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Wearables, ubiquity and the future of the smartphone, part I

The smartphone is in for a radical change, not only in its function, but also in the way it looks and is carried. And it will spin off its functions to other devices, creating a vast and vibrant electronic ecosystem. In the first of a two-part series, Siegfried Mortkowitz reports.

It’s 7.02 a.m., and the smartwatch on your wrist vibrates, telling you that it is time to start your day. On its display, you read the number of hours you’ve slept and the quality of sleep you’ve enjoyed. The device uses Bluetooth to send this data to your Cloud-based health-tracking application via your smartphone.

Your feet hit the floor at 7.03. Your smartwatch also sends this information to your smartphone, which tells your coffee maker to start brewing the coffee, while the thermostat in your house is commanded to raise the ambient temperature to 70 degrees Fahrenheit, your personal comfort zone.

As you move through the house and approach the shower, lights are switched on in the corridor and the bathroom, and your smartwatch detects and passes on a message from a plant sensor indicating the plants need watering.

It’s 7.30, and you have eaten and are dressed. Your watch monitors and records your biometric information, such as weight, blood pressure and blood sugar levels, and sends it on to the Cloud, which notes that your breakfast was high in fat and provoked an unusual spike in blood sugar. Both you and your doctor receive a message to this effect, and your physician quickly reviews your meds and sends a text to you describing an appropriate change in dosage. The watch also detects an elevated stress level in your body, and, instantly, soothing background music issues from your home entertainment module.

At 7:45, as you walk to your car, your smartwatch, or your smartphone, starts the engine, tunes the radio to the station you were just listening to at home and adjusts seats and mirrors to your preferred settings. Your calendar is checked, the traffic is checked and, as you enter your car, the most efficient route to your meeting is displayed on the car screen.

Pipe dream no more

This is no futuristic pipe dream, says Michael Morgan, senior analyst for mobile devices at ABI Research. “We have nearly everything we need to do this today,” he adds. “We can expect to see truly functional and seamless versions of this type of thing in consumers’ hands within the next five to ten years.  We currently have all the pieces; it’s just a matter of companies stitching them together for a complete solution.”

Like many analysts and industry insiders, Morgan believes that what was once a single-use, hand-held device is on the verge of becoming the centerpiece of a radically new lifestyle based on connectivity and the almost perpetual production, transmission and analysis of data related to almost every facet of life.

As Morgan puts it, “Your smartphone will be the hub that connects a person to both the devices and sensors in their immediate environment. While the sensors will blend into the background, hidden in clothes, appliances and even food, your phone will be with you to interact and communicate with the data collected by these sensors. The net effect is an environment that automatically and contextually reacts and adjusts to your personal preferences. Your phone will be the pass key that lets the environment know who you are, where you are and what your preferences are.”

As a result, the smartphone is in for a radical change, not only in its function, but also in the way it looks and is carried. And it will spin off its functions to other devices, creating a vast and vibrant electronic ecosystem. A great deal of creative energy has recently gone into reinventing the smartphone, with a number of forward-looking designs produced that, if they are not quite ready to be marketed, point in several directions for the future.

Going modular

One new design, which Morgan cites as a promising step, is Motorola’s planned modular phone based on the “Phoneblok” concept devised by Dave Hakkens. Calling it Project Ara, Motorola embraced the concept because of the overwhelmingly positive response to Hakkens’ web page describing the phone as a device built of detachable modules, or “bloks,” which can be easily replaced or upgraded if defective or damaged.

Consumers will be able to purchase either a pre-assembled device or only the platform, and then construct their own phone from bloks produced by different companies. “Techies will go crazy about this, and a small part of the population will produce an early ‘bump’ in this,” Morgan says. “But my own thinking is that we had this same thing with PCs, and it faded, and the same thing will happen with modular smartphones.”

The Flip Phone, Morph and Empathy

Other examples of forward-thinking smartphone designs include the Flip Phone created by the young Danish designer Kristian Ulrich Larsen as part of his MA program. The device is equipped with three screens that “flip” open and can communicate with each other. This makes it possible, among other things, to have multiple apps working at the same time.

When it was still in the business of making mobile phones, Nokia devised a flexible smartphone, called Morph, which used nanotechnology to enable it to be stretched and reshaped to be transformed from a hand-held device to a wearable.

Finally, the troubled manufacturer BlackBerry sponsored the development of a phone named Empathy and designed by Kiki Tang and Daniel Yoon. If the user wears a biometrics ring, the device can collect his or her emotions and communicate them via social networking.

The future now

While some of these features may never become part of the future smartphone, others are already in use. For example, the same OLED screen used in the Empathy is employed by Samsung and LG to produce smartphones with flexible, curved screens. The Samsung Galaxy Round, the world’s first smartphone with a curved screen, was launched in October. LG’s version, the G Flex, is scheduled to be rolled out in some markets this month.

At the same time, Apple has applied for a patent for a “multi-display portable device” that includes “a transparent housing and a flexible display assembly enclosed within the transparent housing, the flexible display assembly configured to present visual content at any portion of the transparent housing.” According to the patent application, the display can be “rolled up” to fit within the transparent housing and eventually enlarged to display visual data.

Siegfried Mortkowitz is a regular contributor to Open Mobile Media. 

The Flip Phone

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