What is the next major breakthrough for smartphones?

November 9, 2013

    Smartphones stacked Android best iphone apple samsung LG HTC

    Has the pace of innovation been slowing down lately? We’re used to incremental improvements to the existing technology in our smartphones, but big, bold moves are much more exciting. Our expectations are higher than ever. There have been some interesting developments in the last year. Sony has brought waterproofing into the mainstream. Apple dipped a toe, or a finger, into biometrics with the fingerprint scan to unlock. Google and Motorola gave us a smartphone that’s always listening for its master’s voice. LG and Samsung have taken the first step towards a flexible future.

    What might be next on the horizon? Which barriers are our intrepid research and development professionals about to overcome next? Let’s take a look at some of the evolving technology that could be set to enhance our smartphones in the foreseeable future.

    Faster image capture and refocus later

    Remember that scene in Blade Runner when Deckard uses an Esper machine to enhance a photo and see something that wasn’t captured in the original shot? Well, that’s impossible, but camera technology is improving at an amazing rate and we’re not talking about slapping a giant camera sensor in a mobile (yes we’re looking at you Lumia 1020).

    DigitalOptics_Camera_Exploded DigitalOptics mems|cam

    DigitalOptics is working on MEMS (microelectromechanical system) camera modules which are capable of incredibly fast autofocus with much lower power demands than current technology. The “mems|cam” can capture six consecutive images and store them as one file, which gives you the ability to refocus the photo later, and it’s up to seven times faster than current camera technology. There were rumors that the Nexus 5 might be packing one, but it now looks like Oppo will be the first manufacturer to release a phone with a “mems|cam” after a DigitalOptics press release announced that they “are exclusive launch partners”.

    This is a baby step towards some really exciting technology called Lytro, which uses multiple micro-lenses to capture images with depth enabling you to refocus and change perspective after the shot is taken. Until they figure out how to make Lytro cameras smaller, we’ll have to settle for something less awesome, but it would still represent a major improvement over current smartphone cameras.

    Vastly improved speakers

    HTC-ProductDetail-Overview-Container1-01-bg

    The sound quality on smartphones is generally poor and we’re all used to tinny speakers that don’t deliver any depth, but we may be able to enjoy significantly better audio in the near future. HTC has definitely led in this space with its Beast Audio partnership and Boomsound. The decision to place two front-facing speakers in the HTC One for true stereo definitely delivered the best smartphone speaker audio quality we’ve encountered yet, but for cost and space reasons most manufacturers rely on one speaker.

    Thanks to NXP we’re about to see another boost in the shape of the second generation TFA9895 which is “a high efficiency class-D audio amplifier with a sophisticated speaker boost protection algorithm that features multi-band compression”.  In other words, it provides improved audio and reduces distortion without reducing quality or volume, and it can do so without killing your battery.

    This new speaker solution will likely be rolling out in a lot of new smartphones over the coming months and we expect to see a few more dual-speaker, stereo set-ups as well. The result will be louder and better quality audio on our smartphones without having to rely on headphones all the time.

    Faster charging and greater capacity

    Running out of juice is still the number one bugbear for most smartphone owners and, since manufacturers keep adding bigger screens and more features, it’s a problem that has yet to be solved. The lithium-ion battery technology we use currently needs to be fairly large to store enough power. Switching to silicon is problematic because it expands when charged and then shrinks when discharging, which kills it fast, though researchers are working on a way round this.

    Graphene is another possibility and 3D printing could be employed to create tiny microbatteries, as highlighted in this Wyss Institute research from Harvard. There has also been a breakthrough at the National University of Singapore’s Nanoscience and Nanotechnology Initiative, based on an environmentally-friendly storage membrane, which could pave the way for a cheap solution that outperforms current battery technology.

    Back in May, 18 year-old high school student, Eesha Khare, created a supercapacitor that could allow your smartphone to fully charge in less than 30 seconds. She won an Intel prize and IB Times suggested that big tech companies like Google are sniffing around, though the problem with this kind of technology in the past has been that it can’t hold a charge for as long as li-ion.

