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Upcoming smartphone tech to look forward to

Here's our list of trends and upcoming pieces of smartphone tech that you might want inside your next handset.

Published onJuly 1, 2017

Smartphone technology moves at a brisk pace, with new camera, processor, and other enhancements appearing each year. It wasn’t so long ago that smartphone fingerprint scanners, dual cameras, and contactless payments were considered wild ideas, and yet there’s still much more awesome tech to look forward to in the coming months and years.

Whether you’re holding out on a major upgrade or are just interested in what’s to come, here are some pieces of smartphone technology that will be appearing in upcoming devices in the very near future.

Foldable screens

I know, I know: bendable, flexible, and foldable screens have been touted as The Next Big Things for seemingly forever, but we do finally appear to be nearing the point of seeing this technology in viable products. There’s obviously been a ton of talk behind closed doors, but we have now actually tried out a working prototype from Lenovo, and Samsung showed off its stretchable display technology earlier in the month too.

Granted, Samsung’s “big reveal” didn’t exactly detail very much, and it’s not certain that this will be used in phones first, rather than, say, smartwatches. However, it is clear that the company wants to begin talking about this technology in the consumer space rather than just in conceptual vagaries, and that suggests that the company has some viable products in mind.

There have been many rumors and leaks regarding Samsung’s “Galaxy X” foldable phone this year. The latest reports suggest an announcement sometime in 2018, but after a number of date changes, company insiders no longer seem to know if these devices are right around the corner or will continue to remain on the sidelines for another few years.

In truth, we’ve already seen early flexible display ideas implemented in the likes of the LG G Flex and G Flex 2, and Samsung’s edge technology is based on similar underlying principles. Even if super bendy smartphones don’t become a thing, stronger, more flexible, and drop resistant displays are definitely going to be a boon for the clumsier smartphone owner.

Under screen fingerprint scanners

With the move towards bezel-less displays, OEMs are having to come up with new solutions to continue implementing existing technologies. Fingerprint scanners and physical home buttons are two of the first things to be sacrificed for more screen real estate, but in- and under-screen solutions are being developed.

Some consumers were a little disappointed when the Galaxy S8 didn’t feature this technology, as the new rear fingerprint scanner placement exactly doesn’t seem… ideal. The company is said to be working on an under-screen fingerprint scanner to solve this problem, but it unfortunately seems like Samsung’s technology won’t be ready for the arrival of the Galaxy Note 8 either.

Samsung Galaxy Note 8 to miss out on in-display fingerprint scanner

However, Samsung isn’t the only company working on fingerprint scanners that are hidden in or under the display. LG is working on an invisible embedded solution of its own, and Synaptics, which provides scanners for a number of consumer electronics OEMs, already has its FS9100 model that works under 1mm of glass. There’s also support for Qualcomm Sense ID in a wide range of chipsets, which support ultrasonic 3D fingerprint mapping. Most recently, Qualcomm announced its next generation of ultrasonic fingerprint scanners and smartphone manufacturer vivo demoed the technology in a working prototype handset, which you can see in the GIF above.

While physical home buttons with integrated fingerprint scanners are certainly going to stick around for the foreseeable future, especially in lower cost models, it won’t be long before we see flagship smartphones sporting some fancier, hidden alternatives.

Zoom lens cameras

Dual camera technology hit the mainstream last year, with a number of flagship, mid-tier and even more budget oriented models sporting a variety of configurations. While some dual camera setups aim to improve image quality or offer up new shooting modes, the other trend we’ve seen adopted by just a few OEMs is their use for improved zoom functionality.

Telephoto lenses have been available as third party smartphone accessories for a while now, but they’re often a bit inconvenient to carry around with you. Apple and OPPO have shown that this technology can be packed down inside a smartphone, with the iPhone 7 Plus, OPPO R11, and OnePlus 5 all boasting 2x zoom capabilities, even if not all are 2x optical zoom.

While the current 2x capabilities touted by smartphones are a nice extra, this relatively small zoom in doesn’t change the photography game massively, and digital zoom is still used for capturing more distant objects with the usual loss of quality. However, we know that more enhanced zoom capabilities are in development. OPPO is working on a 5x dual camera zoom feature called Precision Optical Zoom, and HUAWEI’s Kirin 960 SoC announcement revealed that the chip supports processing for up to 4x zoom capabilities.

