Mobile phone of the future

Comment: What will your phone look like in ten years’ time?

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Today’s smartphones may boast responsive touch displays, high-definition cameras and facial recognition, but innovation using novel materials like graphene means there’s still plenty of room for further improvement.

Remember what a huge improvement predictive texting was on the multi-tap approach to writing messages on your phone? Mobiles have come a long way since then and advances in the industry aren’t slowing down. Some might say we have already witnessed the fastest rate of change in mobile devices, but arguably the best is yet to come.

With conversational interfaces such as Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa, spoken instruction is changing the way people use mobiles. However, have you ever seen someone in public say ‘Hey Google’ to their phone? Me neither. Perhaps there’s a cultural block that renders this socially unacceptable.

The next step could be mind control. Yes, seriously. Facebook’s Building 8 research division reportedly developed technology that enabled people to ‘type with their minds’ at a speed of 100 words per minute, roughly five times faster than typing on a touch display. Without using touch or voice, this kind of technology could allow a user to simply think what they want their phone to do, whether it’s opening an app, playing a video or sending a message.

With this idea in mind (pun intended), the future smartphone is likely to look vastly different from today’s. Rather than a physical handset, wearable devices and vision overlays could become that norm. Whether these are futuristic glasses, contact lenses or headsets, augmented reality technology would allow users to control all functions with their eyes and mind.

Brain-computer interfaces could even eliminate the need for a physical device. Researchers at ICN2 in Spain, one of the partners in Europe's Graphene Flagship research initiative, are developing graphene-based interfaces that can be used in physical implants capable of recording and stimulating brain signals for mobile applications.

Battery life is one area of mobile technology that seems to have taken a backwards step, as function-packed phones require more and more power. The days of charging a Nokia 3310 on a weekly basis are long gone, with phones today working harder than ever before. With continuous use, a typical smartphone lasts 9 hours 48 minutes, and takes around two hours to fully charge.

What if you could charge a battery in five minutes? Graphene Flagship partners Thales and M-SOLV, together with researchers from IIT, Italy, are in the process of making this a reality, taking advantage of qualities like graphene’s highly conductive properties. High-power graphene supercapacitors designed for use in the aeronautical and space sector provide industry with energy-storage devices that charge and discharge at high speed. It’s a development that could also benefit the mobile industry, enabling smartphones to become fully charged in just minutes.

Future phones could also be charged over the air using technology like that being developed by Energous which allow a phone to start charging automatically if it’s within a metre of a transmitter. As the technology improves and charging distances increase, phones could be kept constantly charged without the need for worry or wires.

Phone-case technology is complementing these efforts. The NanoCase for the latest iPhones contains a graphene panel that dissipates excess heat inside the phone quickly. The developers claim this extends the battery life by up to 20 per cent.

Imagine being in a supermarket, holding up your camera, and inferring which fruit is the freshest. Or, in a more extreme example, the camera could help you drive safely in foggy weather by providing augmented outlines of surrounding vehicles on your car’s windscreen. This idea is well on its way to becoming a reality.

A new spectroscopy device is opening the door for regular consumers to use technology that was once only available in laboratories. Graphene Flagship Partner ICFO in Spain has developed what is believed to be the world’s smallest single pixel spectrometer. Set to take the mobile industry by storm, the device is built into a smartphone camera, enabling it to see more accurately than the human eye and capable of identifying everything from counterfeit drugs to harmful substances within seconds.

I can’t talk about future phones without mentioning future mobile networks. 5G, the fifth generation of networks, is set to be far faster and more reliable than its predecessors, with greater capacity and lower response times. To enable these high speeds, graphene has a unique ability to help exceed bandwidth demand, enabling ultra-wide bandwidth communications coupled with low power consumption that will radically change the way data is transmitted across optical communications systems.

While we reminisce about the days of predictive text and old-school mobile devices, development in the mobile arena is far from stagnant. Mobile devices — or maybe even brain devices — are set to continue to change.

Sophie Charpentier is business developer for electronics for European Commission research project the Graphene Flagship.

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