Future smartphones: How they will look, what they will do

Flexible designs, augmented reality, and even some artificial intelligence are just some features smartphones will have

As you're reading this article, developers, engineers, and product designers are working on the next great mobile technology. The mobile world is rapidly changing: Smartphones have gone from portable messaging and email devices to streaming-video machines that surf the Web at blazing speed and have cameras that rival point-and-shoots (and they also happen to make calls). What will smartphones look like in five years? Or ten? What sort of amazing things will they be able to do?

Of course, we have no way to predict exactly how cell phones will evolve (unless some sort of magical crystal ball comes along), but looking at today’s trends and tracking what the geniuses at MIT and other academic institutions are up to can give us a pretty good idea of what’s to come.

Flexible Smartphone Designs

In the animated series Futurama, the character Amy has a cell phone so tiny that she ends up swallowing it. Although the technology inside phones will get smaller and smaller (think nanotechnology), don’t expect any nearly invisible phones anytime soon. According to Ramon Llamas, a senior research analyst at IDC Mobile Devices Technology and Trends, smartphones will stay around the 3.7-inch to 4.3-inch display size. They might become thinner and lighter, but the market won’t see microscopic phones. Displays won’t grow any larger than 4.3 inches, according to Llamas--after all, who wants to carry a tablet in their pocket?

Even so, consumers can’t get enough of display real estate, which is why manufacturers might try to pack in as much display as possible--while retaining the pocketable size. Remember the Kyocera Echo on Sprint? We applauded its innovative foldable, dual-screen design (it sort of resembled a Nintendo DS), but the way the software interacted with the two screens had some issues. Nevertheless, don’t expect this design idea to go away, says Llamas. He thinks we’ll be seeing similar designs--with better execution--in the next five years.

Other phone manufacturers have toyed around with dual-screen phones, too: Some concept designs have a regular LCD or OLED display on one side and an electronic-ink display on the other. Expect future dual-screen phones to be as thin as today’s full-touch phones when folded.

Llamas also expects to see more wearable phones in the next few years. Of course, we’ve already seen James Bond-esque wristwatch phones from a few manufacturers like LG, but they've been exclusively released in Europe and Asia. And future phones won't be limited to the wristwatch form: You'll be able to bend, fold, and shape your phone to whatever design you prefer. Imagine transforming your phone from a wristwatch/bracelet style to a touchscreen style with a full QWERTY keyboard, and then folding it again to slip it into your pocket.

A good example of what future wearable phones could look like is the Nokia Morph, a concept device that showcases the collaboration between the Nokia Research Center and the Cambridge Nanoscience Centre. The Morph uses nanotechnology to create a flexible, malleable electronic device. The Morph is constructed from fibril proteins that are woven into three-dimensional mesh, allowing the whole phone--screen included--to move and bend.

Remember the roll-up electronic newspapers from the movie Minority Report? We could soon see something similar used in cell phone displays. In 2008, HP and the Flexible Display Center at Arizona State University unveiled a prototype of an affordable, flexible electronic display that uses self-aligned imprint lithography (SAIL) technology. Those paperlike computer displays are made almost entirely of plastic, which makes them durable, movable, and portable.

Features of the Future: NFC, Augmented Reality, and...Artificial Intelligence?

Near field communication, or NFC, allows you to make simplified transactions, data exchanges, and connections by touching your phone to an object or another phone. We're just beginning to see NFC chips in smartphone hardware as well as NFC features built into software (at least here in the United States), but you can expect the technology to explode over the next few years. Android 2.3, aka Gingerbread--which most current phones are running--supports NFC, but only a few phones, most notably the Nexus S, have NFC chips built in. Additionally, NFC is primarily used for making mobile payments, something that a lot of consumers might not be comfortable with.

Google has big plans to make NFC even more useful in its next major Android update, known as Ice Cream Sandwich. One of Google's goals with the Ice Cream Sandwich update is to enable what it calls "0-click interaction," which will let you set up peer-to-peer connections via NFC simply by putting two phones back to back. You'll be able to exchange contact information or share Web pages, YouTube videos, and pretty much any other sort of content--without installing a separate app.