OPPO announces 5X Precision Optical Zoom

Furthermore, rumors report that Samsung may brings its own 3x optical zoom capabilities to the Galaxy Note 8, Corephotonics has repeatedly shown off its own 3x implementation that can supposedly reach up to 5x, and Apple aquisition, LinX, has the technology to scale up to even three and four cameras for enhanced zooming capabilities.

Today’s 2x optical zoom smartphones are just the beginning. We’ll almost certainly see more handsets appear offering even better zoom options in the not too distant future.

VPS indoor navigation

We all use GPS navigation for picking out driving routes and finding destinations, but a similar technology could soon be useful for indoor navigation too. At Google I/O 2017, the company unveiled its augmented reality VPS indoor navigation technology that will be enabled on Tango-equipped smartphones.

The idea is that large shops, businesses, or warehouses can provide layouts of various products or important indoor locations, which Tango users can then use to navigate to desired items for purchase or other indoor locations easily. VPS uses a combination of computer vision, machine learning, and mapping coordinates to figure out the user’s location and route to their destination, even in areas where a GPS or data signal may be lacking.

As well as indoor mapping, Google also says that it can envision the technology being used to assist the visually impaired with navigating their way around a variety of locations. Even if Tango phones don’t hit the big time eventually, this technology also has interesting implications for future augmented and mixed reality devices.

Augmented Reality Apps

Leading on from VPS, augmented reality encompasses a much wider range of technologies without necessarily requiring specialist hardware, all of which will revolve around superimposing information over imaging data from your camera. While virtual assistants and speech recognition already offers quick searches and reminders, augmented reality applications promise to be far more contextual.

Google Lens is a prime example of this type of technology heading our way soon. The application leverages Google’s computer vision and machine learning technology to provide information about what you’re looking at. This can range from simple things like identifying a plant type or landmark, to scanning WiFi access codes, or bringing up reviews for a restaurant across the street. We’ve already seen a more limited implementation with Samsung’s Bixby, and use cases should sit well alongside advancements in smart assistants.

Looking at some of the more advanced developments taking place on Google’s Tango platform, we can see a range of possibilities from sightseeing and education with Google Expeditions, through to clothes and furniture shopping, mapping an entire room complete with textures in just seconds. Unfortunately, this technology is still probably two or three years away from mainstream commercial viability. But if these capabilities were mainstream already, people would probably use these apps without a second thought.

10 best augmented reality games (AR games) for Android
Software lists
best AR games for Android featured image

You only have to look at the success of Pokemon Go or Snapchat filters to see that consumers are already pretty sold on using their devices in this way. It wouldn’t surprise me to see a wider selection of games and apps promising exciting new AR use cases appear soon too.

Adaptive Displays (variable refresh rates)

If mobile virtual and augmented reality are to take off, then variable refresh displays – which some manufacturers call adaptive displays – is going to be key. By syncing the GPU output to a display’s refresh rate, “screen tearing” issues that can appear when performance temporarily drops are removed, and a smoother, more consistent looking frame rate helps avoid nausea in VR.

Even outside of VR, variable refresh displays can have a number of benefits for mobile. Higher refresh rates can make animations look smoother and UI elements feel a tad more responsive, as well as improving the fluidity of games and video. At the same time, reducing the display refresh rate when the UI is static can help save on battery life, as pixels don’t have to be updated as often.

Apple recently debuted its 120Hz “ProMotion” adaptive display with the iPad Pro, but we’ll have to see if this technology makes its way to future smartphones. Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 835 introduced its own version of the technology called Q-Sync, so technically we’re just waiting for compatible displays to make their way to the mobile form factor.

120Hz adaptive displays: the future or just a gimmick?

What about you?

That rounds off my list of upcoming bits of smartphone tech to look forward to, and I’m sure that some OEM will surprise us with something else entirely different too.  Are there any other upcoming mobile innovations that you’re keeping your eye on? Share your picks in the comments below.

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