MWC 2016: Zuckerberg takes Samsung into a VR future

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Media captionSamsung scored a coup by getting Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg to appear at its launch

It's easy to be cynical about phone launches.

Thousands of excited fans - or jaded journalists - pack into grandiose events to be deafened by Coldplay or U2 and hear nervous executives read from an autocue that they are "really excited" to reveal a "life-changing" innovation that looks much like last year's model.

And yes, there was a certain amount of that at the Samsung Unpacked event in Barcelona last night. The Galaxy S7 and S7 Edge are what you would expect from the Korean company - extremely capable, state-of-the-art smartphones with excellent cameras.

But these days half a dozen manufacturers can build a device we would have thought miraculous a few years ago, so a company like Samsung has to do more.

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Image caption Attendees were asked to put on Samsung's Gear VR headset

And last night it did. The first clue was the Gear VR headset placed on each seat as we trooped into the vast hall.

A voice from the sound system - in between snatches of Coldplay - explained patiently how to put it on. Then during the event we used the headset twice - once for the moment of the big reveal of the Galaxy S7, where a virtual box was opened, and more impressively to demonstrate Samsung's new 360 camera.

Looking around at a Barcelona street scene with footballers playing keepy-up gave a glimpse of what users might do when they get their hands on the Gear 360 and share what they see on YouTube or Facebook.

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Image caption Samsung showed attendees a 360-degree video of freestyle football filmed on a Barcelona street

But it was the real coup de theatre which came next. As we removed our headsets, the most famous young man in the technology world appeared on the stage.

Mark Zuckerberg is known to be an enthusiast for VR - after all he spent a chunk of Facebook's money buying Oculus Rift - but by appearing at a Samsung event and evangelising about its potential he gave a rocket-powered boost to his host's efforts in this field.

He told us how he started sketching out what seemed an unlikely vision of virtual reality from the age of 11 (which young geek didn't?) but that it was now beginning to happen.

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Image caption Mark Zuckerberg snuck onto the stage while the audience was watching a VR video

"VR is the next platform where anyone can experience anything they want," he said."It's going to change the way we live and work and communicate."

He pictured sitting at a virtual campfire with friends around the world, watching a movie together, or sharing his baby's first steps with a 360 degree view. And of course this would become the future of social media, and Facebook - along with Samsung - would be at the heart of it.

So, an event about a couple of new phones had become a kind of TED talk about a transformational technology. What a win for Samsung, still the world's leading smartphone maker but being squeezed by Apple at the high end and cheap but very capable Chinese smartphones at the budget end of the market.

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Image caption Samsung is under pressure from China's Xiaomi, which is expected to unveil its new smartphone at Mobile World Congress on Wednesday

Like many others in this industry it is trying to look beyond smartphones for its growth, as profit margins get ever slimmer. Making money from its major investment in virtual reality will take time - the company is giving away a Gear VR headset to anyone who orders one of the new Galaxy S7 phones in advance.

But, with the help of Facebook's founder, Samsung managed to change the conversation about the company last night and make itself look more far-sighted than many of its rivals.