New Horizons

The reshaping of telecommunications technology

The Reshaping of Telecommunications Technology

By Dees Stribling, Contributing Editor

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Any parent who has offered to lend their mobile phone to the pre-teens of the house and the phone is not up to date has been rebuffed with, “I’d be embarrassed to be seen with that.”

That only goes to show that the evolution of the mobile phone, from its early days as a brick carried in one’s car to the sleek, mobile-computing smartphones of today, does not sit still. The following are some of the on-the-horizon shapes that mobile phones and computing will probably take in the near future, both literally and figuratively. In some cases, the device in question may still count as a phone, but the line between telephony and mobile computing is increasingly fuzzy.

The Ultra-Flexible Phone. Current smartphone design is many things, but always rigid. Last year, glassmaker Corning Inc. introduced Willow Glass, an apt name because it is light and bends despite being glass. According to the company, Willow Glass will support thinner backplanes and color filters for both organic light-emitting diodes (OLED) and liquid crystal displays (LCD) in devices such as smartphones, tablets and notebook computers. Ultra-slim and flexible, it can also be used in curved displays for “immersive viewing or mounting on non-flat surfaces.”

“Displays become more pervasive each day, and manufacturers strive to make both portable devices and larger displays thinner,” noted Dipak Chowdhury, Corning division vice president and Willow Glass program director. “(Willow Glass) provides the substrate performance to maintain device quality in a thin and light form factor.”
That is to say, it might not be long before you can put your phone in your wallet and fold it up (provided, of course, an e-wallet has not taken its place by then). Samsung is at work on a similar material, which it calls a YOUM display concept. This flexible OLED is made of very thin plastic and can bend around surfaces. That might not seem like such an important feature, but expanding the small area of a smartphone’s usable display would be a way to make it do more. The phone could feature a smooth, curved shape—something like an iPod—and a display that goes all the way around it.

The YotaPhone. One problem that still vexes mobile phones and computer users is battery life. Batteries are better than they used to be, but smartphones are also more power-hungry than their simple predecessors. The “Yota,” which was showcased at the Consumer Electronics Show earlier this year, is one approach to that problem. On one side is a 720-pixel HD LCD display, the kind on which a user might watch videos. On the other side is an e-ink reader, which is useful for sending or reading text (email or Twitter streams) but does not need nearly as much power as the other side of the device.

Cars as Communication. One of the next big things in mobile communication will literally be a big thing—the car itself as mobile communications device. Mobile phone users have been calling from their cars for years, but now automakers and technology companies are collaborating on a more fundamental role. Some models already have built-in GPS, Bluetooth and other technology, but connectivity via car is forecast to be much more comprehensive—and widely available—in the near future. Intel predicts that as soon as next year, cars will be one of the three fastest-growing markets for connected devices and Internet content.

Recently, General Motors said it would start embedding 4G LTE connectivity and touch screens into its cars, while Audi has taken to advertising its A3 Sportback as “the world’s largest smartphone,” and other automakers are planning to make their products connectable. Speaking at the World Mobile Congress earlier this year, General Motors vice chairman Steve Girsky said, “This technology will be built in, not brought in. And it won’t be phone-dependent, either. It doesn’t matter what type of smartphone you have.”
In the near term, this kind of built-in 4G LTE connectivity will enable mobile Wi-Fi hotspots, broader streaming information options, and more advanced OnStar service. Longer term, the higher bandwidth and responsiveness of 4G LTE, with speeds 10 times faster than 3G, will support a wide range of car-specific apps and functions, some of which are already in development.

In short, one’s car will become more like a connected office—something that commercial real estate service providers, who have taken so readily to cell phones and then smartphones, might appreciate. “The bottom line is, we envision a day when your car becomes just another device in your wireless plan,” Girsky said.
Augmented Reality. The (in)famous Google Glass, which the information behemoth is currently beta testing using a small group of users willing to pay $1,500 for the privilege, brought the concept of augmented reality to the mainstream last year. It is essentially a mobile computer mounted on a frame that projects information in front of the wearer and serves as a video and still camera. The gadget also does everything a smartphone does, using voice commands and finger controls on the headset.

Google is not the only company at work on augmented reality for mobile devices. For example, at the All Things Digital Conference in May, the startup Atheer introduced a wearable 3D augmented reality platform to manipulate virtual objects in space with hand movements. The company asserts that the 3D platform is the next step up from 2D mobile: more immersive than a tablet and more portable than a smartphone.
“Our mobile 3D platform fundamentally alters the way people access information on the go, adding a natural interface that can be controlled with natural gestures and motions,” said Atheer CEO Soulaiman Itani. The platform works on top of Android, and potentially other operating systems.

Atheer’s new device does, however, require the user to wear a headset, which might not be to everyone’s liking. Another line of development in mobile phones and computing is 3-D Displays, which display 3D images without use of eye-covering equipment. But this technology is probably a good deal further from realization than Google Glass and its competitors.

Smartphones with 3D displays are not precisely new, but sophisticated, interactive 3D is still under development. Earlier this year, in a paper in Nature, Hewlett-Packard scientists detailed the efforts by its Large-Scale Integrated Photonics lab to find an inexpensive way to project no-glasses-required 3D images and video on small screens. Using such a device would mean interfacing beyond merely looking at or touching a flat surface. Instead, users would “enter” into the environment by manipulating images in three dimensions.

Though such an app has not yet been put on the market, the prospect of a 3D image on a smartphone raises the possibility of creating virtual representations of properties in as much detail as needed. Such images could figure in the development, leasing or sale of real estate by making it easier for the participants to exchange and examine the property remotely.