    Alternative energy sources and wireless charging

    The wireless charger for the the Nexus 5 is coming, and soon.

    The wireless charger for the the Nexus 5 is coming, and soon.

    Another way to tackle the battery issue is to think about where we get power from.

    Wireless charging has been around for a long time now, but the more it is adopted, the more useful it will become. If wireless charging becomes commonplace in restaurants and cafes, airport lounges, and other public places then we’ll certainly take advantage. One of the tedious barriers so far has been establishing a common standard, and there are different technologies at play. The Qi standard is the front runner right now, but we know Samsung is working on magnetic resonance wireless chargers and they should work at greater distances. That means your smartphone could potentially be charging up in your pocket if there’s a charger nearby.

    wysips_panel (1)

    There’s also some potential in the idea of generating power in some way on the device itself. We’ve seen solar chargers and extended battery cases with solar panels on them. There’s also been some work done on charging through solar cells in the screen. None of the solar solutions deliver a lot of juice and they require direct sunlight to soak power up, but some improvement is better than nothing and Sunpartner Technologies is rolling out its Wysips Crystal solar tech in the New Year, having managed to reduce the cost to about $2.30 per phone, it claims this will boost battery life on average by 20%.

    Real flexibility

    Samsung and LG raced to produce smartphones with flexible displays, but the benefits of their first efforts in this space aren’t going to wow you. Initially flexible screens are all about durability, and though the display may be potentially flexible it will be housed on a rigid device. No risk of cracks or shattering when you drop your smartphone would be great, though our drop tests might get a bit boring, but the real excitement of flexibility is in new form factors.

    flexible-display-1

    The dream device would fold out from a portable pocket size to act as a standard smartphone and then fold out again to reveal a 10-inch tablet screen. The barrier here is that the rest of the components in your average smartphone are not flexible.

    Graphene could be the magic material that makes it possible in the future and there’s a lot of research going on in this space. Graphene transistors are improving fast, as highlighted in this paper in the ACS Nano journal.  Graphene is a single layer of carbon which is very strong and flexible and the fact it can also be employed as a supercapacitor means that it could be the answer for both flexibility and improved battery performance. Sadly, it’s probably still a few years away from the mainstream, but you never know when the next breakthrough will occur.

    What next major breakthrough are you most excited about?

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    What would you most like to see in your next smartphone? What technological breakthrough would get you really excited? Post a comment and tell us!

     

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    Comments

    • Sam

      Holy f’ing balls that flexible display in the last video looks absolutely amazing with the wrap around…. WANT!

    • MasterMuffin

      If I could get a battery life like the old Nokia’s had (a whole week), I’d pay iPhone prices!

      • Ivan Myring
        • MasterMuffin

          I’d like to keep my phone the same size :D

          • Ivan Myring

            Yeah, but with the huge one you can defend yourself, or help builders if they run out of bricks

            • MasterMuffin

              Yeeeea no

            • Ivan Myring

              Just trying to be helpful.
              I’m sad now.

            • MasterMuffin

              Guud >:)

      • Aniruddh

        Buy an old Nokia from eBay or something! Much cheaper than iPhone!

        • MasterMuffin

          I already have one :)

          • Luka Mlinar

            You have two :)

            • MasterMuffin

              Way more than too!

            • Luka Mlinar

              Whaaat? You got a museum over there? lol

            • MasterMuffin

              They’re my precious

      • APai

        when I moved from my e72 to e7 – i had a shock of my life. never recovered from it though… it’s all a single day lasting affair these days.

        • MasterMuffin

          I still have my e72 and e7 :’)

      • Luka Mlinar

        No one should ever pay iPhone prices :/

      • TheFlash

        What annoys me is you read in the news about all these new radical battery technologies but nothing ever comes of it they need to pump billions into r&d , roll on nuclear batteries or fuel cells.

