Sneak a peek at the smartphone of tomorrow

What will your phone look like in ten years? We tour the design schools and research labs to discover the innovations coming to our mobile devices.

Fashion forward

Look around any gathering of people — anywhere at any time — and the utter ubiquity of smartphones is really quite startling. In just a few short years, the mobile phone has undergone a fast-forward evolution from a clamshell convenience to an omnipresent piece of communication technology. Considering that this transformation took only about a decade — the iPhone celebrated its 10th anniversary this summer — it stands to reason that the next 10 years are going to be interesting.

Here we take a look at ten areas of technology and design that will most likely inform the smartphone of tomorrow — and by tomorrow we mean five to fifteen years out. We're deliberately staying away from near-term developments — the specs on next year's phone cameras, say. And we're also avoiding the larger adjacent technologies that would require lists of their own — like artificial intelligence, virtual reality, real-time translation or advanced battery systems.

Instead, these are the core emerging technologies lurking in cutting-edge research labs and design departments, the developments that are most likely to make their way to your smartphone in coming years. Nobody can really forecast the future, but click through the following slides and you can get a pretty good idea of what's coming down the pike.

Human Media Lab at Queen’s University

Get bent

Bendy screens are probably the most imminent, and most likely, fundamental design change you'll see coming to smartphones in the next few years. Bendy might seem like an imprecise term, but it's actually the emerging technical designation for a range of display technologies currently in development. The displays rely on advanced materials like flexible OLED screens, which can be rolled up like a magazine or unfolded like a map.

It's safe to assume that every major phone manufacturer currently has bendy display systems gradually evolving in the labs — more on that in a bit. But for an intriguing variation on the theme, check out the ReFlex prototype smartphone unveiled a few months back by researchers at Queen's University in Ontario, Canada.

The ReFlex is being touted as the world's first flexible smartphone that combines traditional multitouch technology with haptic input and feedback — based on the very act of bending your phone. For instance, if you bend the edges downward, the pages of your virtual book will flip from right to left. Of course, you could just get a paperback and do the same thing, but we're trying to invent the future here, OK? 


Folding phones

Taking the bendy concept to the next logical place, several major manufacturers are working on phones that fold and unfurl in weird and wonderful ways. You're likely to see these soon enough. Rumor has it that Samsung's hotly anticipated folding phone — the Galaxy X — will have a limited production run later this year.

Details are scarce, but previous prototype demos and patent filings suggest that the Galaxy X will fold up like a wallet, with a flexible OLED display on the inside. Open it up, and the bendy screen pops into a traditional rectangular shape, effectively the doubling screen size. The company is also said to be working on a larger version that essentially unfolds into a 7-inch tablet.

Competitors including Lenovo, Nokia and LG and are getting bent, too. Lenovo's audacious flexible phone the CPlus — pictured here — morphs from traditional rectangle into a kind of 21st-century slap bracelet. Several prototypes made the rounds at last year's Tech World conference in San Francisco.


Once we get past bendy displays, future phone design starts to get decidedly sci-fi. Hologram technology is probably the single most popular science fiction trope that has yet to be actualized in the real world, on phones or anywhere else. And yet movies and TV shows keep promising us this eye-popping future where truly freestanding holograms project upwards from our desktop or wrist.

Actually, we're closer to this technology than you might think. In fact, depending on how you define your terms, holographic phones are already here. Queen's University's Human Media Lab — the same folks behind the ReFlex phone — have developed the HoloFlex phone, a kinda-sorta holographic display that renders 3D images from any angle, without the use of glasses. The HoloFlex uses a standard HD display at 1920 x 1080 resolution, but equivalent resolution of 3D images themselves is extremely low — a very blurry 160 x 104 pixels.

Scientists at Australian National University are working on a nanotech solution to the resolution issue, and one intriguing video out of South Korea suggests that optical engineers there are getting tantalizingly close to genuine projected holograms. For another bleeding-edge development, check out this recently unveiled hologram sphere from the University of Rochester.


Modular phones

A perennial complaint about smartphones is that they're not really fixable or customizable in any practical sense. If something inside your phone breaks, that means your phone is broken.

An accelerating design movement out of Europe hopes to remedy the situation by creating a future of fully modular phones. Phonebloks isn't a platform or manufacturer, it's an idea — an idea to make phones easier to repair, upgrade and recycle by allowing users to swap in the components that they want. Founded by Dutch designer Dave Hakkens, Phonebloks incorporates concepts of open-source design and circular economy principles to make phones more user- and eco-friendly.

Manufacturers including Motorola and LG have already issued phones featuring mild riffs on the modular concept, but design dilemmas and economic concerns have so far prevented a fully modular smartphone approach. Perhaps the most well-known attempt at a modular phone, Google’s Project Ara, was scrapped last fall.


Self-healing phones

Is there anything more melancholic than a crack on your phone display? I submit that there is not. It's inevitable that the crack will expand and spiderweb out, and you know there's nothing you can do about it. It's rather existential, really.

But maybe your phone itself can do something about it. In April of 2017, researchers from the University of California, Riverside, unveiled a new self-healing material that can stitch itself back together when scratched or even fully cracked. The stretchable, transparent material can also conduct electricity, which is a critical function when used in touchscreen phones and other devices. Previously, self-healing materials have been used on smartphone casings, but getting the screen to heal itself has remained elusive.

