Smartphones have spent the last two decades or so evolving. From PDAs – pocket-sized computers good for all work and little to no play – capable of getting things done on the go and taking and initiating phone calls they evolved into smartphones as we know them – pocket-sized entertainment hubs with a high-speed internet connection, still capable of taking and initiating phone calls. Over the years, they’ve “grown” themselves more processor cores, a bigger storage capacity, more RAM, and bigger touchscreens. Today, the average flagship phone has a processing power that exceeds that of a laptop from a few years ago, a built-in camera that snaps higher-quality pictures than a professional photographer’s gear did in the not so distant past, and sensors that were in the past a matter of science fiction. Not to mention its graphics processor that will run every game from Platinum Play online blackjack to even the most sophisticated shooters, racing games, and RPGs. Some say the smartphone as we know it has reached the pinnacle of its evolutionary process. So, what’s next? What will the smartphone of the future look like? Let us speculate.
Virtual reality will forever be confined inside buildings because it puts its users into a completely immersive environment, shutting out the reality around them. But the mixed reality is not that immersive, making it much more flexible than its big brother. It is a digital layer placed between our eyes and the outside world, a head-up display if you like, constantly keeping us informed of… whatever we want to know about whatever we see. And the smartphone could be the computer that makes this possible.
We already have games and navigation apps that work like this running on our smartphones, using its camera and screen to do their job. In the near future, the screen may move in front of our eyes, offering us a constant connection to the digital world. Later, we might not even need glasses – companies like Samsung, among others, are already working on augmented reality contact lenses that will be able to project a HUD in our field of vision. Perhaps the screen as we know it will disappear from the smartphone entirely, being replaced by gesture and voice control. Speaking of which…
We already have smart digital assistants on our phones – or in our living rooms – that we can control through voice commands. With each voice command they receive, they become smarter – they keep learning the nuances of the human speech to be as responsive and flawless as they need to be. Soon, we will no longer need to use our words, though – the MIT has just presented Alter Ego, a device that can recognize the words we speak without speaking up.
Alter Ego uses electrodes to detect the neuromuscular signals triggered in the users’ jaw and face, signals that they are trained to associate with certain words. At the same time, a pair of bone-conduction headphones transmit the received signals as vibrations into the ear canal without obstructing the voices and noises around the user. This new device could be the basis of a brand new breed of a wearable phone that you won’t need to actually speak to. It could also serve as an almost telepathic interface to interact with computers, AI, and such.
“We basically can’t live without our cell phones, our digital devices. But at the moment, the use of those devices is very disruptive,” project leader MIT professor Pattie Maes said. “If I want to look something up that’s relevant to a conversation I’m having, I have to find my phone and type in the passcode and open an app and type in some search keyword, and the whole thing requires that I completely shift attention from my environment and the people that I’m with to the phone itself.” But with Alter Ego, this will all be a thing of the past. It will be able to deliver the information seamlessly and with no interruption at all.
Smartphones are pretty powerful computers as they are – but imagine how fast they could evolve if there was no need for a touchscreen and speakers, things that the above inventions could render obsolete. They would no longer need to be stylish pieces of hardware you could put on the table in the pub – they could become what they actually are: computers. And this would do wonders for their processing power’s evolution.
Right now, the most energy-consuming part of the smartphone is the screen. Depending on its type and the users’ habits, it can consume between 30% and 75% of the phone’s energy reserves. If it would use an AR contact lens as a display and a bone-conduction speaker, their energy consumption would drop considerably – and it could become better at doing what it is supposed to do: calculations.
In the near future, the smartphone might separate completely from the screen, becoming a small slab sitting comfortably in our pockets or bags. And it might become indistinguishable from the other computers we use today.