Smartphones have evolved to the point where we can perform tasks and activities that would have seemed impossible a few years ago. Every month, a new smartphone is released that is faster, more powerful, and better in every way compared with the models that came before. If you could be transported back in time with a smartphone to the 1970’s when Motorola was pioneering its mobile technology, the things it is capable of would seem magical – but where are things headed and what will smartphones of the future enable us to do?
When Motorola’s Martin Cooper dreamed forty-one years ago that people would one day be able to carry their phones with them everywhere, he couldn’t have imagined the complexity and capabilities of the devices that we take for granted today. Credited as the father of the cell phone, he was the first person to make a call on a mobile device. Of course, the device was unwieldy, heavy and archaic by today’s standards, and it would seem unlikely to one day be used by billions of people. So popular in fact, that Gartner estimates that last year 967 million smartphones were sold globally.
The smartphones we all use boast features like high quality cameras and HD screens, live video streaming, fingerprint sensors, voice recognition and 4G networks. In essence, the smartphone is a powerful mini computer that you can slip into a pocket and use to access almost anything, wherever you are.
But with every new smartphone, it feels like the features and specs are improving only incrementally – so are there any game changers coming in the next few years, or is everything just improving iteratively?
Future smartphone technologies
To predict the technologies that will make an impact on our smartphones in future, it’s worth examining some current trends and extrapolating a few years in advance – will any of these be common in two, five or even ten years’ time?
In the past few years, augmented reality has gone from science fiction and a favourite for research projects to a practical reality. The term augmented reality (or AR, as aficionados call it) typically means overlaying digital information onto the real world, often connected to actual physical objects and locations. Augmented reality allows you to bring rather static information to life, such as real time traffic information overlaid on your car’s windscreen, or information about the world around you displayed on a smartphone app as you move the camera around.
The practical uses of augmented reality are limited only by our imagination, but so far is has remained confined to a few dozen apps and niche hardware such as Google Glass. Despite this, there are more and more AR apps for iOS and Android that provide useful information and are actually quite fun to use, such as Anatomy 4D and iOnRoad Augmented Driving.
AR is even a mainstream university subject, taught by the likes of the Human Interface Technology Laboratory (HIT Lab) in New Zealand. The HIT Lab is a pioneer in the field of AR, and prominent researchers at the lab, such as Mark Billinghurst, have worked closely with companies like British Telecom. You can find out more about the HIT Lab’s research here.
Augmented reality is one of those fields that draws upon many disciplines, and it seems likely to be much more widespread in applications and services in future, both for smartphones and other everyday uses like transport and navigation.
Curved and flexible displays are already beginning to make their way onto the market (notably models such as the LG G Flex), often simply in an attempt to differentiate from existing smartphones. If you could bend your smartphone and manipulate the shape to suit the situation, it would become more portable and useful in some circumstances.
Even back in 2008, Nokia was looking at devices that could be transformed from a flat screen device into a curved, bracelet like display. With screen technologies such as Organic LED and advanced materials like graphene, paper thin screens are becoming a reality, and we’re certainly going to see more innovation in this field.
At this year’s Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Kyocera demonstrated some advanced concept devices it called Proteus – including a tablet that could be bent in half and a smartphone that you could wear on the wrist. But besides the screens themselves, there are many technical barriers to overcome such as batteries and keyboards that will flex with the screen. Up until now, many flexible displays have been promoted mainly as concept devices, but we’re convinced that in a few years time, bendy phones will become more mainstream. Even Samsung has got in on the game with its Galaxy Edge smartphone, and while it’s not exactly flexible, it does make use of the additional screen space curves around the edges to show useful information and notifications.
The truly roll-up smartphone is still years away. In any case, nobody has demonstrated convincingly how a flexible smartphone benefits the consumer – especially considering the trade-offs in terms of screen resolution, battery technology and other hardware that is more difficult to implement in such devices.
There have already been several attempts at smartphones with built-in projectors, such as the Samsung Galaxy Beam in 2010. The Beam features a built-in WVGA resolution projector that can display video up to 50 inches at 15 lumens (which isn’t very bright compared to a normal projector).