        • MasterMuffin

          That nuclear sounds great, who needs to life for over 50 years?

          • MadCowOnAStick

            I need a life over 50 years :3

            • MasterMuffin

              But you’re a mad cow, ain’t gonna happen dude

            • MadCowOnAStick

              Well you’re a muffin. Shouldn’t’ have been alive in the first place ;D

            • MasterMuffin

              Chemical X!

            • MadCowOnAStick

              Life hacks!

      • abazigal

        The problem was that those old Nokia phones had long battery life precisely because they did nothing except make calls and send smses. Hook it up to wireless and surf the web for a while and watch its battery life drop faster than an iPhone.

        You can also turn off 4g and easily enjoy 2-3 days of battery life on your smartphone. You just won’t be able to do anything useful with it to make that extended battery life worthwhile.

        • MasterMuffin

          4g? Oh you silly Americans, I don’t have 4g :) I was talking about standby time, with my old Nokia 3 on it would last a week. If you take a modern smartphone and take 3g off, I bet it won’t get even close. + I played games on my Nokia (Snake, Block’d, Bounce ♥)

        • Leonardis

          Don’t you mean faster than a Nexus… Lol

        • ziplock9000

          By far the biggest draw to power is the screen 99% of the time.

      • Android Developer

        true, if batteries could improve the same way CPU & GPU do, I think we would have this kind of battery life by now.

    • Groud Frank

      I would trade everything else on this list for longer battery life. But, what I really want is to have a phone that makes me a sandwich.

      • Aniruddh

        That would be huge! Unless you want to eat sandwich that are smaller than your nails of course…

      • Rob C

        It you would accept Sandwiches shaped like Cannelloni it could work, unless your a ‘pocket dialer’, then you’d have a mess.

        http://www.youtube.com/user/LowLightVideos

    • bungadudu

      Project ara!

      Tired of selling my one year phone at 1/3 of its initial price.

    • Roberto Tomás

      Many of these technologies are still many years away though. I think for the next year or two the real advances are going to to be: 13MP standard rear facing cameras .. even on $100 phones. USB 3 and 3.1 OTG (can act as host, use hard drives directly). 64 bit processors (yawn). HDMI 2 and wireless HD. possibly DDR4 or wide I/O (stacked memory).

      • APai

        “13MP standard rear facing cameras .. even on $100 phones by late 2014″
        sorry. might just not happen. because – the manufacturers love giving old / yesterday’s specs. they will move on from 5 to 8mp. which should be good enough.

        I’d love more built in storage and better battery life.

        • Roberto Tomás

          13mp might happen though. all the top tier phone makers are moving to 13-20mp and OIS, some even to micro-focus — with very few even staying at 13mp. this means that there will be a lot of manufacturing capacity just sitting around waiting for clients. so cheap cameras are incoming.

          • APai

            the top tier for sure. i was looking at the mid range ones and the low cost phones – the marketing department dictates these , and I am not so sure that we’ll move to 13mp by the next year end. look how long we’ve had 3mp on low cost phjones. and they still have 5mp on most phablets/ tablets and low cost phones

            • Roberto Tomás

              I think you’ll be happy with premium phones next year then. :) I have trouble imagining what you mean by a low cost phone — it must be what I think of as a feature phone, which is basically a smart phone that is still running on ~1Ghz single and dual core A9 chips, and sells for less than $100 off contract.

              I think the $100-$400 (low-thru-mid) range has pretty much standardized on 8mp-13mp already, though there are still some 5MPs out there in no-name brands. Many of the mid-tier chinese phones this year have 5mp front-facing cameras. 13mp as the standard within a year seems likely, in part because the extra capacity that is currently reserved for premium phones will be free as they move towards RGBW, OIS, micro zoom, stacked sensors, etc (which they have already begun to do this year). For example, Samsung’s premium (some 70m units) may all be moving to 16mp next year. that is 70 million extra 13mp sensors just sitting around unless they sell them in cheaper phones.

