Mobile phones that change shapes and clean themselves

Look around at people talking on their cell phones and, almost without exception, they are chatting on familiar-looking small rectangular boxes with glowing screens.

However, this cookie-cutter approach to mobile phones will change dramatically in the next few years as phone designers get more daring and more personal.

“All phones today do the basics well,” says Shiv Bakhshi, director of mobile device technology and trends at market analysis firm IDC. “But that won’t be enough in the future.”

We asked a dozen designers and industry leaders from around the world how mobile phones will change in the next few years. They gave us their predictions, and some provided peeks at concept phones that embody those new ideas.

Like concept cars — and concept laptops — these concept phones are aimed more at demonstrating new ideas than at being prototypes of actual soon-to-be-released devices. Sometimes outrageous, other times merely flights of fancy, they typically are developed by independent design firms working behind the scenes for phone vendors, although some are designed by the vendors themselves.

We saw an eye-popping array of designs. Some are innovative and intriguing, while others are, well, a little unusual. But the designers and other experts agree on one thing: Future generations of phones will not look or act like current phones.

Here’s what to keep an eye out for.

Shape shifter

One of the most striking concept phones we’ve seen is Nokia’s Morph. Made of flexible materials that mimic the suppleness of spider’s silk, the handset will — as the name implies — morph between what looks like a traditional mobile phone and a bracelet. Tapani Ryhanen, head of strategic research at the Nokia Research Center in Ruoholahti, Finland, calls Morph a shape shifter.

“By using nanotechnology,” Ryhanen says, “the phone can change its personality to become whatever is most suitable for the task at hand.”

Plus, its electronics are expected to be so small that they’re invisible to the naked eye. This will allow designers to make the phone clear rather using a painted case that hides the chips and wires inside, according to Ryhanen.

And slobs of the world can rejoice: Morph will even clean itself. “It will shed foreign material, similar to how a freshly waxed car will repel water and allow it to roll off,” Ryhanen says.

Morph will also help you live more healthily. An array of microscopic sensors will enable the phone to measure environmental hazards such as carbon dioxide levels or sense the blood sugar imbalance of a diabetic. “The nanosensors will continuously monitor different environmental things, from air pollution to the body’s biochemical processes,” says Ryhanen.

Currently, Morph relies on technologies that are still in the lab. Ryhanen thinks Morph could be possible in seven to 15 years.

Using your body

By contrast, the technology to develop Handphone, created by Massimo Marrazzo of Turin, Italy-based design firm Biodomotica, is available today.

Handphone’s microphone is shaped like a ring and slips on the end of your pinky. The speaker is another ring that slips on your thumb, and a circular phone controller and radio sit on the back of your hand, held on by elastic string at your wrist and middle finger.

Anyone who’s ever motioned toward their mouth and ear with outstretched fingers to imitate making a call will know how to use Handphone. “Hey, call me,” jokes Marrazzo. “The gesture is natural for people.”

By definition, Handphone is not hands-free, but “dialing, picking up and hanging up the phone are voice-activated,” says Marrazzo.

According to the designer, every aspect of Handphone is doable today. The concept just needs a manufacturer to accept the design and produce it.

Using the hand in a completely different way, this spring Samsung received a patent for a phone that can interpret finger gestures by watching hand movements with its camera. Point an index finger to activate the pointer. Thumbs-up moves between workspaces.

Samsung did not return calls to discuss the concept.

Two-faced and fourfold phones

The designers we spoke with agreed that touch-sensitive displays — such as the one pioneered in Apple’s iPhone — will dominate the next generation of handset design. But there are many possibilities about how these screens will be arranged.

For instance, the P-Per thin phone design looks as if someone glued two iPhones together.

“It has a [touch] screen on each of its two sides,” says Karole Ye of independent design firm Chocolate Agency, which is based in Shenzhen, China. “Mobile phone and messaging are displayed on one and a camera on the other.”

Screen and graphics technology must catch up with the design before P-Per can become a commercial reality. That could take three or four years.

At the other extreme is Istanbul, Turkey-based designer Emir Rifat Isik’s Packet phone. At just 5 centimeters (about 2 inches) square and only about a centimeter thick, it fits easily in a pocket.

“The first thing I focused on was functionality,” says Isik. “The idea was to put in all the possible functions in the smallest area and make them easy to use.”

The Packet is deceptively simple. Fold open the top and bottom squares and it’s like a traditional flip phone with a speaker and screen at the top, a microphone at the bottom, and dial pad in the middle.

But when it’s time to write an e-mail or surf the Web, you fold open all of the phone’s edges to reveal a cross-shaped smart phone. There’s a split keyboard at the sides, a pointer at the center and a screen at the top for viewing e-mail, Web browsing or anything a smart phone can do.

