Researchers dream up mobile chameleon device

Nokia researchers tout nanotechnology for future mobile devices

Imagine tapping out text messages on a device the size of an index card and as flat as a piece of paper, then folding it in thirds to hold it to your ear and make a phone call. Refold it in a slightly different shape and wrap it around your wrist, where it becomes a watch and also communicates with an ear bud that lets you talk hands free.

Nokia researchers, along with researchers at the University of Cambridge in England, have created an animated video describing such a vision for mobile devices, which could come in the future through nanotechnology developments.

The animation shows practical applications for several specific types of work that the scientists are developing based on their nanotechnology research, said Tapani Ryhanen, the head of multimedia devices research at Nokia Research Center. The concept video was created at the prodding of New York's Museum of Modern Art, which is opening an exhibit Sunday called "Design and the Elastic Mind," he said.

In another segment of the video, the user flaps the paper-thin device in front of an apple. Tiny particles fly off the apple, landing on the device, which quickly analyzes them. It then flashes a warning signal, recommending that the user wash the apple before eating it.

That's one of the most interesting potential uses that Ryhanen sees. "Personally, I'm mostly interested about the bigger issue of how we can make our mobile devices more intelligent and so they can sense something from the environment," he said. One day, a device like the one in the video could sense harmful elements in the air. With potentially millions of such devices communicating globally, they might be able to warn people about a disease that could spread into a pandemic, identifying dangerous areas around the world, he said.

The device in the animation is covered in minuscule "grass" that can absorb solar energy to power it. It's also "syperhydrophobic," making it incredibly dirt repellent. The animated woman in the video, sitting at an outdoor cafA©, accidentally drops a bit of honey on the device and the drop slides off without leaving a bit behind.

Just before she walks away, she places the device on top of her brightly colored purse and snaps a photo. When she folds the device around her wrist, she sets a new wallpaper and the entire surface of the device displays the same pattern as her purse.

Currently, the researchers have developed "bits and pieces" of the technologies envisioned in the concept "but we are not yet at the level that we could integrate those things together into a device that we're showing in this animation," Ryhanen said. Some features of the device could start appearing in commercial products as soon as seven years from now, Nokia said.

Around 18 Nokia researchers and 25 University of Cambridge researchers have been working together for about a year at the university's West Cambridge site.

The concept animation video is expected to be available for viewing on Nokia's site on Monday. Nothing about the concept, called Morph, will be on exhibit at the museum, but it will feature in the exhibition catalog and on MoMa's Web site, Nokia said.

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