Seabird concept phone designer talks about need for better interfaces

Designer Billy May, 25, is looking for work (see Seabird video, slideshow below)

Designer Billy May's concept smartphone, the Seabird, might never be produced. But the underlying concepts in the phone -- and inside May's head-- are a wonder, nonetheless.

"Anybody expecting full fruition of Seabird will be disappointed, I think," May told Computerworld on Friday, a day after the concept phone appeared on Mozilla Labs' Concept Series Web site .

The concept phone ( see slide show ) was developed over the last year with heavy input from the Mozilla online community, with an emphasis on open source for software and hardware elements, May said. It would run Android , which is also open source.

Even so, Mozilla has no plans to produce it. RelatedVisual tour: Seabird concept phone

"I've talked to designers of concept phones who didn't get them built, but a few said they saw their work come out as a phone in China," May said. "So check in China in a couple of years."

The most striking feature of the smartphone is dual pico projectors, one on either side. When the phone is docked, one projector projects a full-size virtual keyboard and the other projects the phone's display on a nearby wall for easier viewing.

May said the idea for the projectors derived from his work in lighting and visualization design as well as the strong sentiment from Mozilla contributors, who believe the interface on phones needs to be made easier to use.

"What grabbed me more than anything was working with the limitations of the interface [in today's phones]," May said. "It was intriguing to see the projectors distort light outwards. I love seeing function play out."

"I like the medium of light, so you see my own affinities coming out in Seabird," he continued. "Projectors are so malleable, depending on the orientation and context and surroundings, so you can create all sorts of interfaces depending on where you are."

Designer Billy May's Seabird concept smartphone. (Click arrow button to play video. Adobe Flash is required. Some browsers may require two clicks to start the video.)

In general, May said today's phones have done "a wonderful job of delivering on metrics we'd define success by" such as 1GHz and soon-to-come 1.2 GHz processors and many-megapixel displays. "The next step is to expand on the interface," he said.

"We've been pushing on processor speeds until the cows come home, which won't drive happiness as much anymore and offer diminishing returns," he said.

May almost sounds like a veteran phone designer, but actually never designed one before. In fact, he is 25 and is "currently open to new opportunities," according to his Web site , which he explained means that he is looking for a full time job in New York as a product designer.

His most recent hardware design job with e-reader maker Skiff ended in June when the company was was purchased by Rupert Murdoch's News Corp.

Being out of full time work gave May time to fully develop Seabird, with an elaborate 3D video presentation and other materials . And because he doesn't work for a big smartphone maker like Motorola or one of the other companies building Android devices, he can actually talk publicly about his specific design, something professional designers never do.

May got a B.S. degree in business at Washington and Lee in Virginia in 2007, graduating with "a dearth of design courses," he said. He attributes his interest in design to first developing -- as a teenager -- a working fast-trigger mechanism used in paint ball guns, since paint ball was one of his big hobbies.

His first official design concept was a pair of eyeglasses with fish-eye lenses. "They were designed for safety for delivery workers driving bikes, but styled to be cool," he said.

Coolness matters, as the Seabird concept suggests with its sleek curves. In fact, May believes his ideas are just the kind of thing needed by all the major phone makers.

When asked if he has any design advice he'd give to today's phone makers, May had an answer: "Yes, they need to hire me. I could work for all of them without any conflicts."

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Tags mobilesmartphonestelecommunicationPhonesmozillahardware systemsconsumer electronicsMobile and WirelessEmerging Technologies

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Matt Hamblen

Computerworld (US)
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