“All interaction will be by touching the screens,” says Isik.

According to Isik, it will take a couple of years before manufacturing technology catches up with this design. And, once it can actually be manufactured, a phone vendor has to adopt the design.

Haptics and touch-me phones

The Packet’s design makes for a clean look, but those who have tried to type on a flat screen know it can be irritating because our fingers are accustomed to the sensory feedback of physical keys. Without that feedback, typing becomes erratic and frustrating.

“The sensory feedback of haptic technology will help,” says IDC’s Bakhshi. The technology will provide sounds or vibrations to fool users into thinking they are touching more than just a sheet of flat glass.

Japan’s NHK Broadcasting Corp. and engineers at Tokyo University have teamed up to take haptic displays a step further. Their prototype display has millions of tiny pins on the surface that are so small that they don’t interfere with viewing the image.

Users will actually feel the pins on their fingertips and a complex program will control which pins stick out and which are below the surface. This creates a changeable topology that the user will interpret as shapes. Its first use could be to draw Braille characters on a cell phone’s screen.

More impressively, the pins can be depressed like switches, and groups of pins could be programmed to act in concert. That would allow the pins to simulate buttons on a phone or even a screen keyboard.

This will go a long way toward providing the feel of a mechanical keyboard, but the technology is only just being worked on in the lab, so expect to wait about a decade before you see this technology on your phone.

Phones you can bend and pull

Among the iPhone’s forward-looking features is a built-in accelerometer that interprets motion to reorient the screen when you tilt it horizontally or vertically. In essence, you just move the phone to control it. What about twisting or bending the phone instead?

James Scott, a researcher at Microsoft Research Cambridge in England, is doing just that. Scott says that by embedding force sensors at the corners of the device, stretching, squeezing and bending can be used as simple commands. For instance, you could turn the phone on and off by squeezing or pulling it, or advance a Web page by twisting the device.

Besides convenience, Scott adds that this technology saves space on devices that otherwise would be used for switches. That means devices can be smaller or screens can be larger, he says.

Scott adds that the research on force sensors is in an early stage. If the research pans out, he says, this technology could become reality in a decade.

More power to the phone

Finally, what about phones that don’t run out of power — or at least can run far longer than current phones without being recharged? One interesting approach is the Atlas Kinetic concept phone.

Designed by Ricardo Baiao of Lisbon, Portugal-based DesignerID, this device will draw power from the motion of its user walking, sitting down or even running to catch a bus.

In one way, it’s like the self-winding watches of the 1960s — it’s got a built-in series of weights, rotors and springs that generate power whenever it’s shaken or moved. That power, in turn, runs a generator that charges the battery.

Other creative approaches to power are also emerging. For instance, a recent patent granted to Apple points toward a unique approach to a solar phone. The device’s screen would generate power with invisible photovoltaic layers that would gather the sun’s light — or a room’s artificial lighting — and turn it into electricity.

A couple of concept phones already discussed take unique approaches to power. P-Per uses an organic free radical battery, or ORB. Because it’s flexible, light and only as thick as a business card, an ORB power pack can be stuffed into the nooks and crannies of a phone. Best of all, the battery can potentially be fully charged in as little as 30 seconds. Japan’s NEC is working on prototypes of the technology.

Further out on the horizon is Morph’s power source. The entire surface is covered with what Nokia’s Ryhanen calls nanowire grass, which generates electricity in a way similar to how plants use photosynthesis to grow. “The nanowire grass is covered with a biomolecule that will harvest energy from solar light,” explains Ryhanen.

Any network, any time

The shape of future phones and how they’ll work is fascinating, but what will they connect to? Currently, most handsets can connect to a single type of cellular network. A few current handsets also have built-in Wi-Fi support.

But today’s technology requires a different radio for each type of network, which means that phones that support multiple types of wireless networks are bulky, heavy power hogs. By contrast, the phone of tomorrow will have a single radio that’s controlled by sophisticated software capable of connecting to multiple networks.

“People have been working on software-defined radios for some time,” says IDC’s Bakhshi. “At some point soon, they will get it right.”

When it senses a new network, this phone of the future will automatically reconfigure itself to communicate on the new system. That means the device will work equally well on an EV-DO network in the U.S., a WiMax network in Korea and a GSM system in Europe.

Oh, the possibilities…

The phone of tomorrow depends on the imagination of phone designers to put the necessary software and hardware together in ways that are only starting to be envisioned today. The experts we contacted made it clear that we are on the cusp of an exciting era where practically anything will be doable with communications technology.

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