The Rise of Mobility : and the Disappearing Mobile Phone (Part 3)

Why the Mobile Phone will disappear.

We’re currently seeing inter-connected devices proliferating around us.  Our personal device(s) are interacting in real time with more and more connected “things” around us giving rise to the – the Internet of things
Simultaneously, the next phase of connectivity is commencing where we’ll start to adopt connected devices worn on us – and within us all interconnected with other devices around us.  The era of intra-connectivity.
Whilst in our inter-connected era, functionality has become concentrated into one device, in the intra-connected era new and some existing functionality will be again become a diffuse array of digital elements forming an intra-connected, self organising network.
In terms of the number of personal devices we carry around, we may currently be at the neck of the hour glass.
As minaturisation progresses devices will become increasingly unobtrusive and specialised in areas such as:
  • Visual interface – Screen(s)
  • Audio – interactive voice
  • Touch – typed input and screen interaction
  • Sensors – getting to know you (intimately)
  • Memory – who remembers phone numbers anymore?
  • Computer Power – faster, better stronger (& much smaller)
  • Juice – batteries and ambient charging
  • Connectivity – Wifi, bluetooth, 4G and beyond.
Over time, as advances are made in all of these areas, we’ll progress towards persistent ambient connectivity where (if we can afford the technology) we’ll become seamlessly and deeply intra-connected with things and people in our physical and virtual environments.
But first things first.  Why will the mobile phone as we know it will disappear?  If we take a look at just one of these items – the screen – you’ll start to get a more complete idea of where all of this is heading:

1. Flexible Screens

The primary design consideration, for today’s Smart Phone is the screen.  The phone has evolved from being a voice only “dumb phone” to become a personal audio-visual connectivity device designed around a  flat, thin, rectangular screen with everything else (GPS, Audio, connectivity, CPU, power, sensors etc) packed around and behind it.  This is about to change. 
Samsung and LG have recently set up production lines for flexible OLED screen technology which will enable foldable mobile devices and digital paper.
Once mass produced screens become rollable and foldable, the phone will no longer be constrained to the standard rectangular “biggest-sized-screen-that-you-can-fit-in-your-hand” form factor, which the industry has settled on for the moment.
With new screen technology it’s likely that the device industry will again experiment with new form factors for hand held connected screens.

2. Wearable Screens

Concurrent with the development of hand held screens, wearable screens are also on the way. This is a nascent field, however some early examples are available today:
Epson recently released their Moverio Wearable Display (below).  It’s an early stage device that has a wired remote control and, for now at least, is only extra-connected – i.e. it connects directly to the internet via WiFi but doesn’t inter-connect with a users existing smartphone or apps. So no access to – or interaction with:
  • personal connectivity – voice calls, SMS, IM, Skype, twitter etc.
  • owned content – audio, video (paid for or otherwise)
  • personal content ecosystems – spotify, iTunes, Amazon, Google Play etc.
Last month, Google showed off their Google Glass project which houses a mini screen in a spectacle frame just above eye level…
Now, I should mention here that interface devices have a patchy history.  For example Bluetooth headsets provide hands free voice communication and yet they haven’t hit mass market adoption for a number of reasons. Firstly, as voice communication is interactive, they can confuse people in the vicinity, or irritate them with half a conversation.  Secondly, as with anything new that stands out and looks different,  they can quickly become either cool, or not cool.
Because watching a video or viewing an AR overlay is generally a passive activity, some of this shouldn’t be such a problem for digital glasses.  Although I can imagine that talking to someone who’s staring distractedly up at their Google Glass screen will quickly become quite tiresome.

3. Integrated Wearable Screens

There are some concept-stage projects which will quickly push this tech forward.  A UK company, TPP, have developed glasses (below) which project augmented reality heads-up images onto clear glass, blending virtual information into the real life images around us – and unbeknownst to the people we are talking with in real life. This may be less obtrusive and therefore more immediately acceptable, however, this depth of integration also poses deeper questions about personal interaction which’ll need a whole other blog post.
Further out, research is underway to place this heads up video display into contact lenses to be worn on the eye.
This technology is still at the research stage and is being led by university labs such as the University of Washington.
This diagram below (courtesy of  ECN Mag) provides an idea of some of the component parts that are being squeezed onto a lens.
Models currently being tested typically number just tens of pixels, however even at this early stage, this technology promises huge advances for the blind and partially sighted. 
In a related development digital contact lenses are also showing promise as health sensors for chronic diseases such as Diabetes and Glaucoma. Many other medical sensor implants are in early stage development heralding still more intra-connectivity in the making. (I’ll cover more on bio-implant sensors separately).
It’s worth noting that a lead researcher at Washington University, Babak Parviz, recently joined the Google Glass project, providing an indication of how seriously digital contact lens technology is being taken and where the google project may be headed.

Bio-Implanted Screens

Finally, as a race, we humans strive for convenience.  For example, for the short or long sighted, contact lenses and spectacles are an inconvenience that can be done away with by undergoing LASIK laser eye surgery. Despite considerable controversy, concerns and an ongoing USA FDA reappraisal of the risks, LASIK laser eye surgery continues to gain popularity, with millions worldwide having had the operation.
As crazy as it may sound now, once millions of us are using digital glasses and digital contact lenses – it won’t be a huge leap to move from the idea of corrective eye surgery to a desire for digital implant eye surgery – once, of course, the technology is perfected. My guess would be that it’ll be at least generation or two from today.

Why does this herald the end of the phone as we know it?

Well, as I mentioned, the shape and design of the smartphone in your pocket is defined by the limits of current technology, especially the flat rectangular screen.  Once we’re wearing screens either as glasses or contact lenses (or possibly even implants), the utility of having a second large screened “phone” always with us will gradually become less and less essential over time.
When the screen becomes decoupled – but intra-connected – to everything else that we currently carry with us in a phone (data connectivity, audio interface, touch interface, Sensors, CPU, power etc.), the phone form factor will be freed up.  With nano-minaturisation, many of these other functions are themselves undergoing radical changes which will enable them to become distributed as separate wearable – or even bio-implanted – devices.  And all intra-connected.
Trying to forecast the when and the how of digital interaction is like forecasting where a wave breaking on a beach will carry individual grains of sand. We know know that the sand will shift, just not quite where to. 
The emergence of this next era of intra-connectivity will create epic opportunities for advancement for human kind. These will doubtless be accompanied by uncomfortable cultural adjustmentslegislative concerns and some serious ethical dilemmas.
On the plus side, it’ll take us a while to see most of this happen, so luckily we have some time to get ourselves prepared.