Although it has been two decades since the first introduction of smartphones, the true meaning of the smartphone changed with the introduction of the iPhone. Smartphones became an important part of our daily lives, and even the first object many people use after they wake up in the morning. It replaced many devices we use daily, including cameras, GPS devices, MP3 players, etc. Smartphones became an addiction for many, and changed how we communicate and interact with our surroundings. Despite its many benefits, smartphones are an important source of distraction, addiction, and rude behavior, and can cause many social problems.
There are already 1.5 billion smartphone users and a total of 5 billion mobile phones in the world. Smartphone companies are announcing new phone models with improved capabilities every year. These are smarter and better phones with new sensors, powerful chips, and new capabilities. Newspapers and technology blogs often start discussing rumors about an upcoming smartphone several months before its launch.
Over the past few years, we have seen many futuristic prototypes and designs. Consumers request better and smarter phones that can handle more and more tasks with every new model. Although the phone companies are surprising us with new smartphones every year, we are far from seeing some of the technologies presented in prototypes. What do you expect to see in smartphones in the next 5 to 10 years? Let's talk about some of the technologies that will end up in a smartphone in the near future.
One of the critical components in a smartphone is the battery. While most smartphones only support being charged from a wall plug, some of them are supporting inductive wireless charging out of the box. Although it is not a standard feature for most smartphones, wireless charging can be enabled using third-party cases and charging pads. Current wireless charging systems still require the smartphone to be placed on a pad for charging. A bigger step in powering smartphones will be touchless wireless charging. A new startup company, Ossia , recently unveiled the world's first commercially viable touchless remote wireless power system. Imagine you are walking into your house or office, and the smartphone in your pocket is starting to charge via receiving electric waves through the air.
With wired or wireless charging, the battery technology of smartphones remained largely unchanged for years. A large percentage of smartphone bodies are occupied by lithium-ion batteries. With the developments of new power efficient displays and computing chips, smartphones are now using less and less power. This allows manufacturers to use smaller batteries with the same usage time. Battery technologies are not efficient enough to power smartphones more than a couple of days with average daily usage. People often carry extra batteries and chargers when travelling or spending time outside. Solar charging can help with some of these challenges by enabling smartphones to recharge under sunlight. Researchers are also exploring other materials to replace lithium-ion (e.g. graphene) in batteries to provide extra power for the ever-growing size of smartphone displays.
Smartphone displays are getting bigger and better with ultra-high screen resolutions that are sometimes even stronger than the human eye. Some manufacturers are already working on 4K ultra HD displays (3840 pixels wide by 2160 pixels tall). With the screen sizes getting larger, the distinction between a smartphone and tablet is becoming less clear. Some smartphones are even called phablet, a new category between smartphones and tablets, by newspapers and tech blogs.
A bigger jump in display technology will be through the use of flexible screens. There are already prototypes of 5-inch flexible displays or 50 inch curved televisions from several companies. One benefit of flexible displays would be fitting a tablet size screen on a small smartphone body. Users will be able to slide or unfold the display of a typical size (e.g. 4-inch) smartphone, and convert it to an 8-inch tablet. Companies are still looking for a good use case for flexible displays in daily life. Some applications of the smartphones with flexible displays make them closer to wearable devices. Some of them have appeared as watches or bracelets.
Another development in display technology is transparency. There are already prototypes of transparent displays in various sizes and forms. Transparency is important for heads-up displays and some models where seeing the background is necessary. This technology will allow displays on glasses, contact lenses, windows, and windshields. An obvious application of the transparent displays in cars is a GPS navigation system on the windshield . This will open a full immersive experience by showing directions directly positioned on the road, virtual signs on the sidewalks, and even augmented information about companies and addresses directly on the walls of the buildings. Imagine seeing a large virtual menu or information panel with available seats, business hours, and prices on the wall of a restaurant. While the transparent displays are already available in various prototypes, the main challenge is achieving transparency in electronics and other components in a smartphone.
Even with flexible displays, you may not be able to carry and fold a 50-inch display into typical smartphone size. A major shift from increasing the display size will come via the use of pico-projectors. A smartphone, with a decent display size (e.g. 5 inch) for everyday use, can be turned into a full size (e.g. 50-inch) media consumption system with an integrated pico-projector. Although there are prototypes of pico-projectors embedded into smartphones, there are still many technical limitations in projection size, brightness, battery life, and cost of components.
