By: John Edwards
Just a few years from now your smartphone will be smaller, lighter, easier to use and more intuitive. On the other hand, smartphones might not even exist a few years from now, at least not in a readily visible form.
It was only six years ago that Apple released its original iPhone (actually a tiny personal computer with built-in communication capabilities) officially marking the end of the dumb phone era. Today, lawyers take their smartphones everywhere, using them to manage schedules, handle email, text messages, view documents, play games and even, from time to time, to place and answer phone calls.
Smartphones have evolved rapidly over the past few years. The iPhone of 1997 is already little more than a curious relic of a bygone era. Smartphone makers depend on rapid form and feature evolution to goose sales and expand market share in what is perhaps the world’s most cutthroat industry. A smartphone developer that fails to innovate, or innovates in the wrong way by unleashing a flawed or unpopular product, risks becoming the next Blackberry or Motorola — a former market leader bumped onto the shoulder of the smartphone superhighway by smarter, nimbler competitor.
With smartphone evolution unlikely to slow down anytime soon, it can be fun to look into the future and imagine what a typical smartphone might look like in, say, another five years. So, based on current business and technology trends —and some educated hunches — here are six features that are likely to enter the smartphone mainstream in the not too distant future.
1. Flexible Screens. Today, a phone’s size and shape is largely dictated by its display. But what if a display were so thin and flexible that it could fold in on itself, allowing the phone to assume different shapes according to its user’s preference? That’s what an upcoming generation of OLED (organic light-emitting diode) displays promise. OLEDs are so thin they can be placed on flexible materials (such as plastic or metal foil), allowing the development of bendable,
flexible and even rolling displays. Since these displays aren’t covered with glass, they’ll also be more durable and virtually shatter proof.
While flexible OLED smartphones are still in the R&D phase, and commercial models are at least two years away, Samsung has already unveiled the “Galaxy Skin,” a concept phone with a curved and flexible OLED display that can be folded into two or four parts as needed.
2. Holographic Screens. While some researchers are working on flexible screens, others are focusing on an entirely new type of display technology: holographic projections. In its most basic form, a holographic display could project a still image, such as a text or spreadsheet document. Sony and others are also toying with projecting a functional full-size keyboard.
Hewlett-Packard, however, has even grander plans. Earlier this year, scientists at HP’s Large-Scale Integrated Photonics lab demonstrated an inexpensive way of projecting color, no-glasses-need 3D images and video on small screens. While current generation 3D displays require the viewer to remain within a narrow range in front of the screen to get the full effect, HP’s prototype — using “directional pixels” — is fully viewable from a wide number of angles. “It’s like the Princess Leia hologram in Star Wars,” said an HP spokesman during a press briefing on the technology.
3. More Reliable Voice Commands. Apple introduced a voice control technology on its iPhone 3GS back in 2009. It didn’t work all that well and, despite gradual improvements over the years (i.e., Siri), voice command remains an imperfect technology.
Since an accurate voice command system is essential for using mobile devices without physical controls, various corporate and academic labs are continuing to refine the technology. Researchers at the University of Texas at Dallas, for instance, claim to have developed systems that can identify speaking voices more clearly. Using algorithms and modeling techniques, the researchers are addressing and resolving voice recognition challenges related to whispering, speaking through various emotions (happy, sad, angry, excited, etc.) and talking with a stuffy nose.
While voice command technology may not be perfect five years from now, it should certainly be much more reliable than it is today.
4. Augmented Reality. With the help of augmented reality (AR) technology, smartphone users can get detailed information about a place or object by viewing on the phone’s display. Web-delivered data placed over images of office buildings, vehicles, conference rooms and other physical world venues and objects will give users quick facts on who or what they’re looking at, what’s about to happen there and other important bits of information. Embedded links will lead users to Web pages providing enhanced insight, such as a building’s history, client-related case data or the story behind a work of art.
AR also marks the next step in the evolution of geolocation technology. Just as vehicle navigation systems guide drivers along highways and local roads to specific locations, AR will help pedestrians find the right business in a mall, office in an office building, booth at a trade show and so on.
5. Longer Battery Life. Today’s smartphones pack huge, bright screens and high-end features that draw plenty of power, meaning they can only operate for a few hours before requiring a charge or a fresh battery. With smartphones likely to become even more power thirsty in the years ahead, the rush is on to develop new battery technologies that can deliver more energy for longer periods of time in packages that are both size and weight efficient.
One promising battery technology is taking shape at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. ORNL researchers have designed and tested a solid lithium-sulfur battery with approximately four times the energy density of the conventional lithium-ion technologies that power today’s electronics. The ORNL battery design, which uses abundant and low-cost elemental sulfur, also resolves the flammability danger posed by Lithium-ion batteries.
6.Wearable Smartphones. Here’s where the phone becomes, in a practical sense, invisible. Looking beyond basic wearable devices, such as wristwatch and lapel pin phones, researchers are now investigating ways of weaving smartphone circuitry directly into clothing. Phone circuitry will eventually become so small, durable, and inexpensive that clothing manufacturers can weave the technology directly into business suits and other types of everyday apparel. Since an attorney might eventually assemble an entire wardrobe of phone-embedded apparel, subscriber, contact and other types of data could be invisibly loaded into each phone from either the cloud or perhaps an RFID (Radio Frequency ID) card located inside the wearer’s wallet or purse.
Phone-embedded garments could arrive relatively soon. This summer, scientists at the U.K’s National Physical Laboratory (NPL), announced they had developed a way of printing silver directly onto fabric fibers. The new technique could make integrating electronics into all types of clothing simple and practical.
The only existing way of creating wearable electronics weaves conductive materials into the fabric, an approach that allows only limited flexibility and can only be achieved when integrated into the design of the clothing from the start. NPL’s technique could allow lightweight circuits to be printed directly onto complete garments. Silver-coated fibers created using the new technique are flexible and stretchable, meaning circuits could be easily printed onto many types of fabric, the researchers say.
Edwards, John. “Building a Better Smartphone: What’s Next?” Building a Better Smartphone: What’s Next? Law Technology News, 4 Oct. 2013. Web. 07 Oct. 2013.