Nokia concept

Future phones

E&T get a glimpse of the designs that mobile phones manufacturers think we'll be keeping in touch with in 2020.

Top-of-the-range smartphones are among today's most desired technological status symbols. Armed to the teeth with email, high-speed Internet access, PC synchronisation, digital still photography, audio and video capture and reproduction, television reception, removable storage, contactless payment, Bluetooth, Wi-Fi ,and GPS, today's smartphones are already as far removed from simple cellular voice devices as sportcars are from the humble hatchback.

But to project how future mobile devices will evolve based merely on all they can do today would be a mistake. "There is a tendency to overestimate the development of certain technologies in the long-run and underestimate them in the short-term," says Dr. Henry Tirri, head of systems research at the Nokia Research Centre. "The year 2020 is both interesting and challenging to look at, because that's exactly the zone where you can start making big errors in the logic of your predictions." The future will be weird, and it will be wacky.

Future vision

Still, there are a few trends that researchers have identified, which make imagining 2020 just that little bit easier. And it would be a mistake to think that the future is just about the glossy edge of technology. Current discussions about the feasibility of producing a $10 handset (no mean technical feat) for developing countries who are yet to subscribe to cellular services, for example, suggest that there will be more than four billion mobile phone users by 2020.

"Almost everybody in the world will own a device," predicts Tirri. "Handsets will be more prevalent than toothbrushes. In the future, mobile E F communications will probably be a $10 service, of which the handset will be a part; the hardware will become part of the service."

Teraflop speed

Another aspect we can predict with a fair degree of certainty is the processing power and storage capacity these portable devices will boast. Further development in multi-core semiconductor architectures will allow handsets to operate at teraflop speeds, making them considerably more powerful than existing desktop computers. Storage capacity is growing at an even faster pace, with one-terabyte-capable phones expected much earlier than 2020.

"They will also come equipped with much better graphic interfaces. But that's not going to be the interesting part," says Tirri. "The interesting part will be the multimodal interfaces, which will be non-graphic." Almost as a materialisation of the notion that the mobile phone is increasingly becoming an extension of its user's body, it will begin to see, hear, smell and perform a wide range of complex sensory activities that are beyond the reach of human beings.

Sensors will become one of the most critical components of these mini-super-computers. The things they will be looking to monitor can be grouped into three main categories: 1) bio-sensing (i.e. sensing your body); 2) sensing your surrounding environment; and 3) sensing particular forms of infrastructure around you.

Sensor phone

Nokia has recently unveiled a concept device that illustrates the role sensors will play in the first two categories. Codenamed ‘Nokia Eco Sensor', the phone will come equipped with a separate, wearable sensor unit that will be able to measure - among other parameters - atmospheric carbon monoxide levels, ground-based ozone levels, ultraviolet radiation, your own motion speed (for personal training applications), your heart-rate, environmental noise level, humidity, temperature and air pressure.

This army of sensors will one day warn you as soon as you're about to enter a hazardous environment. "I'm allergic to pollen," Tirri exemplifies. "I have difficulty in highly polluted cities. So I would find it particularly useful if my friendly device could warn me about visiting certain areas by performing measurements that I wouldn't normally do but that would help improve my quality of life."

As exciting as it may sound, these are all applications that already exist - albeit in multiple standalone forms, with the technologies they're based on not necessarily integrated yet into mobile phones. A much more interesting picture would emerge if one were to look at the same issue the other way round: using technologies already integrated into the phone to create inexistent, innovative applications.

In built senses

Practically all mobiles built these days come equipped with two specific pieces of hardware that are ideally placed to be exploited as powerful sensing tools: the camera and the microphone. When combined with image and audio recognition software, location tracking technologies and teraflop processing speeds, these familiar components will radically change the concept of mobile communications.

"A visual sensor such as a camera allows you to do tremendously beautiful things, some of which we have already demonstrated at research level," says Tirri. "These types of applications are progressing and developing into the new area of 'augmented mobile reality', where you can basically look at the real world through your camera-phone and virtually augment it through the information that you can get based on parameters such as where you are or what you're looking at."

It is only at this point that we can begin to grasp the world of possibilities that the third category of future sensor-related applications (sensing particular forms of infrastructure around you) will bring. "You will for example be able to look at a particular building and get all sorts of information about it; or a given shoe model at a shoe store; or look at a movie poster and get information about where the film is being shown, at what times, what the plot is, who stars in it, what sort of reviews it has received..."

With 4G cellular networks in 2020 routing data packets at over 1Gbit/s (as Japanese operator NTT DoCoMo's trials have recently demonstrated) and internal flash memory storing terabytes worth of data, there will be plenty of options when it comes to deciding where to locate the massive data bases that will be needed to retrieve the real-time augmented reality information. These could sit on servers on the Internet, or they could just as well reside inside the handsets for the most popular applications.

Intimate companionship

Apart from buildings' façades, retail products and advertising posters, other types of infrastructure which could be virtually augmented include full collections of art galleries and museums, surrounding traffic conditions (via dedicated radio systems), television and radio content, games, public events… the list is practically endless given that anything a pair of human eyes or ears can capture, so can their owner's camera-phone.

"This may sound like science fiction," says Tirri. "But one of my labs in Palo Alto, California, has been developing a technology called 'Point&Find', which basically works as a service whose information you access on the Internet by simply pointing to an object with your camera-phone and either - depending on the version - taking a picture of it that is used to apply intelligent pattern matching technology; or you can also do it via streaming video, moving your camera around and obtaining a real-time match of the image. This is possible because the network knows where you are thanks to the use of location tracking technology."

Point&find

The Point&Find system, announced by Nokia last October, stipulates the use of orientation sensors in the handset, which would allow service providers to tell even the direction towards which the device is pointing.

"It's about the merging of the physical and digital worlds," Tirri observes. "This integration will be used as the base for the provision of extremely personalised services. The mobile phone will become much more than just a tool to communicate; it will really be a device which will help you perform a series of functions that you'll be personally interested in.

"This future device will become a very close, extremely intimate companion to you. It will know a lot about who you are and what you're doing at any given time, and will then act like a very good secretary - someone who knows in advance what your preferences are, or who can reduce your information overload.

"I see these 2020 devices as personal assistants of a highly sophisticated nature. They can be a personal assistant in your shopping, in your business life, a personal travel advisor or a health advisor constantly monitoring your biomedical information. The features you then decide to activate will obviously depend on what you value most, what's closer to your heart," says the Nokia expert.

Only one question remains: will we still be calling this a mobile phone by then?

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