            • APai

              the 8mp that I see on most mid rangers are like up-sampled versions of 5mp. the 8mp on low end “clones” are very poor, despite being 8mp. exactly what you are talking about – the chinese clones.
              although they have achieved 8mp – its only in spec. they are pretty much 5mp in quality. which is why I said that’s the case. having owned a couple of cheap “clones” – I feel 8 mp real resolution should be plenty. actually, being a pixel peeper, I would like the phone cams to stick to 6-8mp and then increase in quality. mems/ better low light performance/ ois are all something i’d like to be standard. so people can get decent 8×10 prints (if needed)

            • Roberto Tomás

              Yeah I dont doubt that they haven’t been up to snuff in the past, and the 13mp they have in the future will pale in comparison to the newer 13-20mp coming to premium phones next year .. but they will be the same old 13mp currently on higher-cost phones like the Galaxy S4

    • Fred 忍び

      Really the only breakthrough we need is vastly improved battery life. I want to go a whole day with a significant amount of use, not moderate use or adjusting settings to prolong battery life. I’m willing to sacrifice thickness for larger and better batteries.

    • R Idris Musa

      Longer battery’s life, better cameras, or improved speakers, these I think are not technologies breakthrough. These are just an improvement of what already exist. What I would love to see in every future smartphone is: a hologram of a person I call. Just like in star wars. That would be extremely awesome. Right?

      • frederigoxcz305

        my Aunty Madison got
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      • On a Clear Day

        If we had decent battery life who wouldn’t need esoteric recharging technologies in our phones. Instead of focusing on “advances” that are more style than substance someone out there needs to truly set their mind on solving the battery problem.

        When Henry Ford ordered that a V-8 engine be created his engineers said, “Impossible!” (to paraphrase). He said, “I will have it.” and he got it. (Albeit later than he would have if he had not been so dictatorial in the way he handled his people, but he did get it.)

        What we apparently seem to be lacking is a leader leading a team who has the ability to focus resolutely on solving this problem come hell or high water coupled with a level of intelligence that qualifies him or her as a true, creative genius – a General George S. Patton of technology – capable of bulldozing through the enfeebling, debilitating and constricting limits the mediocre of the world say are impossible; someone who can rise above and see beyond the limitations of the moment to catch a glimpse of a heretofore, unperceived potential none have grasped beforehand.

        Someone like a Steve Jobs – but this time with a nice personality and without a desire to rule the world as its Lord and master.

        • R Idris Musa

          I didn’t try to say that we don’t need a decent battery life. We do need it. And it would be great if one could make it. Well, one WILL make it. Surely.

          So, a decent battery life, a better cameras, speakers, etc, they are something that I think, we all know it’s coming. They’re not really ‘something’. They’re not beyond expectation. See what I mean?

          If in the not so far future, I go to a store, there are two options of smartphone: one with a (just saying) one week battery life with standard smartphone features, and the other just a day – but comes with a hologram call-. Well.. I dunno about u man, but me personally? I’d chose the smartphone with one day battery life with hologram call features in it. Coz it’s really what makes the phone more… What? How do I say it? more functional? And it makes us feel more connected to each other.

          Another thinking: if u compared to a car, smartphone with a decent battery life is just like a car with better gas consumption. Are we really, really, excited about it? No, we’re excited about a car that don’t need a driver. The one that have an auto-pilot. A self-driving car (thats why Google is investing a lot in it).

          So, when this article asking about what we expect in the future smartphone, a breakthrough in technologies, my mind thinks about something that really new and could change the way we interact to each other. Change the way we live and socialize. Something beyond expectation. Something innovative. Then, question like “has the pace of innovation been slowing down lately?” would not have been written in the first paragraph of this article.

          Anyways, what u said about battery life, is not wrong. Yes, again and again, we do need it. And it would be great if we’d have it soon. But, it would be much greater if we actually see and being given something new in the future smartphone. Don’t u think so?

