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The future of smartphones is smarter

LiveMint logoLiveMint 12-05-2017 Nitin Sreedhar

The global smartphone user base is set to grow from four billion in 2016 to more than six billion by 2020, according to a recent report by UK-based information services and analytics company IHS Markit. We already live in a world where an individual may have more than one smart device. But what does the future hold?

There is speculation that the Apple iPhone 8, expected to be launched in September, will reshape the future of smartphones and feature a radical redesign with an edge-to-edge display, wireless charging and a curved glass back. But smartphone makers still may have much more to offer.

Goodbye bezel

For smartphone displays, the mantra will be simple: More is better. That’s why bezel-less displays are considered to be the next big thing. Take, for instance, the Samsung Galaxy S8, which comes with “infinity display”—frontal edge-to-edge screen with minimal bezel—for an immersive viewing experience.

Similarly, Chinese smartphone maker Xiaomi launched the Mi MIX, a concept phone, in October 2016. With a 6.4-inch screen, the Mi MIX has a 91.3% screen-to-body ratio—according to the company, the highest in any smartphone. There’s no physical earpiece speaker or proximity sensor. “With the use of ceramic acoustic technology, in which a ceramic drive unit converts electrical signals into mechanical energy, the Mi MIX is able to let users listen to calls even without an earpiece speaker,” says a statement from Xiaomi. The phone also features a display with rounded edges on the corners of the screen, a custom 17:9 aspect ratio that maximizes screen space for better viewing of content, and on-screen control buttons.

But why do away with the bezel? For one, it helps in multitasking. The bigger screen is also useful for consumers who prefer to view content on their phones. And, given the music, video streaming apps and digital mobile entertainment platforms available online, that number is growing. Globally, smartphones and tablets already account for more than 60% of smart consumer devices. This number is up from around 17% in 2008, according to the IHS Markit report.

Nokia Morph.

Smartphone on your wrist

In 2008, Nokia and the University of Cambridge introduced Morph, a nano-technology phone concept that demonstrated how mobile phones might become stretchable and flexible, allowing users to bend their devices into different shapes. Its basic feature, then, would be the ability to bend, so it could be worn on the wrist.

The most recent and exciting example of such a phone is the CPlus, which was unveiled by Lenovo in 2016. The CPlus features a flexible 4.26-inch display that can wrap around your wrist and then work like a smartwatch, complete with a music player and other apps. The concept phone is still in development.

While many believe smartphones could be replaced by wearables, innovations like flexible screens could actually make smartphones the dominant devices. According to a June 2016 Ericsson “Consumer Insight Summary Report” on wearable technology and the Internet of Things, 83% of smartphone users expect all wearable devices to have either Wi-Fi or some sort of stand-alone connectivity. Most wearables today, specifically fitness trackers, come with only Bluetooth connectivity and hence need to be paired with a smartphone.

Self-repairing smartphones?

Are you worried that the smartphone might slip off your wrist and get damaged? Researchers at the University of California, Riverside and University of Colorado have developed a new material that could one day help devices repair themselves, according to a Press Trust Of India report in April. They have created a self-healing material that conducts ions to generate current. The stretchable and transparent polymeric material was created with an eye on electronics and soft robotics that could repair on their own, the report added.

The research findings, published in the journal Advanced Material, indicate that the rubber-like material can stretch to 50 times its original dimensions. If it is torn in two, the material can repair itself completely in 24 hours.

While the use of this material in smartphones might be years away, some models have in the past exhibited similar features. The LG G Flex smartphone, for instance, came with a back cover that could quickly repair small scratches and abrasions. The phone’s back panel had a thin layer of resin, covered with a protective film.

A photography enthusiast could attach a Hasselblad optical zoom mod.

DIY (modular) phones

Imagine a future where you could modify your smartphone the way you want it. What if you could add more zoom to your phone’s camera or make it sound louder with a powerful speaker?

All this could be a reality with modular smartphones—something that companies like Moto, ZTE, Xiaomi, Fairphone and PuzzlePhone are attempting. Take the Moto Mods, or case-like accessories, for instance. The Moto Z family of smartphones might come across as just another flagship series initially, but once you magnetically attach the phones to various Moto Mods, they get added functionality.

A photography enthusiast could attach a Hasselblad optical zoom mod. Someone who likes loud music could use the JBL SoundBoost (an additional speaker with a kickstand). There’s also a projector mod and a power pack that adds up to 22 hours of battery life to the phone.

The Finland-based PuzzlePhone is another example. It comes with three easy-to-change modules—the brain (CPU, GPU, RAM, memory and cameras), the spine (the phone’s structure and high-res display) and the heart (battery).

Do-it-yourself smartphones could very well be trending in the future.

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