Meet tomorrow's mobile phones: Sensational shape-shifters and more

Concept phones and new technologies provide a glimpse of the future

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Using the hand in a completely different way, this spring Samsung received a patent for a phone that can interpret finger gestures by watching hand movements with its camera. Point an index finger to activate the pointer. Thumbs-up moves between workspaces.

Samsung did not return calls to discuss the concept.

Two-faced and fourfold phones

The designers we spoke with agreed that touch-sensitive displays -- such as the one pioneered in Apple's iPhone -- will dominate the next generation of handset design. But there are many possibilities about how these screens will be arranged.

For instance, the P-Per thin phone design looks as if someone glued two iPhones together.

P-Per

One side of the P-Per is a camera.

Click to view larger image.

"It has a [touch] screen on each of its two sides," says Karole Ye of independent design firm Chocolate Agency, which is based in Shenzhen, China. "Mobile phone and messaging are displayed on one and a camera on the other."

Screen and graphics technology must catch up with the design before P-Per can become a commercial reality. That could take three or four years.

At the other extreme is Istanbul, Turkey-based designer Emir Rifat Isik's Packet phone. At just 5 centimeters (about 2 inches) square and only about a centimeter thick, it fits easily in a pocket.

"The first thing I focused on was functionality," says Isik. "The idea was to put in all the possible functions in the smallest area and make them easy to use."

The Packet is deceptively simple. Fold open the top and bottom squares and it's like a traditional flip phone with a speaker and screen at the top, a microphone at the bottom, and dial pad in the middle.

Packet phone

The Packet unfolds into a cross shape.

Click to view larger image.

But when it's time to write an e-mail or surf the Web, you fold open all of the phone's edges to reveal a cross-shaped smart phone. There's a split keyboard at the sides, a pointer at the center and a screen at the top for viewing e-mail, Web browsing or anything a smart phone can do.

"All interaction will be by touching the screens," says Isik.

According to Isik, it will take a couple of years before manufacturing technology catches up with this design. And, once it can actually be manufactured, a phone vendor has to adopt the design.

Haptics and touch-me phones

The Packet's design makes for a clean look, but those who have tried to type on a flat screen know it can be irritating because our fingers are accustomed to the sensory feedback of physical keys. Without that feedback, typing becomes erratic and frustrating.

"The sensory feedback of haptic technology will help," says IDC's Bakhshi. The technology will provide sounds or vibrations to fool users into thinking they are touching more than just a sheet of flat glass.

Japan's NHK Broadcasting Corp. and engineers at Tokyo University have teamed up to take haptic displays a step further. Their prototype display has millions of tiny pins on the surface that are so small that they don't interfere with viewing the image.

diagram

NHK is developing displays with tiny pins on the surface. Click to view larger image.

Users will actually feel the pins on their fingertips and a complex program will control which pins stick out and which are below the surface. This creates a changeable topology that the user will interpret as shapes. Its first use could be to draw Braille characters on a cell phone's screen.

More impressively, the pins can be depressed like switches, and groups of pins could be programmed to act in concert. That would allow the pins to simulate buttons on a phone or even a screen keyboard.

This will go a long way toward providing the feel of a mechanical keyboard, but the technology is only just being worked on in the lab, so expect to wait about a decade before you see this technology on your phone.

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