HTC Announces All-Glass, AI-Infused U Ultra and U Play Smartphones

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In the post-smartphone world—where the market is saturated, sales are down, and a mere £100/$150 can buy a perfectly pleasant device—just what does the premium smartphone maker do? Does it go down the path of Huawei and OnePlus, offering premium materials and components at cut down prices? Does it market its phones with en vogue accessories like VR headsets and smartwatches like Samsung does with its Galaxy phones? Or, like Google and its computer vision-enabled Project Tango, does it go for broke with a new, untested technology in the hopes of creating a coveted platform?

With the new HTC U Ultra and HTC U Play—a pair of all-glass smartphones imbued with the power of a so-called artificial intelligence that are due out in February—HTC is very much going for the latter.

It’s a surprising change of tack after the restrained, but well-received HTC 10, which sought to nail the basics of smartphone design in lieu of any quirky features. According to HTC’s marketing guru, Darren Sng, the new U-series (yes, these first two phones are just the start) represent a total “transformation” of the company, combining all-new industrial design and materials with machine learning in a way that HTC hopes will turn it from a “smartphone company centred on your life, to making you the centre of your smartphone.”

Pithy marketing slogans aside, HTC’s new direction brings with it some intriguing features. Atop the large 5.7-inch 1440p display of the U Ultra is a smaller, two-inch ticker display (160×1040), much like that fitted to the LG V20 smartphone released last year. Unlike the LG V20, however, HTC is attempting to make its ticker display useful.

The idea behind the display, according to HTC, is to try and solve the problem of notification overload, whether that’s the nagging red dots in the corner of app icons on iOS or the slew of pop-up boxes on Android. Instead of notifications popping up over a video you’re watching or a game you’re playing, they’ll be passed to the secondary display.

More than that, though, the priority of notifications on U-series phones will be entirely handled by HTC’s AI. Rather than, say, a notification from an app nagging you to go buy some more in-game coins taking the same priority as an urgent WhatsApp message from a friend, the phone will push the WhatsApp message to the secondary display, keeping the less important message back for retrieval later. The AI learns which friends and apps you interact with the most and uses that information to decide what is most important to you. Notifications can be contextual, too, so that if you’re playing a game, for example, the phone knows you’re having some downtime and can let more spurious notifications through.

If this all sounds like you’re handing over your life to HTC’s AI, then brace yourself for this one: the phone can even trim your friends list for you, based on whom you’re speaking to the most, how quickly you’re replying to messages, and other such data. All the phone needs to get started is an initial list of friends, populated manually or imported from social networks like Facebook.

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SOURCE: Ars Technica, Mark Walton