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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Phones you can bend and pull

Among the iPhone's forward-looking features is a built-in accelerometer that interprets motion to reorient the screen when you tilt it horizontally or vertically. In essence, you just move the phone to control it. What about twisting or bending the phone instead?

James Scott, a researcher at Microsoft Research Cambridge in England, is doing just that. Scott says that by embedding force sensors at the corners of the device, stretching, squeezing and bending can be used as simple commands. For instance, you could turn the phone on and off by squeezing or pulling it, or advance a Web page by twisting the device.

Besides convenience, Scott adds that this technology saves space on devices that otherwise would be used for switches. That means devices can be smaller or screens can be larger, he says.

diagram

Force sensors recognize bending or twisting motions. Click to view larger image.

Scott adds that the research on force sensors is in an early stage. If the research pans out, he says, this technology could become reality in a decade.

More power to the phone

Finally, what about phones that don't run out of power -- or at least can run far longer than current phones without being recharged? One interesting approach is the Atlas Kinetic concept phone.

Designed by Ricardo Baiao of Lisbon, Portugal-based DesignerID, this device will draw power from the motion of its user walking, sitting down or even running to catch a bus.

In one way, it's like the self-winding watches of the 1960s -- it's got a built-in series of weights, rotors and springs that generate power whenever it's shaken or moved. That power, in turn, runs a generator that charges the battery.

Atlas Kinetic

Motion powers the Atlas Kinetic.

Click to view larger image.

Other creative approaches to power are also emerging. For instance, a recent patent granted to Apple points toward a unique approach to a solar phone. The device's screen would generate power with invisible photovoltaic layers that would gather the sun's light -- or a room's artificial lighting -- and turn it into electricity.

A couple of concept phones already discussed take unique approaches to power. P-Per uses an organic free radical battery, or ORB. Because it's flexible, light and only as thick as a business card, an ORB power pack can be stuffed into the nooks and crannies of a phone. Best of all, the battery can potentially be fully charged in as little as 30 seconds. Japan's NEC is working on prototypes of the technology.

Further out on the horizon is Morph's power source. The entire surface is covered with what Nokia's Ryhanen calls nanowire grass, which generates electricity in a way similar to how plants use photosynthesis to grow. "The nanowire grass is covered with a biomolecule that will harvest energy from solar light," explains Ryhanen.

Any network, any time

The shape of future phones and how they'll work is fascinating, but what will they connect to? Currently, most handsets can connect to a single type of cellular network. A few current handsets also have built-in Wi-Fi support.

But today's technology requires a different radio for each type of network, which means that phones that support multiple types of wireless networks are bulky, heavy power hogs. By contrast, the phone of tomorrow will have a single radio that's controlled by sophisticated software capable of connecting to multiple networks.

"People have been working on software-defined radios for some time," says IDC's Bakhshi. "At some point soon, they will get it right."

When it senses a new network, this phone of the future will automatically reconfigure itself to communicate on the new system. That means the device will work equally well on an EV-DO network in the U.S., a WiMax network in Korea and a GSM system in Europe.

Oh, the possibilities...

The phone of tomorrow depends on the imagination of phone designers to put the necessary software and hardware together in ways that are only starting to be envisioned today. The experts we contacted made it clear that we are on the cusp of an exciting era where practically anything will be doable with communications technology.

"Big improvements in phone technology are coming," IDC's Bahkshi says. "What you can imagine today will be possible on a cell phone tomorrow."

Brian Nadel is a freelance writer based near New York and is the former editor in chief of Mobile Computing & Communications magazine. A 25-year veteran of technology journalism, his work has appeared in Popular Science, PC Magazine and Fortune.

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Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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