On April 3rd, 1973 Motorola engineer Simon Cooper made the first ever mobile phone call, but it wasn’t until the mid to late 1990s that they hit the mainstream. Now it’s impossible to imagine life without what’s been described as the Swiss Amy Knife of our generation.
We’ve seen them move from simple phones to sophisticated multi-purpose devices giving access to cameras, TV programmes, films, calendars, calculators, work apps, music, maps…. it’s an endless list. But what could happen in the next 10, twenty or thirty years? Will we have physical devices at all, or will they simply become part of us?
Here are 10 ways we might see our phones change, from the ideas that are just a few years off to those that seem still in the realm of science fiction.
Self-healing screens and new materials
You probably know at least one person whose smartphone screen is cracked, crazed or held together with tape. It’s not just the cost of fixing them – though that can run into hundreds of pounds – it’s the inconvenience of having to hunt out a repair shop. The answer to every clumsy person’s prayers could be self-healing screens. In 2017 a Japanese graduate student discovered that the material he was working on reformed when pressed together at normal room temperature. In a separate development MIT are working on a polymer to replace the glass and metal of today’s smart phones, in a bid to make them cooler, cheaper and hopefully less smashable.
Foldable, bendable phones are just about here but with a few last-minute hitches. This years’s Royole FlexPai was described as ‘charmingly awful’ by The Verge – not for its flexibility but for its software – so it’s not going to have the rest of us binning our iPhones just yet. Samsung postponed the April launch of their Galaxy Fold after problems with the screens on devices tested out by journalists, and in turn, Huawei pushed theirs back to September for similar reasons. But the main test will be: is there a place for them? If you can essentially turn a smartphone into a tablet without having to have both, maybe.
Another way to turn a smartphone into something with a larger, almost tablet-size screen is to make it stretchable. LG are already working on one but it’s early days. Korean company Innosaem are planning a foldable, stretchable phone and have apparently filed a patent in their home country. Samsung did announce a stretchable screen in 2017, but only by as much as 12 millimetres, so while it might be bendable, it doesn’t really offer much in the way of increased screen size. For the moment, file this in the ‘gimmick’ category.
We’re all slaves to our phone batteries, but one day that will change. Energous Corporation are developing WattApp a wireless charger that uses radio frequencies at a distance of up to 15 feet, probably embedded in a TV, laptop or other piece of electronics and charging devices around it. Ossia are also developing wireless charging but at a larger scale, using transmitters that could power an entire warehouse. Another idea is piezoelectric materials which generate current from tiny movements. Or if you’re looking up at the sun and thinking surely solar power could do it – perhaps, but at the moment the technology is only efficient enough to keep your phone on standby.
Playing games and watching video is great with an OLED display, giving you excellent picture quality and brightness amongst daylight flare. But E-ink makes for better reading with less eye strain, which is why it’s used in the Kindle. E-ink may possibly be on the way out, but CLEARink is coming up from behind, with the video capability that E-ink lacked and high brightness. Its low cost, low power and outdoor readability may make it perfect for mobile devices.
Voice activation – on steroids
We’ve already got Bixby, Siri, Alexa, Cortana and Google Assistant. There’s widespread expectation that voice-activated virtual assistants powered by AI, as in the film Her, will become ubiquitous. They will get to know us so well that they will know what we need before we’ve even thought of it ourselves. Further into the future they may be able to speak straight into our inner ears, or even to our minds. And we might no longer need to speak to them, powering them through our thoughts instead. This could fundamentally change our lives, but you can imagine the collective nervous breakdown a worldwide outage could bring.
Priced at a hefty $995, the Hydrogen One by RED is ‘the world’s first 4-view media machine’ with no glasses required. But alas the reviews are in and the effect isn’t all that, with a poor screen and images that aren’t even close to the projecting, help-me-Obi-Wan experience we’ve seen in films. As PC mag said in their review ‘The future isn’t here yet’. But it might be soon, as Samsung have filed a patent for their own technology and a team of researchers from the Korean Institute of Science and Technology have made a breakthrough: an ultrathin screen capable of projecting 3D holographic colour images.
Glasses, headsets and more
Google Glass never took off as a consumer product, but perhaps it was just ahead of its time. There’s still a possibility that our phones could be reborn as a barely-visible wearable device, one that would allow everything from making calls to reading emails, watching video, listening to music, using AR or viewing holograms. American company North are already trialling Focals, custom-built smart glasses with a holographic display to keep you in touch with messaging, Spotify, Alexa, Uber and more. There’s a voice-to-text function and perhaps it’s only a matter of time before they become more like a phone than a smart watch.
We already feel like our phones are part of us, but with one more step that really could become reality. The film Total Recall shows phones implanted into the palm of your hand. In the BBC’s recent near-future drama Years and Years, teenager Bethany has phone implants allowing her to use her hand as earpiece and mic. We may be just a few years away from it being only science fiction. At the 2016 World Economic Forum in Davos it was suggested that implantable technologies would be commercially available by 2023. But it could be in your head – one suggestion has been for devices implanted into teeth and behind the ear.
Could you call someone just by thinking? People are already working on a form of technological telepathy. A student at MIT built a system to surf the internet with his mind. MIT’s AlterEgo is ‘a non-invasive, wearable, peripheral neural interface that allows humans to converse in natural language with machines, artificial intelligence assistants, services, and other people without any voice…simply by articulating words internally.’ And in 2016 Elon Musk founded Neuralink in order to develop brain-machine interfaces. In an interview he said: ‘Your phone is already an extension of you. You’re already a cyborg. Most people don’t realize you’re already a cyborg.” Musk sees merging humans with AI as a chance to compete with smart robots that may otherwise treat us as ‘house cats’. And who knew transformative mobile technology might save you from that?