The Future of the Smartphone: How Things Will Change in 5 Years

The Future of the Smartphone: How Things Will Change in 5 Years

5 features that will revolutionize your smartphone in the next 5 years.

Stop for a moment. Reach into your pocket and pull out your phone. Take a long hard look at it. If you were reading this 5 years ago you would quite literally be pulling out a “phone” — a device whose primary purpose was telephony (a system that converts acoustic vibrations to electrical signals in order to transmit sound), not unlike Alexander Graham Bell’s first telephone from 1876. In the past 5 years the phone has evolved so drastically that calling it a phone is simply a misnomer.  We read news, write emails, check Facebook, listen to music, take pictures, and play games far more than we talk on our phones.  The iPhone was a game changer essentially revolutionizing the way we connect with the world, but also the way we connect with personal devices.

By relying on a large and precise touchscreen screen rather than an array of fixed buttons, the iPhone and subsequent smartphones became chameleon digital appliances, instantly transforming for any necessary function, be it a telephone, a thermometer, or calendar.  But what truly made the modern smartphone revolutionary was its combination of I/O (input/out), which allowed almost endless functional possibilities when combined with software.  The first iPhone featured a capacitive touchscreen, accelerometer, camera, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, microphone, speaker, light/proximity sensor, and a high-speed 30-pin data connector.  Future smartphones would add front-facing cameras for video-conferencing, GPS, gyroscopes, NFC (Near-Field Communication), and better/faster versions of pretty much every earlier feature.

So if this revolutionary transformation of the telephone all occurred in just the last 5 years, what will the next 5 years look like? What kinds of new features can we expect?  Given the fierce competition between iOS and Android, (and to a lesser extent Windows Phone and BlackBerry), and the disruptive growth of mobile devices, we’re certain to see some incredible progress.  Here are 5 features and improvements that will transform smartphones (again) in the next 5 years.

1.  The Screen

Given the incredible quality of current mobile screens, resolution will no longer be a selling point 5 years from now.  The idea behind Apple’s present “Retina Display” is that at a resolution of 326 ppi, the iPhone’s screen is sharper than the human eye can perceive.  Resolution has plateaued.  While screens will improve incrementally, we won’t see leaps and bounds in image reproduction.  However, current capacitive screens have one major shortcoming.  While they’re quite accurate, and can process multiple inputs at once, they cannot translate the quality of a touch.  They don’t know a gentle caress from a frustrated prod.  Not to get poetic about touchscreens, but without pressure sensitivity our current touchscreens are simply incomplete.  Just imagine the possibly of painting, or playing a game, or playing a musical instrument on a touchscreen that responds dynamically to input pressure.

There have been some workarounds and hacks.  For instance, GarageBand on the iPhone and iPad uses the device’s accelerometer to measure the force of the initial impact of fingers hitting the screen, and translates this data into virtual piano dynamics.  Unfortunately this technique wouldn’t work for a virtual paintbrush, which oscillates in pressure multiple times in the course of just a single stroke.  It’s a neat parlor trick, but it’s not a true pressure-sensitivity solution.

Another technique is the Wacom Tablet approach, which would use a stylus to measure pressure and then relays the data back to the device via Bluetooth.  This would be great for sketching and painting; but one thing we’ve learned in the past 5 years is that the masses don’t want to carry a stylus, especially one that would be bulky enough to house its own battery.

Given how mobile devices are rapidly turning into digital canvases, you can be sure that there are plenty of great minds devoted to making the perfect capacitive pressure-sensitive touchscreen.

2. The Camera

The smartphone has essentially killed off the point-and-shoot digital camera.  With current smartphones sensors ranging from 5-12 megapixels and shooting video at full 1080p HD, there’s no reason to carry around a dedicated device when you have a decent camera with you at all times.  Add to that the fact that smartphone cameras are connected to some of the most amazing filters and effects, and are completely social.  Just look at Instagram.

While smartphone cameras will surely improve in terms of ISO and megapixelage (a measurement which is becoming less and less important), the true leap will be the “Smart Camera.”  If you want to see a current example of a Smart Camera, just look at Microsoft’s Kinect.  Simply put, Kinect is the future.  I would argue that Kinect is Microsoft’s most revolutionary achievement, since Windows is derivative, and Office is… office.

It’s said that half of in-person communication is through body language.  Imagine a device understands who you are, and how you move in space.  Perhaps your phone looks at your face and based on your disposition plays the right tune to match your mood.  Or just as with Kinect, you can use your body to play and interact with your mobile device.

The technology is already there.  It’s just a matter of scaling it down and optimizing it for mobile devices.

3. Voice Control

The human voice is our most accurate, natural, and effective mechanism for communicating and interfacing with the world.  Consider that a newborn is prewired to communicate with sound way before it has any dexterity or physical control.  What’s more, most of us can hear a pitch and reproduce the exact frequency using our voice, without training or even knowing how we’re able to.  Think about it this way…  if I hum A440 — the note “A” on a keyboard with a frequency of 440hz – your brain is so sharp that it can literally count the frequency and make your vocal chords replicate it perfectly.  On the other hand, if I show you a basket of apples, the chances of you perfectly guessing how many there are after just a glace, are almost nil.  That’s the power of our vocal system.

