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Applications: Cell Phone Makers Becoming More Flexible

Photonics Spectra
Jan 2009
Melinda Rose, melinda.rose@laurin.com

Advanced touch screens, better and brighter displays, innovative software applications and high-speed Internet access are among the key features of the top-selling smart phones for 2009 (For more on 2009’s phone offerings, visit photonics.com), but the mobile multimedia devices of the future will not only be more flexible but also will be packed with features that help users reduce their carbon footprint and monitor their health or physical environment.

At the FPD (Flat Panel Display) International 2008 show, held in Japan in late November, Samsung showed a working prototype of a foldable mobile phone with an organic LED inside. The phone looks like a typical smart phone, with a display and function buttons, until it opens. The device opens like a book to reveal a much larger display inside, making it more appealing for playing movies or games, or, especially for Baby Boomers who simply find phone screens too small, for things like checking e-mail or watching video. Samsung hasn’t commented on when such a device will be available commercially.

CNPhone_04MorphWristMode.jpg

At left the Morph is shown in a bracelet configuration. Image courtesy of Nokia. On the right, the Readius, when fully open, features a 5-in. display for reading eBooks or newspapers, or checking e-mail. It also features audio capabilities for playing podcasts, audiobooks and music. Image courtesy of Polymer Vision.

A flexible display is also key to the Readius, Polymer Vision’s eBook that also has mobile phone capabilities. The pocket-size device uses a 5-in. rollable display that is larger than the device itself, and it provides 30 hours of reading on a battery charge. Because the screen is flexible enough to be rolled up, it isn’t in danger of forming creases with repeated opening and closing of the device. Readius is being introduced in Europe first and then will be marketed in other countries, such as the US, in 2009, say officials at Polymer Vision, a Netherlands-based spinoff of Royal Philips Electronics NV.

Morph, a joint nanotechnology concept phone developed by Nokia Research Center and the University of Cambridge in the UK, was launched in February 2008 to demonstrate how future mobile devices might be stretchable and flexible, or even transparent and self-cleaning, thanks to nanotechnology.

The company envisions Morph as being a versatile mobile device that can “morph” into shapes such as a wristwatch or fold to the size of a traditional handset at the user’s whim. It would contain “nanograss” structures that harvest solar power and tiny sensors that can examine the environment around the device, from analyzing air pollution to detecting chemicals. For example, the sensors could alert the user that the apple sitting next to the Morph should be washed before eating.

According to Nokia, within seven years elements of the Morph might be available to integrate into handheld devices, although initially only in high-end devices.

Nokia’s Eco Sensor Concept is a mobile phone and a sensing device. It consists of two parts: a wearable sensor unit that can sense the user’s health, environment, and local weather conditions and a dedicated mobile phone. The sensor unit will be worn on a wrist or neck strap made from solar cells that power the sensors. Near-field communication technology (NFC) will relay information by touch from the sensors to the phone or to other devices that support NFC technology.

The Eco Sensor and phone concepts by other manufacturers are also designed to be more environmentally friendly, with power generated by solar and other means, and with parts of the devices being more biodegradable. Emphasis will be put on reducing waste and reusing materials when the Eco Sensor is constructed, Nokia says, through the use of printed electronics, biomaterials and recycled materials.

Work is also being done to incorporate health and environmental awareness into cell phones via software applications.

Researchers at the University of Washington in Seattle and at Intel Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif., have created two new cell phone applications, dubbed UbiFit and UbiGreen, to track users’ workouts and document when they reduce their carbon footprint by carpooling, taking the bus and other eco-friendly means of transportation. The applications are part of a larger project at the university to use mobile computing in everyday activities and in achieving long-term goals such as fitness, said project leader James Landay, computer science and engineering associate professor.

Current versions of both applications use an external sensing device created by Intel that is clipped to the user’s waist. The sensor has an accelerometer that detects the user’s movements and wirelessly sends signals three times per second to the cell phone. The program could run on phones with built-in accelerometers, such as the iPhone and the Google Android G1, without the need for external equipment.

UbiFit and UbiGreen could be released to the public within the next year or two, especially as phones with built-in accelerometers become more common, Landay said.

“The last 30 years of personal computing has been in support of people sitting at their desks,” Landay said, “but the next wave will be these little computers that are with us all the time and have an understanding of our context in the physical world.”


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