Smartphone Technologies of the Future

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Nguyen, Tuan. "Smartphone Technologies of the Future." ThoughtCo, Sep. 29, 2017, thoughtco.com/future-smartphone-technology-4151990. Nguyen, Tuan. (2017, September 29). Smartphone Technologies of the Future. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/future-smartphone-technology-4151990 Nguyen, Tuan. "Smartphone Technologies of the Future." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/future-smartphone-technology-4151990 (accessed October 24, 2017).
iPhone X. Apple

Over the years, smartphones have gotten a little staid. Advances have generally come in the form of incremental improvements to popular features that are now standard among manufacturers and models. Annual enhancements such as faster processors, better cameras, and higher resolution displays are fairly predictable to the point that they’re come to be expected. While bigger screens, thinner designs, and longer lasting batteries are great, the smartphone market is badly in need of the kind of revolutionary leap that the original iPhone represented when it was first introduced in 2007.

Apple knows this, and in 2017, the world’s most popular handset maker made a bold effort to once again redefine what a smartphone is capable of. The iPhone X (pronounced ten) is certainly eye-catching, sleek, and some might even say beautiful. And while its improved processor, wireless charging capability, and improved camera will please many, the phone’s touted signature breakthrough is Face ID. Instead of tapping in a passcode to unlock the phone, Face ID uses a special camera that recognizes users through a facial map comprised of 30,000 invisible dots.

More importantly, though, there are other signs and murmurs that smartphones are about to undergo a second renaissance over the next few years as a number of startups are working on a number of new smartphone features. Here are some new technologies on the horizon that are worth keeping an eye on. 

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Holographic Screens

Movie still from Star Wars.

Despite the increasing ubiquity of screen displays—many of which offer an exceptionally high resolution, high-quality experience—the technology has remained largely flat and two-dimensional. That may all be starting to change, though, as advancements such as 3D television, virtual reality consoles and augmented reality are offering consumers a richer, more immersive visual experience.   

Smartphones and other mobile touchscreen devices, however, have been a different story. Amazon, for instance, made an earlier attempt to incorporate a 3D-like technology with the release of the “Fire” phone, which quickly flopped. Meanwhile, other efforts have failed to catch on as developers have yet to figure out how to seamlessly integrate 3D effects with the more intuitive and familiar touchscreen interface.

Even so, that hasn’t discouraged some in the industry from pushing the concept of a holographic phone. Hologram displays use light diffraction to project a virtual three-dimensional image of objects. For example, several scenes in the Star Wars film series showed characters appearing as moving holographic projections.

Startups, researchers, and investors are among those hoping to make  “holo-phones” a reality. Last year, scientists at the Human Media Lab at Queen's University in the UK demoed a new 3D holographic technology called Holoflex. The prototype also featured a flexible display, allowing users to manipulate objects by bending and twisting the device.

More recently, digital camera maker RED announced that it planned to debut the world’s first commercially-available holographic phone at a starting price of roughly $1,200. Startups like Ostendo Technologies, along with established players such as HP also have hologram display projects in the pipeline.

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Flexible Displays

Samsung

Big-name handset makers like Samsung have been teasing flexible screen technology for a few years now. From wowing audiences with early proof-of-concepts at trade shows to dropping slick viral videos, each glimpse seems meant as a way to foreshadow all the numerous new possibilities.

Current flexible display technologies being developed essentially comes in two flavors. There's the more simplistic black and white e-paper version that has been in development as far back as the 1970’s when Xerox PARC introduced the first flexible e-paper display. Since then, much of the hype has centered on organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays capable of the vibrant colors and detail that smartphone users are accustomed to.

In either case, the displays are made to be paper thin and can be roll up like scrolls. The advantage is the kind of versatility that opens up the door to different form factors—from pocket-sized flat screens that can be folded up like a wallet to larger designs that flip open like a book. Users can also go beyond touch-based gestures as bending and twisting can become a whole new way to interact with on-screen content. And let’s not forget to mention that shape-shifting devices can easily be fashioned into a wearable simply by wrapping it around your wrist.