But what is the point of a smartphone projector? Imagine being able to play a game on the nearest wall without needing a TV, or showing slides in a meeting without requiring a separate projector…
Smartphone projectors haven’t become mainstream yet, in part due to issues with display brightness and the impact on battery life. They add considerably to the bulk of the device (as you can see in the image above) so until those problems are overcome it’s unlikely that we’ll see mass adoption. Fast forward a couple of years though, and the technology just may have improved to the point where it’s a realistic addition to all but the most basic phones.
3D screens and holographic displays
Several smartphones (such as the Amazon Fire Phone) are already beginning to adopt 3D displays, where objects on the screen move to the position of your head. But if 3D ever becomes mainstream (despite some doubt that it will, to wit the failure of 3D TV), what comes next? Holography could be the next major evolution in displays that combine 3D and projections to make objects really pop out into the physical world.
Even early video games like Dragons Lair 3D could simulate a kind of holographic experience through the clever use of multiple displays and mirrors, but true holography is much more complex. Besides the practical difficulties of implementation, there is also the question of ways to interact with content – would it be like Tom Cruise’s character in Minority Report and Tony Stark in Iron Man, in that items can be grabbed and moved around as if they were real? This would be hard enough to achieve in the real world, never mind on a smartphone.
Despite holographic displays being impractical for many years, it would be an incredible way to interact and give a whole new dimension to video calls and computer games. Let’s hope this dream becomes a reality.
Breakthrough battery and power technologies
The problem with smartphones is that after using them for a few hours of intense web browsing, game playing and messaging, battery life suffers a great deal. Despite higher capacity batteries being used in the current crop of smartphones, the fundamental technologies haven’t changed all that much, and we’re still no closer to being able to charge our phones in minutes with days or weeks’ usage from a single charge.
Every few years, we hear of breakthrough battery technologies that will finally free us of the charger, but few of these have yet come to market. But recently researchers at Nanyang Technology University in Singapore claimed to have developed a battery that can charge to 70% in just 2 minutes and has a lifespan of 20 years. Then in August, a team of researchers at Michigan State University said they have developed a new type of solar panel that generates electricity but is actually transparent – ideal for use as windows and on smartphone screens.
A longer battery life is one of the main improvements smartphone owners would like to see, so we’re hoping that even if holographic displays and flexible screens don’t take off, at least our batteries will last a bit longer…
Super fast intelligent mobile networks
Mobile network speeds have steadily improved over the last two decades as each successive generation of network is rolled out. Today, 4G networks provide always-on high speed connectivity of hundreds of Mbps (if you’re lucky), but they are continuing to evolve.
As we transition to 5G networks over the coming decade, it will not only be about faster connections and more capacity, but about more intelligent networks that will be able to support the billions of devices that form the “Internet of Things”. Next generation networks will need to be more versatile and energy conscious, especially for the smallest devices that need to offload complex computations to the cloud.
In a recent article, Wired argues that 5G networks will need to be not only faster but smarter too, and the way we measure network performance has to change. In other words, rather than simply considering raw speed, metrics such as energy efficiency, spectrum performance and reliability will be equally important. Certainly, 5G networks will play a crucial role in enabling our smartphones to become smarter, accessing information and communicating with other devices more quickly and seamlessly.
Incredible as it may seen, the modular smartphone is fast becoming a reality. Rather than buying a smartphone which is stuck with its screen, CPU and memory for the duration of its life, a modular design will allow you to pick and choose the components you want to create the perfect customised phone. The concept has been on the drawing board for some time – companies such as ZTE with its Eco-Mobius project and Dave Hakkens’ Phoneblocks in 2013, but it’s Google that is currently driving the idea with hardware manufacturers like Motorola.
Perhaps the modular smartphone will become popular – after all, it’s a compelling idea that would extend the useful life of your smartphone and allow it to take advantage of new technologies as they become available.
The future is bright
We have talked a lot about various smartphone technologies and concepts that may or may not make it to fruition. But perhaps more than the hardware, as it becomes increasingly commoditised and almost all smartphones have almost identical features, the applications and services we use our smartphones will become more important, as well as the way we use them.
Personally, s an avid follower of all things mobile, I’m very excited about the future of smartphones and other gadgets – I may be using an iPhone 11 (?) in about ten years time, but all smartphone users have a lot to look forward to.
Do you think any of the technology discussed in the article will become commonplace? What developments might be just around the corner that we have not mentioned? Let us know in the comments below…