We’re already seeing the power of Voice Control with Siri on the iPhone.  Rather than relying on commands, Siri uses “natural speech” – a technique that interprets diction and syntax the same way people do, rather than responding to the pattern of a sound wave like older voice-recognition systems have.

While Siri is great for some things, Voice Control is still in its infancy and has a ways to go.  Even Apple acknowledges this much.  Siri is technically in Beta, despite being one of the key features and selling points of the iPhone 4S.  This is quite unusual for the Cupertino giant which usually doesn’t release products until they’re fully baked.

Five years from now, Voice Control will always be on, always be listening, and ready to comply whenever needed.  It’s self-defeating if we have to use our hands to activate Voice Control, as we currently do.  Right now, another major bottleneck is data connectivity.  Siri has to record what the user is saying, send it to its servers for processing, then retransmit the results back to the device.  This makes sense if we’re searching the outside world for answers, but is redundant if we want Siri to do something locally, like playing a U2 song on the device.

Voice Control in the future will be an order of magnitude better either by way of faster network connectivity, or by a more efficient combination of local and cloud databases.

4. Projector

Ever since we saw R2D2 beaming Princess Leia’s desperate plea, we’ve beamed about the possibilities projectors would bring.  For the past several years, we’ve been hearing about video projectors entering our smartphones.  Texas Instruments has dramatically scaled down its DLP (Digital Light Projection) technology into what it calls Pico Projectors.  These projectors measure just millimeters in width and height.  The technology is not new, and even found its way into smartphones as far back as 2009.  However, the devices were bulky, suffered terrible battery life, and not surprisingly, didn’t catch on.

The future of projectors in smartphones and mobile devices is not simply about watching movies on a big screen when we go camping.  It’s about using the projector in concert with Voice Control and Smart Cameras to create fundamentally different interactive experiences with our smartphones and mobile devices.  Just imagine the possibilities for gaming if your smartphone is at once a big-screen TV, a game console, and a completely innovative controller akin to Kinect.  Or in the spirit of every futuristic sci-fi computer interface, imagine waving your hands through thin air to effect and move objects on screen.

One of the problems keeping this from happening is that we expect thinner and thinner smartphones.  While Pico Projectors have shrunk dramatically, they’ve been outpaced by the devices expected to house them.  Another limitation is luminance.  The smaller the projector, the less light it outputs.  A company called MicroVision has created a laser-based Pico Projector.  Using a laser not only provides higher luminance in a smaller package, but because laser is in essence concentrated light, the device does not require the added bulk of a mechanical focusing mechanism.  No matter where you beam from, the image is always in focus.  That’s a must for a device that will constantly be moved around.

5.  Inter-device communication

Every feature I’ve mentioned thus far pertains to how we will interact with our smartphones and mobile devices in the next 5 years.  But what of the devices themselves?  How will they communicate and interact with one another?  Right now, smartphones talk through systems like Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth.  Google has been fist to market with its NFC-based Google Wallet in some of its Android phones.  Google Wallet uses NFC, which is build using a technology called RFID (Radio Frequency Identification), as a payment method – swipe your phone instead of your credit card.  It makes sense integrating payment systems into smartphones.  The user is offered spatially/temporally relevant deals in exchange for metrics and insight into his or her consumption habits.  NFC can also be used pay bridge and subway tolls, as well as clock in to work.

But NFC must be used in close proximity to other devices, and is not a high-bandwidth conduit like Wi-Fi.  Wi-Fi and derivative systems like Apple’s AirPlay can be used to beam videos to TVs or music to portable speakers.  But while Wi-Fi (and AirPlay) is fast and getting even faster, one of its limitations is the need for a wireless router.  Basically, you can’t connect two devices directly to one another without having a wireless router in between.  Fortunately new standards like Wi-Fi Direct are emerging, which let devices communicate and transmit large amounts of data without the need for an intermediary wireless network.

Five years from now, you will be able to enter a store or restaurant and have access to a wealth of information without having to search for it.  Devices will recognize each other, and will automatically calibrate based on use-habits and context.  You may, for instance, walk into a clothing boutique and instantly receive a rendered video of not only what you would look like wearing their latest garments, but how you would look in various social settings – all compiled from for your photos and social network data.  Another example – you might be taking a stroll around your neighborhood.  When you get home, your smartphone will share with you all the things it has collected; an album from a music bar, a new recipe an Italian restaurant is showcasing, a short story a neighbor is sharing.  You get the idea.

Take another look at your “phone.”  Hardly a phone, is it?  These are just some of the things we can expect in the next 5 years.  It’s difficult to even imagine what we’ll have in 10 years, or 15 years, given how much things have changed in the last handful.  So, what do you think smartphones are going to look like in 5 years?