Interesting side note: The chemical engineer who invented the self-healing material — Dr. Chao Wang — was inspired by the extraordinary healing powers of the superhero Wolverine from Marvel Comics. That's one to grow on, kids — when you've got homework to do, make sure to read those comic books first.

Next-gen input devices

For both business and personal use, messaging is maybe the single busiest application of the smartphone. As such, a challenge with smartphone design is the simple matter of inputting words for email and texts. And yet, aside from voice recognition, there hasn't been much progress in this area. We're still stuck in the basic mode of using our thumbs to work those tiny onscreen keyboards. Some people are very good at this. Most of us aren't.

The smartphone of tomorrow will almost certainly offer a range of alternate techniques that let you input words and commands more quickly and accurately. One of the more intriguing ideas comes from MIT Media Lab, which proposes using temporary digital tattoos to make your own skin an input device. Printed in conductive gold-leaf, the DuoSkin tattoos are applied just like kids' temporary tattoos, but can communicate wirelessly with your smartphone.

DuoSkin tattoos essentially function as those user interface devices you're already used to — buttons, sliders or trackpads — and could potentially be used to create an entire printed keyboard on your forearm. There's an aesthetic bonus too — the tattoos look surprisingly cool.

For further variations on the input theme, check out MIT's Fabric Keyboard, Haptic Edge Display and gesture recognition technology.


Wireless charging

In the future, charging your smartphone battery via wall outlet will feel as archaic as using an acoustic coupler. (Grandma, grandpa, you remember that routine?) Smartphone manufacturers are acutely aware that people hate cords, and are working on various ways to wirelessly charge your phone.

Existing wireless charging systems rely on a technology called resonant inductive coupling, which has been around quite a while. Nikola Tesla was tinkering with this stuff in the 19th century. You still need to plug these charging pads into a wall, but engineers are already designing a future in which your phone will recharge itself in your pocket. For example, engineers at the University of California, Berkeley recently unveiled a high-performing stretchy battery that can be threaded directly into clothing, gathering solar power and/or kinetic energy as you walk around, then piping it wirelessly into your phone.

The Berkeley battery is just one of many systems in development aiming to harvest ambient wireless power for phones and wearables. Fans of the sci-fi classic The Matrix will want to look into the growing field of nanogenerators that literally use the human body as a biological battery for machines. For realsies.


Biohacking options

When prognosticating about the future of any given technology, it's always good to keep in mind that some researchers work entirely outside of established academic and corporate systems. In the realm of biotechnology, these brave souls and citizen scientists often experiment on themselves as a way to shortcut government regulations around testing and clinical trials.

Which brings us to the issue of biohacking and the possibility that we may listen to our future smartphones with surgically implanted permanent earbuds. Just a couple years back, biohacker Rich Lee made headlines when he had sound-transmitting magnets implanted in his ears and wirelessly connected to his mobile media player. Lee's homemade DIY rig includes an amplifier and battery pack concealed in a coil necklace, but the earbud itself is barely visible.

For many of us, earbuds or headphones are an essential part of day-to-day smartphone use. So it stands to reason that researchers are coming up with interesting riffs on the earbud template. The Florida-based startup Nervana is currently selling a battery-powered earbud rig that sends gentle electrical pulses into the ear canal, stimulating the vagus nerve to biohack feelings of contentment and serenity. Can't argue with that.


Telepathic smartphone control

Surely the ultimate in user interface options, a telepathic smartphone linkup sounds like science fiction. But once again, we can dutifully report that the research labs are doing some amazing work. In fact, scientists are getting ridiculously close to actually pulling this one off.

Advanced brain-computer interface technology, or BCI, would solve many of the most pressing input problems that smartphones have today — in particular, typing. In February of 2017, researchers at Stanford University unveiled a system that allows patients with spinal injuries to type words on a computer screen, via direct brain control, at up to 39 characters per minute. Two aspirin-sized electrode arrays, placed directly on the brain, record signals from the motor cortex and translate them into point-and-click commands on an onscreen keyboard.

The Stanford study was a major milestone for helping people with disabilities, but researchers say the system could also applied to smartphones without much modification. Surgery is optional, by the way: BCI electrodes are more accurate when surgically implanted, but they can also work via electrical leads placed on the scalp. In fact, such biosensors are already on the market for developers making brainwave-controlled apps.

Whither the future?

When speculating on the nature of tomorrow's smartphones, it's a good idea to look at form as well as function. Engineers, computer scientists and physicists will be inventing the phones of the future, but artists and industrial designers will ultimately determine what we're holding in our hands.

The online gallery Tuvie is a great place to sneak a peek at what the future will look like. Designed as a kind of virtual exhibition space for artists and designers, Tuvie has thousands of pages of concept images and proposals from students and professionals all over the world. Click around the phone category and you'll find all manner of fashion-forward ideas on what tomorrow will bring. Consider, if you will, the Alo phone pictured above, submitted by French designer Jerome Olivet.

Olivet's concept phone folds in many of the technologies we've already discussed, including holographic display technology, self-healing materials and haptic feedback options. The Alo phone is strictly an idea at this point, but it's one of many visions that may ultimately inform the Smartphone of Tomorrow.