Engineers from the Italian company Motorola made the first-ever mobile telephone call in 1973 using a makeshift network over a relatively short distance. However, by the time we got to the mid-1990s, cellular telephones were mainstream and in 2007 with the advent of the Apple iPhone, it was clear that the world was going to change forever.
Since, then, however, progress on smartphones appears to have plateaued. Engineers from Apple, Samsung, LG and the rest have pretty much optimised the existing form factor, leading many to suggest that we’ve reached “peak smartphone” and it will decline here on out.
The future for smartphones, however, still looks bright. Here are some of the technologies that are coming down the pike that will utterly revolutionise our experience of our favourite handheld devices.
Controlling Your Phone With Your Mind
Pushing buttons on your phone is annoying, especially when you’re trying to do something else, like work out at the gym or get onto a bus. Researchers, however, are now investigating whether it’s possible to imbue smartphones with a kind of mind-reading technology.
You might think that it sounds a little far-fetched, but the technology is closer than you might imagine. Investigators, for instance, already know how to map thoughts to digital actions. Participants can wear special headsets which detect electrical patterns in their brain and then use these inputs to perform some kind of digital activity, like opening an app. It’s not beyond the realm of imagination to suppose that somebody might wear a similar device on their heads in the future that communicates instructions to their smartphone via Bluetooth.
In 2016, SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk set up Neuralink, a company designed to build a working human-machine interface that would allow people to communicate with their digital devices.
Ever since Star Wars in the 1970s, people have wanted phones that create a holographic projection of the person they’re talking to. Getting holograms to work without special glasses, however, is harder than people first thought. It turns out that creating a 3D light projection that you can view from all angles requires some pretty serious laser and semi-conductor technology that wasn’t available until recently.
Right now, there’s a product called Hydrogen One by a company called RED that will project holographic images without the need for glasses. The effect, however, isn’t as good as many people imagine when they think of Yoda talking to Obi-Wan.
Major phone companies, however, have signalled interest in developing holographic technologies, including Korean giant Samsung. The firm says that it’s developed a breakthrough technology that uses an ultra-thin screen to project images that rise above the plane of the handset. It’s still not quite what people imagine when they think of holograms, but it’s getting much closer.
Gorilla Glass has done a lot to improve mobile phone screens over the last year or so. If you go back to 2007, the majority of phones had heavily scratched screens after the first year or so of use, thanks to the use of poor-quality plastics. Today, after more than a decade of research and development, the situation is much improved. Phone screens still crack, but not nearly as often as they used to.
Now, though, researchers are trying to take the concept a stage further. Not only do they want robust phone screens, but also will repair themselves if you drop and crack them. The phone screen material, therefore, is less akin to glass and more like skin.
The discovery that self-healing polymers exist was discovered in 2017 by a scientist working in a Japanese lab, almost by accident. The self-healing polymer opens up the prospect of replacing glass altogether and the end of taking your phone to repair shops for a replacement screen.
Phone displays use something called OLED technology. It is what allows the blacks on the screen to stay black, even when adjacent pixels light up. It is a genuinely magnificent technology.
It isn’t, however, the best. That might still be in the future.
Amazon first introduced the world to “E-ink” displays following the release of the Kindle. The mobile reader platform uses a special kind of display technology, designed to emulate regular ink on the page. The problem is that, until now, it wasn’t possible to display a video on an e-ink display, putting it out of the running for next-gen smartphone display.
Researchers have now developed a version of the technology that they call CLEARink, which they say does have video capability. Whether it will still retain the surreal sharpness and contrast regular e-ink remains to be seen. It could, however, change the fundamental appearance of smartphone screens, making them appear more realistic and true to life.
Phones already have voice assistants, like Siri and Alexa. But over the next few years, these assistants are going to come of age, providing functions that users today simply cannot imagine.
Artificial intelligence went through a significant breakthrough in the last decade or so and is now able to do things like recognize faces and convert text to speech with surprising accuracy. In the future, however, many researchers believe that AI will begin to approximate the human intellect. It might not be extended, therefore, before we see AIs in phones using contextual knowledge to make suggestions to their owners.
Examples of how this might work abound. For instance, an AI could overhear you talking to a friend about how you have tooth pain. The AI could then recommend that you call the dentist and provide you with a one-click option to do so. Artificial intelligence systems might also do things like track your skills and job opening, making recommendations that you apply for specific posts in particular companies, based on the data they collect for you. They may even be able to submit your CV for you automatically.
Of course, these new features will require far greater data use. The SMARTY network, for instance, is claiming that some users need more than 8 GB of data per month. The advantage, though, is that the price of data continues to fall, with many of the most affordable options accessible to practically everyone.
You might think that those wireless charging pads you sometimes see are an example of wireless charging that already exists, and you’d be right. But when the pioneers of remote electricity distribution, like Nicola Tesla, first imagined wireless devices, they wanted to be able to power devices from great distances. In today’s context, that would equate to charging a device from across the room – almost unimaginable.
To the surprise of many, however, there have been several breakthroughs in this area. WattApp (not Whatsapp) for instance, uses a kind of radiofrequency to stimulate ions in batteries within a specific field, imparting energy and charing the devices in the vicinity. In the future, many technologists imagine setting up mobile charging emitters in public places, like coffee shops, that will charge phones using piezoelectric materials, negating the need to ever actually plug your phone in (or worry about it running out of battery while you’re away from the city).
Foldable, Stretchable Phones
Folding and stretching phones have been in the realm of science fiction for a long time, ever since people first imagined that they might be possible a decade ago.
While foldable phones are still a little out of reach, there have been substantial advances in the technology, making it appear as if it might happen soon. We already have foldable batteries, electronics, and screens, so we could be on a cusp of a movement away from the standard smartphone form factor.
Back in April, Samsung was due to launch the Galaxy Fold, but problems with materials and development held it back. The device, however, will likely be available too, even if there have been some teething problems this year.
Some commentators have argued that we’re unlikely to see foldable phones really take off. Is there much of a use for them? Unfurling a smart device on the morning commute on the train might not be practical. Phone manufacturers, however, are likely to argue that foldable displays will allow owners to use them like tablets, perhaps undermining the tablet as a form factor.
It’s unlikely that hearables will replace phone handsets entirely – you can’t watch video on something that only produces sound. However, hearables are likely to become increasingly integrated with the main handset.
We could, for instance, see in-ear devices that take biometric readings and even detect brain patterns. Hearables will also become increasingly responsive to gestures. A user might be able to wave their hands across an exterior sensor to accept or reject a call.
It’s clear that there is a lot further for phone technology to run. There’s no need for our devices necessarily be bricks that we hold in our hands. The future could be greater integration with the human body with virtually invisible retina displays and other innovations. What this means for taking exams remains to be seen.