          Peace.

    • Jarl

      tesla touch, duh

    • Amadeus Klein

      Battery life obviously, but true wireless charging at a distance is a close second….

    • Tyler

      I’m worried that the flexible display that extends around the edge of the phone would prevent me from getting a phone case for it.

    • Oli72

      A phablet for the nexus 6 would be kool n 2014.

    • John Locke

      I’d like the next big thing to be in battery technology but I highly doubt it.

      • Adrian Remus

        I agree 140%

    • RanRu

      “HTC has definitely led in this space with its Beast Audio partnership”

      Haha.

      • Leonardis

        The joke is the speaker tech had nothing to do with bests NXP developed the tech in the phones as they did for Motorola also. Using superior mobile speaker amplifiers. They are now working on multiple band speakers where basically signals don’t compete with each other but each have their own space. Creating fuller and richer audio.

    • Leonardo Rojas

      All interesting, but the only thing we really, really need to enjoy our already awesome smartphones is BETTER and much longer lasting batteries! n.n

      • ziplock9000

        How?

    • Leonardo Rojas

      Battery life!
      This is my ZL battery usage for yesterday. Too bad? How much last your batteries?
      At least now the screen is not using 75%, such an improvement.

      • Azeem

        That doesn’t tell me battery life. I get about 15 hrs (usually 9am to midnight or 11am to 2am) with heavy use (4+ hours of screen on time).

        • Bob

          4 hours o screen on time is not realky heavy use. Need to double that number.

    • Mattias Jonsson

      With near instant charging, there would be no need for large batteries, and the phones would be thinner and faster, since the batteries wouldnt have to be as big as they are today.

      • APai

        as long as you are chained to your desk. kidding.

        but many of us have to move – which is really the point of a larger capacity.

      • abazigal

        Or you could just carry an extra external battery pack in your bag.

        Plus it would only benefit those who get to recharge their phones reliably throughout the day. If I am always outside, such a feature would actually disadvantage me, because I am stuck using a phone with lower battery life.

    • KK

      The next major smartphone breakthrough is already here, its AirView. I know a lot of you guys are Samsung haters and just think its gimmicky, but let me explain. Firstly, Airview adds an overstate to your smartphone experience, so essentially it is like the invention of a mouse for smartphones. Secondly, Airview measures the distance of your finger or pen from the screen, thus allowing smarthphones to be interacted with in a 3rd demension. I really hope developers out there will see this comment and focus on developing their apps to use this feature, because it really is an amazing feature that everyone overlooks.

      • abazigal

        Having features that trigger based on the distance of my finger from the screen sounds like an ergonomic nightmare to me.

        • KK

          Not true at all. Depth may make it harder, but as shown in technologies such as Xbox Kinect, it is very possible to get used to.

    • Shark Bait

      I think this flexible screen technology is a gimmic, cool but a gimmick! Seriously is their any practical use for bending your phone? Maybe slightly curved yes, but bendy why?
      I’m not interested until I can unfold my phone to make a tablet , and unfold that to make a laptop, then a TV, then a jetpack!!

      Retro nokia battery life and quick wireless charging is the next must have!

    • Влатко Стојанов

      Faster charging and greater capacity

    • TheFlash

      the smartphone market is essentially stagnating , all smartphones now are big rectangles with screens and sensors they are getting much of a muchness , sure some have better cameras than others etc but they are basically becoming the same , until they come up with new radical technologies such as holography or neural interface systems they wont be able to take them much further

    • abcdefgqwerty

      Out of all of those I still think power source like in this case batteries is the most important thing to these new portable PC phones. A big limiting factor in the future will be battery life because you cant add better displays or more power sapping features if the battery keeps dying faster. We already are reaching limits on software to minimize power drain so its just going to get worse. My old 3g slide lasts like a week on one charge and older flip phones last even longer. Its a big negative to new phones

    • Wes

      Uhm w.r.t wireless power…you guys might wanna read up on “Ambient Back-scatter”

      • Bob

        Abs is only capable of powering devices that can run on microamps

    • GrinigGammalGubbe

      Google Loon connection.

