What is the next major breakthrough for smartphones?

November 9, 2013
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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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