Water was the design inspiration for Samsung's latest flagship smartphones the Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge, the design team of the South Korean tech giant has said.
ZDNet Korea interviewed the head of Samsung's design team for the new smartphones, Lee Min-hyouk, vice president of Samsung mobile's design team. He is famous for being instrumental in designing the Galaxy S3, together with Junho Park, director of Samsung's global product planning group, who orchestrated the manufacturing of the firm's latest handsets.
"Our inspiration behind the design was water. Water is pure and malleable in colour and depth," said Lee, who also supervised the design for the Galaxy Note 4 and Galaxy Note Edge.
"We wanted to incorporate materials that looked organic, for authenticity, and that is how we chose glass. Glass, even when it is at its thinnest, can express depth, in our view, and was the perfect solution."
Both the S6 and S6 Edge are covered in Gorilla Glass 4 front and back, with round edges and a flat surface, to create a water-like appearance. Of course, for the S6 Edge, which features a curved display on the sides, the covering glass was also curved. The overall impression that the design team wanted was a metal bowl "filled to the brim" with water for the S6, and a bowl "overflowing" for the S6 Edge, said Lee.
"Especially for the S6 Edge, which has a dual-edged screen, the glass is also dual edged to cover it, and I think it is our peak point in design," he said.
The sideline, or rims, of the two phones were created using a diamond-cutting process to accentuate the use of metals and its separation from the glass cover, said the vice president.
"We started using the sidelines, or metal rims, for our phones since the Galaxy Alpha last year, and since then it has become our design heritage," said Lee.
"Because our phones continue to become thinner, the difficulty of executing the sides were increasing, but we overcame it with our diamond-cutting process that allowed us to stay true to Samsung's heritage. It also allows for a comfortable grip."
The essence of a smartphone
Lee summed up what Samsung wanted with its latest phones into one word: Essence.
"Essence refers to a core without superfluous details. Previously, we focused on delivering everything on a smartphone," said Lee.
"But this time, we began at zero. It was about returning to the beginning. We focused on the basics. All that meant preserving the essence of a smartphone.
"A smartphone is an integrated device with many technologies, so contemplating over what was really necessary for our consumers was a real challenge. Contemplating over the essence led to our concept for the S6, which was 'beauty meets purpose'," he added.
So what is the essence of a smartphone? Ergonomic function and innovation, according to Lee. Ease of use, rather than having this and that random function, was paramount in the design of the smartphone, he said.
Samsung has long used mainly plastic for its flagship series, which many opined made the handsets look and feel cheap. The use of new materials, colours, and construction methods lined up with Samsung's new concept.
"We've considered various materials -- even metal -- from the very beginning when we started making smartphones, and we ended up using glass and metal this time because they were the optimum materials for our design concept."
3D thermoforming and multi-coating
Using new materials and construction methods to meet the concept given by the design team was initially a huge challenge for Samsung engineers, said Park.
Unlike plastic, metals block radio waves, which makes utilising the material in network-connected devices generally more challenging. Smartphone king Apple first applied metal in 2010 with its iPhone 4, and initially received complaints from consumers of bad call connections due to this.
"Using and moulding aluminium, as well as the ultra-touch Gorilla Glass 4 that covers it, into a shape that the design team wanted was a challenge. We eventually overcame it by implementing new processes we had never tried really quickly," said the director.
Samsung applied hitherto untried manufacturing processes. For the Galaxy S6 Edge, the South Korean tech giant used 3D thermoforming, the company's own new process.
"In a nutshell, it involved inserting the glass between two moulds and heating it so that the glass becomes pliable. Glass becomes pliable at 800 degrees Celsius," said Park. "When the temperature is met, the glass is pressed by the two models into a symmetrical shape. This is thermoforming.
"As the name suggests, in 3D thermoforming used to form the glass to cover the screen of the three-sided S6 Edge, we had to press the glass in three directions at once to give it that curved shape."
After thermoforming, the glass is processed through precision machineries. Glasses were polished on the surface, sides, and facade.
To achieve the unique "gem" colours, including the blue topaz for the S6 and green emerald for the S6 Edge, used in the rear casings for the phones, Samsung used what it called a nano-thin, multi-coating process.
"We added multiple coatings on the rear casings, both front and back, that were nanometre -- one billionth of a metre -- thin. Basically, we added layers and layers of nanometre of this coating on the casings to give that gem-like, high-gloss colours," said Park. "We also layered micro patterns inside the glass so that natural light reflects seamlessly from the glass."
Future of the Edge
Samsung first used the curved-screen form factor in the Galaxy Note Edge last year, and the S6 Edge is its second offering. It is yet too early to determine where this new form factor is headed. Samsung has opened up its SDK and API for the Note Edge, and has promised to do the same for the S6 Edge.
The edge screens of the two devices are also fundamentally different. For the Note Edge, the edged side is an "extra" screen that can be independently configured from the face screen. The S6's dual-edged sides, together with the front, display one unified screen.
"The developer community has already embraced opportunities to expand curved-screen functionality for the Galaxy Note Edge, and we anticipate having the same kind of reaction for the S6 Edge," said Park. Both Lee and Park declined to comment on what kind of new form factors are in the pipeline for Samsung's future smartphones.
Last year, during its investors relations conference in New York, Samsung executives said the company already had the technology to manufacture a foldable display, and vowed to offer various form factors in its smartphones going forward. It is very unlikely that the South Korean tech giant will try out new tweaks of its display for future products unseen in the Note Edge and S6 Edge until it hits the right spot.