    • InfamousMango

      Longer battery life, and instant charging, THIS IS WHAT MANKIND HAS BEEN WAITING FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS (not really), AND IS ON THE BRINK OF BECOMING TRUE!!!!

    • AS

      Devices need to become decoupled.

      I want storage and wireless technology in one part i never need to handle, like a pocket-server. This could have a massive battery because it will never be pressed against my head, and could last days/weeks on a single charge.

      My other devices then connect to it wirelessly and i can choose if i want to take my 2inch wrist screen, 4-5inch pocket screen, 7-20inch tablet, audio kit, hmd, projector, game controller…

    • Grman Rodriguez

      Real productivity

    • erin

      Wireless Power Transfer for Mobile Device.

      A true wireless batteries. With this you can decouple smartphone and batteries. You can store smartphone and its batteries in separate place. You can switch phone batteries seamlessly, without need to shutdown phones.
      Smartphone will also be slimmer.

    • AssToast

      The battery option made me laugh

    • Android Developer

      camera and speakers are already quite decent those days.

      the biggest potential is all about the battery juice, and this includes anything related to it – how long it can take, how long it needs to charge, and if it’s possible to have an alternative to it.

      what i also don’t understand is why the wireless charging got such a hype, as it is less efficient and slower (and i think will always be) than regular wires. now you can even use a USB3 to make it even more efficient, no?

    • abazigal

      For me, the next breakthrough is not hardware advancements, but rather, more powerful mobile software that brings productivity to the next level and properly takes full advantage of all those killer specs in the phone.

      For example, the Note3 has 3gb of ram, but what software / processes come remotely close to taxing that? I can understand developers being hesitant to develop such powerful software because they are locking themselves into a small niche of Note “Power Users”.

    • iphonearena

      how about some software optimization for Android? lol

    • Leonardis

      Intetrsting article even though some facts are incorrect or a little blurry st leadt. Tired of journalist calling what Samsung and LG done as flexible displays. Let alone innovative. They are not. Simply curved. Flexible suggest they can be actively bent without breaking. Those screens though curved are in a fixed position.

      The esper machine is impossible? Just as we humans are capable of creating patterns from random data and can recognise a whole object from a partial image. So will software techniques develop that can do the same and even render the missing image sections from partial data. Coupled with AI it will just keep getting better and better.

    • Leonardis

      In regards to HTC partnership with beats…The joke is the speaker tech had nothing to do with bests NXP developed the tech in the phones as they did for Motorola also. Using superior mobile speaker amplifiers. They are now working on multiple band speakers where basically signals don’t compete with each other but each have their own space. Creating fuller and richer audio.

    • iDaveG

      Maybe android will revolutionise the industry, now that would be a breakthrough.

    • Alejandro Illescas

      Maybe, failed to mention modularity http://www.theverge.com/2013/10/29/5041336/motorola-project-ara-modular-smartphones
      (yeah!, the V is 90% iphone but not for long).

    • ziplock9000

      Just build phones twice as fat.. last 4x as long and are still small.

    • Timmy

      Weaponized phones, large screen projection capability, thought to text (telepathic input) or maybe just longer lasting batteries.

    • Raphael

      No need for long battery life, if we can just recharge our batteries in our phones and tablets in a matter of seconds through screens with solar cells.

    • http://www.KamilGPhotography.com/ KamilG

      I think that the camera improvement in the past year has been awesome, but manufacturers really need to turn to charging/batteries as the main focus now. When we start getting a good 20 hours out of every battery on every device, then we can start revisiting other hardware pieces to make them more powerful. After all, what is a high-end device if you can’t use it for more than 5 heavy hours.

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