前诺基亚设计师:深圳将成为全球产品原型设计中心

上网时间: 2014年03月19日? 作者:Junko Yoshida? 我来评论 【字号: ? ?小】

关键字:产品原型? 颜其锋? 设计中心?

Ex-Nokia Designer Leads Shenzhen Media Lab

Junko Yoshida

Coolpad to launch his new smartwatch prototype this month

SHENZHEN, China -- Qifeng Yan, who convinced Nokia to build the Nokia Research Center in Shenzhen in 2010, but became the last one out the door when it closed last year, knows something about Shenzhen, and about the city's potential in the next 10 years. He's betting on Shenzhen's shift from the world's low-wage factory to a global prototyping center.

Yan, now the director and chief researcher at Media Lab (Shenzhen) at Hunan University, is part of the big plan hatched by his employer. Hunan University, in partnership with the Rochester Institute of Technology, of Rochester, N.Y., is plotting to expand its Media Lab here — currently consisting of 15 people -- into an incubator for 1,500 researchers.

Typical of most big plans in China nowadays, it's ambitious. It is also possible, considering Yan and his team's experience in working their way around Shenzhen’s built-in electronics industry ecosystem.

Of the three research projects Yan’s team at the Media Lab has launched, one has already turned a research prototype into a commercial product. A smartwatch, running on MediaTek's feature phone chipset, will be launched later this month by Coolpad, a well-known domestic China smartphone brand.

Smartwatch designed by Qifeng Yan, director of Media Lab (Shenzhen) at Hunan University.

Wearable devices -- especially smartwatches -- are all the rage in China. Coolpad, too, had its own smartwatch in development, but had to scratch it. When Yan came to Coolpad, Coolpad jumped on Yan’s design.

“Innovations can't happen in the office,” said Yan. A lot of companies in Shenzhen are too busy keeping up with what their competitors in the rest of the world are doing, he observed.

One problem in Chinese companies is a shortage of people with the talent to define a product and design it. “They pay more to engineers who know how to build electronics, but they don’t necessarily pay well to those who actually design it and architect a project,” Yan explained. Further, Chinese engineers often lack the experience of putting together a team, initiating a project, and leading it, he added.

Yan’s design experience began in Finland. After he got a degree from the University of Helsinki of Art and Design, which recently became Aalto University by merging with Helsinki’s Technology and Business schools, he stayed in Finland and joined Nokia.

Yan, however, got frustrated by the time and energy he had to waste doing Powerpoint presentations and internal politicking just to get the green light for a project. Yan decided that the best way to persuade Nokia management would be to build a prototype -- fast -- and show it to them. Seeing is believing, as they say. There's no better place in the world than Shenzhen for researchers to work on a prototype, adjust, modify, and improve it in order to prove the product concept.

Subsequently, Yan -- born and raised in the Southern China -- talked Nokia into opening the Nokia Research Center in Shenzhen. He became its first (and last) director. At its heyday, the facility had 55 researchers, said Yan. Before Nokia decided to shut down after three years, Yan led the design of Nokia’s eBook for Africa. Featured with a solar panel, the tablet-size device was supposed to become the “One Tablet Per Child” for countries like Kenya and Tanzania, Yan explained.

Nokia built 8,000 units and shipped them in 2012. But that was the first and last lot before Nokia stopped research in Shenzhen. While Yan’s team was quick to define the product, build the prototype, and pull off the working demo, it took a long time for Nokia headquarters to approve the final product, because it had to meet stringent Nokia quality standards, including dropping the tablet without breaking from a height of 1.2 meters. The goals were admirable, but Nokia often missed the window of opportunity for its products. The company wasn’t flexible enough to understand what was good enough for certain products designed for certain applications in certain regions of the world, Yan observed.

Nonetheless, Yan is still a big believer in the power of Shenzhen. Shenzhen’s ecosystem consists of well-stocked parts and components. If the ones needed are not available, they’re easy to source from Hong Kong or elsewhere. Shenzhen has well-developed supply chains, along with software and hardware developers. There are vendors selling PCBs and casings. There are tooling companies, integrators, and, of course, local mega-manufacturing facilities with well-trained factory hands. In essence, Yan says, if you have a good idea, Shenzhen is the place to test, prototype, and manufacture it -- very quickly.

Continua for kitchen appliances

When Yan’s team was designing a smartwatch, they had a plenty of exposure to available chips and components. Eventually Yan picked MediaTek’s low-cost feature phone chipset and disabled the 2G modem part because it drained power.

The watch offers remote-control functions for a smartphone. Its black and white screen looks a little outdated. Yet, its design is no copy of Pebble or Samsung’s smartwatch, because this one is first designed as a watch. It features a number of unique designs to show the time a user can choose.

At Hunan University’s Media Lab in Shenzhen, researchers are working on two other projects. One is a smart kitchen with communication protocols for different kitchen appliances to talk with each another. Yan said, “We are not particularly interested in adding more smarts to kitchen appliances themselves. That will only make them more expensive.”

Rather, by using the power of a smartphone and common communication protocols, standalone dumb appliances can get connected, and smarter. “We are at a demonstration stage,” said Yan, who is working with domestic kitchen appliance makers such as Oulin, Midea, and Vatti. “We think a university media lab is a good mutual place to develop standard communication protocols that could work across the brands,” he noted.

Asked about his goal, Yan said, “We want to be the ‘Continua’ (Continua Health Alliance) of kitchen appliances to build interoperable systems.”

The third project the team is working on is “Design 114.” 114 in China is a phone number for the help line. The team is working on a website called Design 114, whose goal is to enable every designer to get the help he needs quickly.

While the Media Lab doesn’t plan to design for hire, Yan’s team has been invited by Vatti to open a lab inside the company. It poses an opportunity for Media Lab to serve as a catalyst for local Chinese companies to move up the food chain.

Yan hopes that Shenzhen, someday, will end me-too manufacturing, typified by Chinese bosses in local electronics ODMs and OEMs going after quick buck by copying the latest iPhone or Galaxy model. Based on his firsthand experience at Nokia Research Center in Shenzhen and now at the Hunan University Media Lab, Yan foresees Shenzhen eventually as a global mecca where people gather together, prototype their ideas, commercialize new products, and start companies.

In the minds of many locals here, such change is inevitable. Already, Shenzhen no longer offers the cheapest labor (i.e., Foxconn will be building its new production facilities elsewhere) and the cost of living is skyrocketing.

In the following pages, you will be able to take a look inside the Media Lab and at Coolpad's new smartwatch featuring a number of unique designs to show the time a user can choose.

Qifeng Yan in front of Media Lab entrance. Notice the logos of both Hunan University and the Rochester Institute of Technology.

The Coolpad watch is designed first as a watch.

If you need to show the time in Chinese characters on the same watch, here it is. Cool typefaces.

Again, here's yet another way to show the time.

A screenshot of the "Design 114" website under development.

Hunan University students working inside Media Lab.

Media Lab director Yan sitting in his office (with a view), showing off his smartwatch on his wrist.


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