Smartphones have advanced at a phenomenal rate since the original iPhone announcement. Resolutions are skyrocketing, processing power is growing rapidly. However, as the technology has advanced, it seems like the uses themselves have stagnated — we still use our smartphones almost exactly the same ways we did back in 2007.
There is, however, some technology on the horizon that could change how we use our phones in much more fundamental ways. Let’s start with something most of you probably haven’t heard of.
We’ve kind of hit a dead end with current phone cameras. Sure, manufacturers can tweak the optics, add more sensor resolution, and eke out better pictures — but it won’t change the user experience. Smartphone cameras are already good enough for everything they’re used for.
So where do manufacturers go from here? The answer is depth cameras. These aren’t just the gimmicky stereo cameras we’ve seen on the Nintendo 3DS and the Evo 3D. These are true depth cameras: they know the precise depth of each pixel in the image, and can extract 3D geometry from the image. This is the same technology used in the Kinect 2.0.
This is astounding. Using a technology called SLAM (short for Simultaneous Location and Mapping,’) your phone can extract a 3D map of the world and use it to figure out where you are in space, as well as identify real objects. Apps can use this for a lot of things, from new augmented reality games to furniture shopping, to a sort of ultra-precise GPS that can tell when you’re in a store, for instance, and guide you, step by step, to the location of the corn chips.
Allowing smartphones to interact with the real world like this has countless 3D mapping applications, and I can’t wait to see what developers come up with. The most promising version of this technology is Google’s Project Tango, which you can check out in the video above. So far, there are a few thousand Tango dev kits in the wild. While there’s been no official release date for the consumer version, the device could be on the market within a year or two.
Even as smartphones get thinner, they also get wider. We desperately want more interaction surface to work with, which is why products like the iPad are so popular. However, users only have so much pocket to work with, and carrying around a bag all the time is inconvenient for most people.
One approach to resolving this conflict are bendable displays, which are OLED displays built on top of a flexible substrate which can be rolled or folded like paper. This lets manufacturers fit a large interaction surface into a small payload that you can easily carry with you.
Picture a smartphone-sized device that unfolds to be the size of an iPad, or even a newspaper. With a little effort, you can imagine a LOT of different form factors a mobile device could take to make use of flexible technology. Flexible displays may finally change up the “slate” form factor that’s defined smart devices for eight years.
The technology is still a few years out, but the research is already playing with curved, rigid displays, some of which may prove to be more durable or more ergonomic than traditional devices.
Right now, phones one-size-fits-all. Everyone who buys a Galaxy S6 is buying the same processor, the same screen, and the same speakers. This is in contrast to the way we buy PCs. Even if you aren’t into the PC-hotrodding scene, most people still customize their PCs, with a faster GPU, a nicer screen, an ergonomic keyboard, big speakers, etc.
Bringing this kind of customization to the smartphone is at the heart of Project Ara, Google’s new initiative to transform smartphone components into Lego blocks: self-contained units which can be mixed and matched, and upgraded in place.
It would work something like this: consumers would buy a cheap smartphone skeleton, with slots for various modules. Those modules would contain processors, speakers, memory, batteries, and the like. These modules could then be replaced and upgraded, without having to get rid of the rest of the phone, and with no special tools or expertise.
This allows for consumers to take much finer control of their smartphone experience. If you want a nice camera or a huge battery, you can prioritize that. Ditto for more exotic features like a high-end speaker, or a retinal scanner. This new paradigm allows for smartphones to do more diverse things, because not everyone needs to be able to use a feature for it to exist. It also puts users in a position of more power, letting them mix and match components between manufacturers to get the best possible device.
Let’s talk about something a little more fundamental. A smartphone is a widescreen HD OLED display, connected to a computer that’s a bit faster than a last-generation console. You might recognize this as about 90% of the hardware needed to provide a convincing VR experience. The rest (head tracking hardware and some basic optics) can be purchased, right now, in the form of the Gear VR, Oculus VR’s mobile offering. While the headset currently finds support on a select Samsung phones, this kind of functionality is becoming more ubiquitous. Google Cardboard has been wildly successful, and LG is shipping a low-end VR shell with every LG G3.
Today, the Gear VR is the gold standard for this kind of thing: Samsung gave Oculus special, low-level access to the operating system, allowing Oculus to cut nauseating motion lag down to a minimum. The Samsung phones also have an OLED screen, which allows for a low-persistence display that eliminates VR motion blur. And, unlike most cheap VR shells, the Gear VR comes with its own motion tracking hardware, which is a far more precise than the poorly-calibrated gyros and accelerometers already in the phone hardware. This said, it’s only a matter of time before other hardware manufacturers get their product to the same level of quality.
Mobile VR is already a great experience for watching movies, and in another hardware generation or two, it may prove to be useful for mobile computing, letting us use crazy VR operating systems on the go, creating huge virtual screens to work on when we’re away from our desk. Perhaps depth cameras will provide the positional tracking needed for such an application.
One of the major limiting factors on phones these days is the battery. Batteries are advancing, but not nearly as quickly as screen resolution, processing power, or storage space. The result is that many cool phone features can’t be implemented because they would represent too much of a drain on already-scarce battery life.
There are a lot of technologies that could improve battery life. One of the most promising, in the long term, is ultra-capacitors — a process that uses nanotechnology to create devices which can charge almost instantly, while storing far more energy than normal batteries.
Normal capacitors work by storing a static charge between two layers of conductive material, which can be discharged later. Ultracapacitors use nano-structured materials like graphene to create enormous numbers of those layers, which can be discharged one at a time, creating a slow, continuous flow of power. These capacitors wouldn’t degrade over time like batteries, and could potentially be far more energy dense.
Deep Machine Learning
You may have heard quite a bit of fuss about the Internet of Things — the notion that we will one day be surrounded by smart devices that network together in intelligent ways to make our lives easier. Will that happen? I don’t know. What I do know is that developers can get a lot of the same value using just an internet-connected smartphone.
Deep learning technology is progressing at an incredible rate, and the smartphone is an ideal platform to leverage that technology to improve your daily life. IBM’s Watson artificial intelligence platform is rapidly developing into a competent doctor, lawyer, and (as I recently discovered), a pretty decent chef. When all of that technology is sitting in your phone, ambiently monitoring you and making intelligent interventions, your life begins to look a little different.
Should I see a doctor about this bump? What am I forgetting to pick up on the grocery store? What was that girl’s name? With machine learning, a simple phone can become a guardian angel, looking out for the users’ interests in subtle ways.
This technology becomes more powerful as it gets access to more data. How long until there’s a checkbox in Google Now to have it refine your search results by listening to your microphone? How long until there’s a similar checkbox for the camera on your smart glasses?
The privacy concerns are enormous — but so is the potential.
Smartphones have caught on to an incredible degree. Their form factor allows them to seamlessly fill small roles in our lives — providing small services that we didn’t even know we wanted. Phones settle bar bets and entertain us on the bus and let us sing karaoke and track our exercise and a thousand other little things we didn’t know we wanted.
If they succeed, these technologies will enhance that property of phones — allowing them to fill new and unexpected roles in our lives, becoming more invisible and more indispensable. Personally, I can’t wait.