Back in October 2013, a YouTube video called Phonebloks took the tech-loving corner of the internet by storm. It showcased a concept for an entirely modular smartphone, where individual components could be changed out on a whim (or as they became obsolete).
In just a few months, one of Google’s elite R&D teams (which was borne out of the acquisition from Motorola), spearheaded by the ex-manager of the secretive US DARPA research team, has taken Phonebloks a big way towards reality: designing an in-depth vision for how the modular phone (now codenamed Project Ara) will fit together and run.
The culmination of their effort is an 80-page document for third-party manufactures who want to build modules for Ara; outlined inside is a comprehensive vision of how Google sees the future of smartphones – and the good news is that even with the sale of Motorola to Lenovo, the modular phone creation is staying firmly locked in Google’s mysterious project cave
An Ara phone starts life as an endoskeleton (or ‘endo’, to its friends). Basically a bare motherboard with no screen, processor, battery, or anything you’d normally associate with a smartphone.
Then modules, bought separately or as part of a kit, can be attached to the endo to create a complete phone, which you can switch around at the push of a button to fulfil your particular needs – or that’s the idea, anyway.
Initially, Google’s planning on manufacturing two endos: a thin ‘Mini’ and a ‘Medium’, which is almost exactly the same size as a modern Samsung Galaxy S5. There’s also the possibility of a phablet-busting ‘Large’ version coming out further down the line.
It’s all based on a grid, where each square is approximately 22mm x 22mm.
Each endo has a front and a rear: the front is basically just one big slot for the screen, perhaps with a bar along the top for a front-camera/speaker module.
The back is where most of the modules live. It’s divided down the middle by a spine; the spine then has ribs that shoot off to the side, ultimately dividing the back up into slots of size 1×1, 1×2 or 2×2.
The modules lock into these slots by way of electro-permanent magnets (EPMs). These are a hybrid of electromagnets and normal permanent magnets, which can essentially be turned on and off by having a current passed through them.
Once the magnet is turned on it stays in that state without needing to have electricity flowing through it, unlike a conventional electromagnet. The connection should be pretty robust – Google says that all Ara phones must be able to withstand a 4-foot drop and fairly intense vibration test.
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The electro-permanent magnets will be controlled through an EPM application, where the user will be able to see what modules are attached, whether they’re locked in or not. You’ll also be able to activate/deactivate the magnets on a per-module basis, using the touchscreen.
The modules themselves can be 1×1, 1×2 or 2×2, although 1×1 modules are apparently non-functional on the current prototype. Every module communicates with the endo via an ‘interface block’, a little connector that provides power and data flow to and from the module. A battery module could provide power via the interface block, and a processor module would draw power and so on.
This interface will probably prove to be one of Project Ara’s limiting factors: the goal of Ara is that as processors and RAM increase in power, users can just keep upgrading those specific modules to keep their phones at the cutting edge. For that to work, however, an interface that lets all the modules talk to each other has to be able to keep up.
That means that the software platform the Ara designers come up with not only has to work for the power and data needs of current components, but also the kind of freakishly fast components we’ll be using down the line, assuming technology keeps improving at the current rate.
One of Google’s more interesting visions for Ara is the use of over-size modules that stick out from the chassis.
Two ideas specifically highlighted are a thermal-imaging camera, which you could swap out the regular camera for when you’re feeling particularly Terminator; and a fingerprint sensor module that extends off the bottom of the phone. It’s not difficult to imagine other, equally useful, applications – a zoom-lens camera, for example, or a credit-card reader.
Equally interesting is the design language Google is dictating for modules, with the aim "to create a smooth, fat, pebble form". This, according to Google, achieves a double-whammy of an easy-to-hold design, which also has a "timeless" aesthetic.
That said, Google’s also been showing off Ara modules with zany colour schemes, or even cat-faces drawn on – so with any luck, it’ll be more than standard-issue black rectangles to choose from.
Overall, it looks like the first generation of Ara won’t be quite as modular as the Phonebloks prototype – the need for ribs on the endo severely limits the overall modularity of the phone.
That said, the design still allows you to replace components as more powerful ones come on the market, so one of Phonebloks’ ambitions – to reduce e-waste – is still very much alive, provided that the endo can keep up.
Unsurprisingly, Google is speccing Ara out to run a version of Android, more or less. A few specific protocols are being added to support modules like the thermal-imaging camera, but overall the software on an Ara phone should very much feel and perform like stock Android.
The plan is to have all Ara modules submitted to Google, where they’ll be certified and then put up for sale through a Module Market, a la Google’s Play Store app market.
Presumably this will also come with a similar division of the sale price – a slice to Google, and the majority to the manufacturer. However, the details and mechanics are still TBD.
Google’s aiming for a release in the first quarter of 2015 – less than 365 days from now, in other words. Although there are lots of details still to iron out, the release of this developer kit should allow third-party manufacturers to get to work on modules.
If all the necessary design, prototyping and bug-testing can be done in the remaining months, that launch date might not be such a far-flung dream after all.
Source : TechRadar: Phone and communications news http://feedproxy.google.com/~r/techradar/phone-and-communications-news/~3/h3ovRpdGMtc/story01.htm