspired the last few times,” said IHS Markit analyst Wayne Lam.
This year especially, Samsung needed to put on a good show. The company was under pressure to wow consumers with the Galaxy Note 8, the first direct follow-up to the Note 7, which was twice recalled last year over its unhealthy tendency to catch fire. The incident turned Samsung into the butt of many jokes, humbling the mighty tech giant. This event marked the first chance for Samsung to get you trusting the Note name again.
“Media events are an essential element in creating both enthusiasm and understanding of the product,” said Maribel Lopez, an analyst at Lopez Research.
While Samsung has long been saddled with the label of “fast follower” (after Apple), it sees itself more as an innovator, pointing to advances like wireless charging, curved displays and its S-Pen stylus. To Samsung, its high production values are further evidence that it’s a brand you want to pay attention to.
The result is more a show than a product launch, and one that you can only fully appreciate in person.
A Samsung spokesman wasn’t available to comment on the work behind the company’s events.
Walking on water
The massive hangar-like main hall of the Armory is barely recognizable to anyone familiar with this space.
Samsung has transformed the hall, laying down a gigantic square stage in the middle. Along the rear two sides of the stage are two huge (sensing a theme here?) displays that reach toward the rafters above.
Behind me are two sets of stadium risers, which are facing the remaining two sides of the stage.
I grab a seat and reserve a few more for my colleagues, kicking up my fluorescent yellow shoes, which glow brightly thanks to the ultraviolet light shining from above.
Once the lights dim, Samsung plays a video showing customer testimonials reflecting both enthusiasm for past Note products and the disappointment and frustration felt after the Note 7 incident.
Samsung isn’t shying away from the controversy.
D.J. Koh, the head of Samsung’s mobile business, walks on stage. “None of us will forget what happened last year,” he says. “I know I won’t.”
Koh goes through the usual introductions. The room goes dark and an image of two Note 8s emerge from the floor, projected by the tiny LED screens embedded into special floor tiles on the stage. The effect was also used at the Galaxy Note 7 launch a year ago, when the event was held in New York’s Hammerstein Ballroom.
The phones move underneath him and directly onto to the displays behind. The image quickly changes to the New York cityscape, with the aqua blue of the Hudson River flowing right onto the stage.
Koh is seemingly walking on water.
The big show
The only other company to garner more fanfare is Apple; its events are meticulously calculated, with attention to every detail. But generally, the presentations are more straightforward, and Apple tends to more strictly follow the basic tech event template.
Then again, Apple doesn’t need to go all out to build that excitement — often it’s already there.
And sometimes, a flair for the dramatic can misfire. During the 2013 launch of Samsung’s Galaxy S4 at Radio City Music Hall, the company paraded sexist 1950s-era stereotypes of women in the form of a campy Broadway vignettes to highlight the phone’s new features.
“They kinda jumped the shark on that one,” Lam said.
I’ve witnessed my fair share of events, including ones where we’re watching a “hype” video of a product with no audio (which completely dampens the effect), or scratching our heads over models strutting on stage waving a portable camera. There have been a few too many events when an executive rambles on for too long.
But the Galaxy S4 event was the most cringe-worthy.
Still, these events are tricky, especially with the element of live demos. There’s a lot of pressure to ensure that the first impression sticks. Once the event was over, I checked out the special LED stage, which played host to many selfies.
Now if only tech companies can get the Wi-Fi to work properly at these events, we’d be all set.