I-feature: Making the moldable phone

Do you design a single device for all occasions or create a separate device to meet the needs of each occasion? That’s a question that’s been confounding phone makers for the last half decade. As our phones become more powerful, they become capable of usurping the functions of other devices: mobile music players, laptops, navigation systems, even television. The phone may be capable of performing these feats, but viewing video, composing a PowerPoint presentation or mapping a crosstown route on a 4-inch screen isn’t necessarily practical or even comfortable.

The subject of the two most recent interactive feature elements is the evolution of the mobile phone and its interface: a feature outlining Texas Instrument’s plans to evolve the mobile phone into a central repository for computing, content and multimedia; and a podcast with The Astonishing Tribe founder Hampus Jakobsson on the how the device user interface will expand beyond the physical constraints of the screen and keypad.

It’s probably safe to say that both TI’s Avner Goren and TAT’s Jakobsson fall into the ’single device’ camp, though there are some nuances in their views. Goren, who heads up strategy for TI’s OMAP app processor group believes there will be multiple devices–in fact there will be hundreds of them–apart from the phone, but they will act as peripherals controled by the personal phone. It controls access to the network, stores gobs of content and acts as central media and computational processor. In Goren’s mind, the device becomes a kind of mobile Godbox, but much of its power remains trapped within its shell, only unleashed when docked to proper peripheral. For instance, when arriving in a hotel room the phone wirelessly links to the room’s TV giving the user access to an his entire HD video library. If that sounds far-fetched, keep in mind we’re already starting to see evidence of it today: the iPod, for many people, has become a portable music library they connect to whatever stereo happens to be available.

Jakobsson’s view of the future phone resembles Goren’s in that he believes the phone will be an immensely powerful device. Instead of distributing the interface amongst innumberable peripherals, though, Jakobsson thinks there is a lot of untapped potential in the device itself. Today we’re limited by what we can tap out on a tiny keyboard and the information that can be shoved into a tiny, two-dimensional screen, but user inteface technologies will greatly expand how much information we can view and organize on tiny devices. According to Jakobsson, nanotechnology will eventually create devices that can physically morph into the appropriate form factor for an application. For instance, a phone could literally unfold into a digital display to view a map or a movie.

At only 10 minutes, the podcast doesn’t cover all of the topics Jakobsson discussed with me, but I’d like to note a few of the more interesting technologies he mentioned (and hopefully will cover in future I-feature pieces). Today, TAT is already working with physics modeling, stereoscopic screens and eye-tracking techniques to create 3D naturalistic user interfaces. In one example–which TAT has a posted a demo video of–TAT combines 3D modeling with sensor inputs to create an interface in which a user can look behind an object by tilting the screen. TAT is also working with projector technologies to generate UIs composed of visible light on table tops (you can see a video of that here). Jakobsson also has a rather contrary view of the role of sensors in the network, warning that artificial intelligence will never be so powerful that we can relinquish control of our lives to sensor-driven networks. But that is as a topic for a future I-feature story.

Telephony’s April edition will be out soon, meaning the main cover feature on the future of mobile will soon be available online on the Interactive Feature home page, but I’d encourage you to read it in the print format so you can see art director Isabelle Pantazis’s excellent design. If you’re not a print subscriber, you can register for the Telephony Digital Editon for free, and a electronic version of the magazine will be sent your inbox. Though the cover story is supposed to be the culmination of the I-feature series, I still have loads of interviews and information I haven’t yet posted, so expect more stories to follow in the coming weeks.

If you’re still unfamiliar with the I-feature, check out the inaugural blog post on the topic. As always, comments are encouraged. We particularly want to know what you think the future of wireless communications will look like in 2025. Feel free to comment anywhere: on the stories, blog entries or columns. We’ll read them.

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