At Google I/O 2011, Google's developer conference, the company showed off some cool demos of all the things that Android app developers can do with NFC. One of the demo apps, Sticky Notes, allows users to leave each other notes by touching their phones together. Another demo app, Google Talk Portal, takes you to a random video chat with another device when you touch your phone to an NFC sticker. Perhaps the coolest use for NFC is in gaming: NFC will make initiating head-to-head games incredibly easy--and you won't have to rely on the cellular network.

Augmented reality is another feature we've seen on a few apps here and there, but IDC's Llamas predicts that AR will become a standard, everyday feature in the phones of tomorrow as opposed to being limited to one-off apps such as Google Goggles or the Layar browser. We've already encountered a bit of this approach in the form of Bing's visual search, which is built right into the Windows Phone 7 platform. If you're traveling or just exploring your own neighborhood, for instance, you can point your phone at your surroundings, and the app will display an overlay of historic landmarks nearby.

If you've ever visited Disneyland or any other amusement park, you've probably had a heck of a time locating the restrooms. In the next few years, your phone might be able to not only locate the nearest restrooms but also tell you how long the line is for Splash Mountain. That is, of course, a hypothetical scenario, but Llamas predicts that GPS will go beyond simply giving you driving directions. With faster data networks, GPS will be able to deliver more-accurate, real-time results regarding traffic, weather, events, and so on. The next generation of GPS might be able to pick up your location within a building, as opposed to merely what street you're on.

The industry has heard some buzz about implementing artificial intelligence into smartphones, too. Cool? Yes. Scary? Just a bit. In the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory’s Spoken Language Systems Group at MIT, researchers have developed a mobile system that can automatically comb through user reviews on sites such as Citysearch or Yelp, extract useful information about a particular establishment, and make that information searchable. For example, if you wanted to find out whether a restaurant made good martinis, the algorithm would perform a grammatical analysis of adjective-noun pairs, such as "excellent martinis" or "disgusting martinis."

Lin Zhong, a professor at Rice University's Computer Science program, predicts that cell phones and applications of the future will collect, analyze, and provide relevant data for users--without users' even knowing.

"As we carry [smartphones] along, they collect data, analyze situations, and provide information in situ, as a human companion would do," Zhong writes in Rice University's Computing@Rice blog.

Powerful Chipsets

Last week, Qualcomm announced that it is planning to ship 2.5GHz quad-core smartphone processors as early as next year (though the company didn’t give specific dates). According to Qualcomm, these quad-core systems on a chip will feature Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth, and FM radio; support NFC and stereoscopic 3D video/photo (capture and playback); and support LTE networks. If we'll be seeing the first devices with these chipsets in just a year, how powerful will such phones be in five years?

Earlier this year, Nvidia shared its Tegra roadmap, indicating that its quad-core chips will be also be shipping in smartphones as early as the first part of 2012. Nicknamed "Kal-El," this system-on-a-chip is said to be five times faster than the Tegra 2 processor, which is used in many current top-of-the-line smartphones and tablets. Next in line is the "Wayne" series (yes, Nvidia has a superhero thing going on with its chips), which the company says will be 10 times faster than the Tegra 2, followed by the "Logan" (50 times faster!) and finally the "Stark" (75 times faster!). The Stark series is slated to be released in 2014, so you can expect to see smartphones become a lot more powerful in very little time.

Unfortunately, the one technology that won't improve is battery life, at least according to Llamas. As processors grow more powerful and as more smartphones switch to LTE technology, your phone's battery life will continue to suffer. The good news is that portable charging products will improve, including cases with extra (and, we hope, longer-life) batteries.

Finally, expect more phone companies to make a bigger push toward going green--in everything from the technology inside the phones to the manufacturing process to the packaging. We've seen a few companies (most notably Samsung) take such steps already, but Llamas predicts that it will become an across-the-board practice for phone manufacturers.

We're just barely scratching the surface here by discussing only design and features. Networks, carriers, and operating systems will look completely different within five years. That's why I'll be following up with another article about the future of network technology. While we can't predict everything that will come, perhaps the best way to get a glimpse into the future of mobile technology is to watch and read science fiction (well, except maybe Futurama). Just look at the Personal Access Display Device, or PADD, from Star Trek, which is essentially a smartphone/tablet prototype! Also, keep your eye on developments coming out of both academic and corporate research labs (look for their blogs) to get a good idea of what awesome mobile technology could be coming down the pipeline.

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Ginny Mies

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