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.”