While larger displays provide a better experience for users, the consumable content is mostly 2-dimensional. Even though there are games and movies designed and recorded in 3-dimensional environments, they still cannot provide a true 3D experience. All of this 3D content is projected onto a 2D screen in smartphones. There are prototypes giving the 3D effect by providing 2 separate images to both eyes by using a stereoscopy or parallax barrier. These technologies have limitations in field of view, viewing angle, interactivity, and distance of viewer. Researchers can create a pseudo 3D experience via head tracking, using camera or sensors to provide a glass-free experience. This allows users to see a different perspective of the scene on the phone by looking from different angles. The technology is still in its early steps with limited applications and hardware support for the full immersive experience and interaction.
The keyboard is main point of interaction in smartphones. One of the major changes in smartphones was eliminating the physical keyboard on the phone. Now most of the front face of the phone is covered with the display. Multi touch displays provide on-screen keyboard for text input. While they are similar in size, on-screen keyboards allow customization for different languages, use cases, and applications. On-screen keyboards try to imitate the haptic feedback through vibrations, but still cover almost half of the screen during typing. There are prototypes with air-inflatable buttons in real 3D forms using a transparent layer on the screen to provide realistic haptic feedback. The size of the keyboard is the main limitation for smartphones. A new prototype eliminates even the on-screen keyboard using laser projection. A small device projects a full size virtual keyboard on a flat surface like table using lasers, and tracks finger movements for recognizing key inputs. This allows both customization and experience of a full size keyboard, while making the screen fully available for other functions on the phone.
While the main input point for the phone is through virtual or on screen keyboards, a smartphone actually gets many inputs from outside through sensors. The full potential of these phones can only be achieved through new technological sensors in the phone. GPS and compass sensors allow navigation and direction capabilities, and replace the need for a GPS device for most users. Many smartphones are now listed as the most used camera devices on photography websites, and are getting closer to the quality of a DSLR camera with new image sensors. Proximity sensors understand the distance between device and user, and allow the device to turn off the display during phone calls to reduce battery usage. Accelerometer and gyro sensors provide new inputs for gaming and user interaction. Barometer, temperature, humidity, gesture, fingerprint, and heart rate sensors are becoming part of many smartphones. Researchers are already experimenting with ultrasound  and x-ray scanners  for smartphones, and we are getting one step closer to the Star Trek tricorder, a general-purpose science fiction health diagnosis device.
The future of smartphones is almost unlimited. We have already seen novel technologies introduced for smartphones as prototypes and concept designs. We can easily extend the list with intelligent assistants, nano-coating for waterproofing and self-cleaning, seamless integration of voice controls and augmented reality, environmental and medical sensors, and 3D and holographic displays. I can't wait to see some of these technologies integrated into smartphones in the near future.
While smartphones revolutionized the way we communicate and how we carry out many of our daily tasks, at the same time they are challenging our privacy, safety, behavioral codes, social life, and the use of public space. The problems and discussions will not end here, and they are growing with the introduction of new sensors and capabilities. Increasing awareness through education about the security and privacy risks that smartphones present is the first step for protecting users from future problems. Parents and educators have a critical role for raising responsible generations, and they can start with becoming a good role model  on how they use their smartphones...
Acknowledgment: This article is produced at Mergeous , an online article and project development service for authors and publishers dedicated to the advancement of technologies in the merging realms of science and spiritual thought.
- Darrell Etherington. 2013. "Cota By Ossia Aims To Drive A Wireless Power Revolution And Change How We Think About Charging," September.
- Jared Newman. 2013. "GPS on Your Windshield: Garmin Brings Navigation HUDs to Regular Old Cars," Time Magazine, July.
- "Ultrasound scan and health check using your smartphone," BBC News, December 2013.
- James Plafke. 2013. "Tiny terahertz chips can give smartphones X-ray vision, tricorder-like functionality," ExtremeTech, July.
- Larry Magid. 2012. "Smartphone Guide for Parents of Tweens and Teens," SafeKids.com, August 2012.
- Mergeous, Online article and project development service, mergeous.com.