A lot of cell phone shoppers assume that carriers get a phone from an HTC or Samsung, slap a logo and some apps on it, and then put it on the shelf. Not so much. This week we were invited to Sprint's huge--and college-like--Overland Park campus in Kansas, where the carrier runs multiple labs. It's here where Sprint executes a complex but well coordinated process of bringing handsets and other wireless devices to market. From the photo tour below you'll be able to get a feel for just how involved Sprint is every step of the way, from RF and usability testing to GPS and video playback test drives.
Taking this tour felt a little like being inside Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, except for phone nerds. Come with me, and you'll be in a world of pure wireless geekdom...
Not all cell phone test dummy heads are created equal. This new one that Sprint uses in a shielded chamber to evaluate network performance is plastic on the outside but gel-filled on the inside to simulate a human's noggin. The hand you see here remains static but Sprint also does testing in the real world to avoid potential death grip issues.
At Sprint's Usability Lab the carrier conducts trials using everyday consumers to gather data on everything on the accuracy and feel of various touch keyboards to the relation of heft to quality when it comes to handsets. The testers are observed via two-way mirrors and cameras, and Sprint uses this data to help shape its future product portfolio.
Behind those double doors Sprint can simulate how well a given handset performs when handing off between networks. How do they do that? With the signal knobs outside the chamber you see on the right hand side.
Based in Overland Park, Kansas, Sprint's world headquarters is so large it has its own zip code. It also looks like a college campus, complete with a fitness center, health center, and flower shop. Sprint's HQ is also very green, with most of the power provided being wind generated. There are 21 office buildings, 6,000 trees, and 6.92 miles of sidewalks.
Sprint's engineers perform video streaming tests (both when stationary and in a moving vehicle) to measure how quickly its tablets and phones can start playing a clip on its network. The laptop in the background logs the data, which is shared with members of the Sprint product team and with OEM partners.
Network Vision Base Station
Check out this before-and-after shot. As part of Sprint's Network Vision initiative, the carrier will be rolling out much more efficient and versatile base stations at its cell sites. The BTS on the right is the Ercisson E-node, which Sprint says is a future-proof solution because a single unit can support multiple wireless technologies with a simple card swap, whether it's 3G, WiMax, or LTE. The E-Node also uses less than 60 percent less power than the beast on the left.
It's nice to know that Sprint doesn't want its subscribers to drive off a cliff because their device gave them the directions. In its lab and real-world test drives the carrier ensures longitude and latitude accuracy, and measures the time it takes to get a GPS fix. Sprint also gathers data on re-routing performance and indoor performance. After all, we do a lot of our location searches inside. Phones are connected to laptops to log info.
One of Sprint's biggest pushes is to get wireless technology into more widgets, and the DriveCam is an excellent example. The device has two cameras, one that records the driver and another that captures footage in front of the car. When the built-in accelerometer detects an event (crash), the DriveCam grabs a clip a few seconds before and the seconds after. Sprint's partner claims to have reduced teen driving collisions by 70 percent, as well as slice fleet companies cut their costs in half.
With the help of some pretty sophisticated gear in its Lexena Lab, Sprint tests for spurious RF emissions. This basically means that the carrier needs to ensure that a given handset won't interfere with other phones on the network or negatively impact the network overall. As Ben Bellinder put it, the handset director at Sprint, it's all about keeping devices within their swim lanes.
Using a display with built in eye tracking tech (made by Tobii), Sprint has conducted research in its Usability Lab to literally follow the eyes of consumers as they use devices. From the resulting heat map data, the carrier has been able to make informed decisions about where certain interface elements will be most effective.