Animated character with mobile phone

Handset vendors get hardware options

New hardware options will reshape what mobile devices do and how they do it, E&T found out at Mobile World Congress.

Mobile handsets get a lot of prominence at Mobile World Congress (MWC) in Barcelona each February: it's a great place for manufacturers to introduce their wares to operators and to create some consumer buzz. This year Samsung stole the show with the Wave handset, based on its bada operating system, TouchWiz user interface and a gorgeous 800 x 480pixel active-matrix OLED screen. If you've seen one of those over-lit, over-saturated show reels they use in shops to persuade you of the quality of the latest HDTVs, then you get the idea.

Finished handsets are fine, but they're, well, finished. With a bit of trawling around MWC you get a sense of how future handsets could look and act if manufacturers take up some, or even all, of the technology on show. Briefly put, you can expect quite a lot of strangeness from future handsets - and a certain amount of Adam and the Ants stylings from their users.

Touchy feely

The envelope of a mobile phone is going to become much more than a box to keep the insides in. Touch interfaces are now de rigeur, so companies such as Corning are offering a toughened material (dubbed Gorilla glass) that is much less scratchable than the polycarbonate used on many screens. Motorola has used the glass on its Droid touchphone and other manufacturers are likely to follow suit - a scratched screen quickly takes the shine off a new phone.

Synaptics was also at MWC to show that touch sensitivity doesn't have to be limited to the screen. The company brought a technology demonstrator that was loaded with sensors on its front, back and sides, so that you could flick through an onscreen photo album by swiping the back of the phone with your finger, or scroll through a Web page by stroking the device's edge. The screen-side sensors also measured pressure, so users could answer a call just by squeezing the phone. 3D accelerometers tracked position and attitude so that onscreen widgets could be 'turned over' to access their settings simply by tipping the phone. And tactile feedback systems meant that the phone could be made to buzz for 'yes' or 'no', depending on the software. Given that this was a technology demonstrator, it made sense that it had so many capabilities. As a user experience, though, it felt like carrying a live fish through a video arcade. Less will probably turn out to be more.

User interfaces

Displays are advancing too. The Samsung AMOLED screen was as good as has been reported and may provide a defensible point of technology differentiation for those manufacturers who can get hold of these displays - at least for a while. Meanwhile, Qualcomm has been plugging away with the development of its Mirasol display, which uses a system of MEMS shutters to allow white light into chambers that have been tuned to reflect red, green or blue wavelengths (Qualcomm makes much of the analogy with the way a butterfly's wings iridesce). The technology demands a lot of dimensional stability in the backplane to ensure that the light wells remain tuned to the right wavelengths, as well as the manufacture of large areas of MEMS shutters. But the result is a colour display lit with ambient light, which only draws power when changing. Qualcomm was showing off a 5in diagonal screen and, if it can scale the technology to A5 or A4 size, it may become a vital part of the next generation of e-readers.

More sophisticated ways of getting information into phones are also emerging. Google has offered a search app for the iPhone that relies on voice recognition for a while and it is surprisingly successful. What's more interesting, however, is the notion of using cloud-based computing resources, in this case Google's search engine, to achieve things that are beyond the processing power of today's handsets.

Voice recognition may be improving, especially when enhanced with cloud resources, but keyboard entry is still far from dead. Swype showed off an ingenious system for touchscreens in which users connect the letters of a word in one continuous stroke of the on-screen keyboard. Software does the rest. As usual with these systems, it's a question of trusting the tool to do the job rather than second-guessing it. If you can do that, Swype works. Back in the physical realm, Pelikon was showing a configurable keyboard system that can change the legend on a key depending on how it is being used, so a landscape QWERTY keyboard becomes a gaming pad, and then a phone keypad when a call is being made.

Wireless charging is also gaining ground, although most of the chargers are still sleeves rather than a full integration of charging coils into the body of the device. This may be about to change - a couple of companies claim to be working with handset makers and others to integrate the technology. For example, Fulton Innovation was on the TI stand with a mock-up of the transmission tunnel from a 2011 model-year car, which was bristling with wireless charging positions - on a slope in front of the gear stick where you might put your phone, in the cubbyhole between the seats, and so on. As the stand demonstrator put it: 'When you go to bed at night these days you know you have to do two things: clean your teeth and charge your devices. We want to get away from charging being such an event.'

Power up

Several of the chip companies used this MWC to launch gigahertz phone chips - the Samsung Wave uses one. These chips are going to make a lot of processing power available to mobile handset designers, but at an energy cost that is likely to make the ability to 'graze' for power during the day more important.

For example, TI announced sampling of its 1GHz OMAP 4,which includes two ARM Cortex A9 processing cores and a host of application-specific functional accelerators. TI's OMAP3 provided the heart of a number of handsets announced last year, including Motorola's Android-based Droid; the Samsung Omnia HD, which offered high-definition video encoding and decoding; and the Sony Ericsson Satio, which included a 12Mpx still camera.

TI was pushing the extra horsepower of the OMAP 4 chips as enabling functions such as 3D user interfaces, 3D video recording and playback, multiple display support and even gesture recognition in the user interface. Apparently gesture recognition is particularly processor intensive because it is hard to distinguish gestures from changes in background lighting. Certainly the demonstrator was making some very definite forearm-across-the-eyes moves to get the handset to recognise his intent. If you see squads of what appear to be Dandy Highwaymen posing their way down the street in the next few years, don't worry - it's more likely that they're playing virtual tennis than starting an Adam and the Ants revival.

Of course, there's a fair chance that you won't be in any doubt as to what they are doing. TI, among others, was showing off handsets including miniature projectors, in TI's case based on micromirror technology. These projectors can now deliver around 12 lumens of light output for a power consumption of 1W. It may not sound much, but is almost certainly enough to ensure that when the kids at the back of the bus play virtual tennis, you'll end up watching. TI also raises the prospect of combining 3D recording and playback with gesture recognition and pico-projectors to enable applications as yet unimagined.

It was left to TI to bring many of the technology options for future handsets together in its Blaze development platform, a book-sized handset sporting two 9.4cm touch-sensitive WXGA screens; HDMI output for third-screen support; two 5Mpx cameras on the front plus a 12Mpx camera on the back with flash; a full QWERTY keyboard; pico-projector; accelerometer, compass, ambient light, proximity, barometric and temperature sensors; support for multiple digital microphones, stereo speakers and audio outputs; and a single chip with Wi-Fi, GPS, Bluetooth and FM radios. The platform has a plethora of other interfaces, including a SIM socket, memory card slot, USB and various forms of debug information.

This is clearly the kitchen sink of mobile phone platforms, offering a vast range of hardware as well as support for most key mobile operating systems. Quite what developers will make of it remains to be seen, but with the pace of development in the mobile device market, we shouldn't have long to wait too long to find out.

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