So when are flexible smartphones due to arrive? Hard to say. Samsung is reportedly set to release a smartphone that folds out into a tablet sometime in 2017. Other big names with products in the works include Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Lenovo. Still, I wouldn’t anticipate anything groundbreaking in the next couple of years; there are still a few kinks to work out, mainly around incorporating rigid hardware components like batteries. 

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GPS 2.0

Humberto Möckel/Creative Commons

Once Global Positioning System or GPS became a standard feature in smartphones, the technology quickly went from revolutionary to ubiquitous. People now rely on the technology regularly to efficiently navigate their surroundings and to make it to their destination on time. Just think— without it, there would be no ridesharing with Uber, no matching with Tinder and no Pokemon Go.  

But with just about any adopted technology, it’s long overdue for a major upgrade. Chip maker Broadcom announced that it has developed a new mass-market GPS computer chip that allows satellites to pinpoint a mobile device’s location by within one foot. The technology makes use of a new and improved GPS satellite broadcast signal that provides more data through a separate frequency to phones to better approximate the user’s location. There are now 30 satellites that operate on this new standard.  

The system has been used by those in the oil and gas industry but has yet to be deployed for the consumer market. Current commercial GPS systems can only approximate a device’s position within a range of about 16 feet. This considerable room for error makes it difficult for users to tell if they’re on a highway exit off ramp or on the freeway. It’s also less accurate in larger urban cities because big buildings can interfere with the GPS signal.       

The company cited other benefits, such as improved battery life for devices since the chip uses less than half the amount of power of the previous chip. Broadcom plans to introduce the chip into mobile devices as early as in 2018. However, it's less likely to make it into many of the popular devices such as the iPhone, at least for some time. That’s because the majority of smartphone manufacturers use GPS chips supplied by Qualcomm and it's unlikely that the company will introduce a similar technology anytime soon. 

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Wireless Charging

Energous

Technically speaking, wireless charging for mobile devices has been widely available for some time now. Wireless charging devices are generally comprised of a built-in receiver that collects energy transmission from a separate charging mat. As long as the phone is placed on the mat, it's within range to receive the flow of energy. However, what we see today can be considered merely a prelude to the increasing range of freedom and convenience that newer long-range technologies will soon deliver.   

Over the last few years, a number of startups have developed and demonstrated wireless charging systems that allow users to charge their devices from several feet away. One of the earliest efforts to commercialize such a technology came from startup firm Witricity, which uses a process called resonant inductive coupling that enables the power source to generate a long-range magnetic field. When this magnetic field comes in contact with the phone’s receiver, it induces a current that charges the phone. The technology is similar to what's used in rechargeable electric toothbrushes. 

Soon enough, a competitor named Energous introduced their Wattup wireless charging system at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show. Unlike WiTricity’s coupling system, Energous uses a wall-mounted power transmitter that can locate devices via Bluetooth and sends out energy in the form of radio waves that can bounce off walls in order to reach the receiver. The waves are then converted into direct current.

Although WiTricity’s system can charge devices up to 7 feet away and Energous’ invention has a longer charging range of about 15 feet, another startup named Ossia is taking long range charging a step further. The company is working on an even more sophisticated setup involving an array of antennae to transmit multiple power signals in the form of radio waves to a receiver as far as 30 feet away. The Cota wireless charging technology supports charging of several devices and allows for even more free rein without the worry of battery drain.      

Smartphones of the Future

For the first time since Apple introduced the iPhone, the concept of what was possible with a smartphone is about to experience a second transformation as companies are poised to introduce revolutionary new features. With technologies like wireless charging, the smartphone experience can potentially be more convenient while flexible displays will open up whole new ways to interact. Hopefully, we won't have to wait too long.
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Your Citation
Nguyen, Tuan. "Smartphone Technologies of the Future." ThoughtCo, Sep. 29, 2017, thoughtco.com/future-smartphone-technology-4151990. Nguyen, Tuan. (2017, September 29). Smartphone Technologies of the Future. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/future-smartphone-technology-4151990 Nguyen, Tuan. "Smartphone Technologies of the Future." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/future-smartphone-technology-4151990 (accessed October 24, 2017).