Nexus, VR, and robots: An exclusive chat with Asus Chairman Jonney Shih

Asus is one of the biggest computing companies on the planet, with an estimated brand value of $1.3 billion.

That’s

not bad for a company started by just four ex-Acer staffers in the late

80s, in a city – Taipei – still struggling to get on the map for computing hardware.

And there’s no one better to talk

about Asus past, present, and future than veritable industry legend

Jonney Shih, Chairman and former CEO of the Taiwanese tech giant.

Shih

has been at the helm of Asus since 1993, having led the firm through

the ups and downs that came with transitioning to the digital age.

We

sat down with Shih for an exclusive interview that saw the Asus head

honcho speak candidly about Google Nexus, smartwatches, VR, robots, and PC

gaming.

Here are six things we learned speaking to the Asus chairman:

Shih wants to focus on smartphones to avoid becoming “irrelevant”

If you go by 2014 figures, Asus is the 5th largest PC vendor in the world in terms of unit sales.

So

when the company revealed it was shifting its focus from notebooks to

smartphones earlier this year, we were all a little confused.

After

all, the smartphone market is incredibly saturated, and plenty of big mobile

brands are struggling to turn a profit in the face of increased competition.

But Shih isn’t put off by these

ill omens: “The brand’s slogan is called ‘in search of incredible’,

right? We think to face the new challenge, we are not afraid of that.”

“You

just always have to try to follow the right trend and then try to drive

the right innovation,” explains the Asus boss. “So that’s why we think

that if we don’t drive the smartphone then Asus may become irrelevant,

okay?”

According to Shih, PCs are still important for work and

productivity, but smartphones are the key to what he calls “the new

mobile cloud computing era”.

“The reason we want to do

smartphones is because we believe it’s important. You need to ride the

right wave, right?” he says, adding: “I think you need to do that,

otherwise you may become irrelevant for the new era.”

Asus might be working on a new Google Nexus device

Asus has always been a high-value player in the PC market, but much of its contemporary prestige came courtesy of the 2012 launch of the Nexus 7.

Built

in partnership with Google, the 7-inch Android tablet was critically

acclaimed on account of its quality build, impressive specs and – most

importantly – the budget-friendly $199 price tag.

The follow-up, the 2013 Nexus 7,

was similarly well-received, and we were keen to find out whether Asus

would be willing to enter Google’s Nexus program once again.

“Actually, we have a lot of projects ongoing,” Shih tells us. “Please just stay tuned, you know, stay tuned.”

He

adds: “I think we do have quite a good development partnership with

Google. We are still doing a lot of projects with them together.”

Of

course, Shih didn’t detail exactly what Google and Asus were working on

together, so there’s no way of knowing whether another Nexus tablet is

in the works.

Unfortunately, Google appeared to make a shift away

from the Nexus line this year, instead unveiling its first-ever

in-house manufactured tablet just last month – the Pixel C.

What’s more, Shih explained that building on from the success of the first two Nexuses is tougher than it looks.

“So

for the [first-generation] Nexus, I think that both parties feel that

this will be an exciting product, with this kind of…price and this

kind of functionality and quality,” explains the Asus chairman. “Even

[the second-generation Nexus 7], we moved to the Full HD screen, and we

still believe in this kind of beauty. It still makes sense.”

He continues: “But then the next one actually takes a lot of discussion.”

As Shih says, “stay tuned”.

Shih thinks smartwatches should “reach one week” battery life

Asus was one of the first companies to launch a decent smartwatch – the Asus ZenWatch – paving the way for a bevy of devices from competitor brands.

What’s more, the ZenWatch received plenty of praise for its slick design, and early efforts in the Android Wear space.

Shih maintains that this success is largely down to Asus not trying to replace your smartphone.

“The

best strategy so far, I still believe, is [the watch] as a companion of

the phone,” explains Shih. “We believe we took the right strategy from

the very beginning with the design, replacing your watch.”

He

continues: “I think that’s the right direction, and we have to work very

hard to try to optimise the other portions [of the device].”

One of those optimisations is battery life, a metric that Shih believes still has plenty of room for improvement.

I

think the best smartwatch should be able to reach one week, right? I

think that we still keep improving, but I think you are very right,” the

chairman tells us.

But how can we get to the point where

smartwatches, many of which struggle to break past two days’ use, can

survive for up to a week off-charge.

“I think with Android Wear,

in terms of optimisation, there’s still a lot of work you can do so that

you can really reach the seven days,” he explains. “And so another

consideration of the battery, of course, is not just the operating

system, but also the display.”

Shih continues: “When it comes to

the kind of display you are trying to use…some displays may be very

power efficient, but sometimes the quality may not be good enough.”

“We

try our best to have this kind of…step-by-step improvement and, at

the same time, I think it’s important to keep driving the right

parameter…and then get the kind of sweet spot,” he adds. “So one day,

two days, three days…you challenge Android Wear, you challenge the

display, and maybe there are still some other things that you can do.”

Shih reckons console gaming performance is ‘more advanced’ than PCs

Republic of Gamers was first launched back in 2006, and forms Asus’ efforts in the PC gaming space.

Through

the brand, Asus peddles hardware, computers, peripherals, and

accessories, all in the hope of nabbing share from the console market.

We

asked Shih whether he thinks small-factor gaming PCs will ever replace

consoles as the central hub for video game entertainment in the home.

The

Asus boss told us that the possibilities of this happening “keep

improving”, and explained that we’re just waiting for a “critical mass”.

However,

he made a point that it’s not just about raw performance, but about

having an ecosystem where people can just “jump in”.

“I don’t believe that the performance [of consoles] is the issue,” says Shih.

“I

think performance actually sometimes is even more advanced [on

consoles] because the consoles sometimes have to plan ahead,” he

explains. “So it’s like a three-year jump, and PC it’s actually every

year you can jump.”

Shih adds: “So I don’t think the issue is in the performance or with the GPU.”

Asus is working on a VR gaming project with a partner

It

seems like everyone and their aunt are getting into the virtual reality

business right now, but we’ve heard little from Asus regarding the

burgeoning technology.

We spoke to Shih about whether Asus is keen to capitalise on the growing interest in virtual reality.

He told us that virtual reality is “an extension” of the company’s Republic of Gamers division.

“We already have that kind of plan already,” explains Shih, adding: “Some kind of partner project ongoing.”

The

chairman continues: “We need to drive both [virtual reality and

augmented reality]. One is the current VR, that’s the extension of

gaming.”

Asus currently has already been rumoured to make an entry in the virtual

reality space wit a HoloLens style headset, likely in response to many of the company’s rivals having already

entered the market.

Unfortunately, Shih didn’t detail any specific timelines regarding a launch.

Shih doesn’t want robots to be as smart as humans

As the prospect of developing genuine artificial intelligence grows likelier by the day, technologists and scientists – Bill Gates, Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk, and Steve Wozniak, to name a few – have come out in force to voice their concerns.

As the boss of a company with a dedicated robotics division, Shih is unsurprisingly keen to talk about the future of AI.

“If

you really try to dig into the artificial intelligence, frankly

speaking, it’s still, you know, far from the real human intelligence,”

explains the Asus chairman. “Do you really want to have a robot, really

have the current human intelligence?”

He continues: “Or you only want a robot that actually helps human? I think now that’s two different kinds of strategy.”

Shih

reckons that the “eventual goal [for AI] is still to serve people”

though, so rest assured Asus-branded Terminators won’t be rolling down

your local high street any time soon.

Do you think robots should be equals or slaves? Let us know in the comments.

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