Phones Go Back To The Future

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I’m no fan of LG’s rear smartphone control keys — but turns out the company had its finger on the pulse of looming hardware disruption when it ushered in those backside smartphone controls last summer, with the G2.

Smartphone case-makers start quaking because all that unused real-estate on the rear of the proverbial handset — which, for years, you’ve been free to clad with lurid coloured plastic or rubber skins — is becoming a space to watch in its own right.

Hardware innovation that’s been forced to slow elsewhere, with the front of the phone becoming locked down with as near an edge-to-edge display as is technically possible, is moving in on the back of phones, an under-developed, mostly overlooked landmass ripe for spicing up.

Examples of interesting backside smartphone developments (for want of a better phrase) in recent times include some at the margins of the market, such as Jolla’s Other Half — an NFC-powered backplate that snaps onto the mobile-maker startup’s eponymous debut device (which went on sale in Finland last November) to allow users to customise the look and feel of their smartphone theme, thanks to the NFC connection betwixt the two.

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The NFC connection on the Other Half also allows users of the handset to get access to branded content, such as a news feed or product catalogue from an Angry Birds or Makia co-branded Other Half.

But the rear of Jolla’s handset also incorporates a power and a bus connector — meaning the back of the phone has been designed to be a much broader platform (with its own SDK) that developers can extend in multiple ways.

Ideas for Other Halfs (Other Halves?) floating around the Jolla community include incorporating sensors into the back of the phone so you could mute it by waving your hand over it.

Or adding an OLED display for notification info such as the time and battery percentage (as seen in the video below). Or even an RGB display that changes colour so the user can customise the look of their device without having to swap out the back plastic for another colour.

 

But perhaps the best example of backside smartphone innovation — still from the margins of the industry — is Russian smartphone startup Yota Devices, whose YotaPhone Android handset is a dual-screen device with an entire e-ink screen on its rear.

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The e-ink display allows for the rear of the YotaPhone to be used for additional and companion functionality, supplementing the standard smartphone playbook of apps and games and YouTube in your pocket, with a display that draws less power, and which can permanently show a piece of static content without drawing any power.

Longer-form text content can be sent to the back pane of the YotaPhone for easier on the eye reading that can also help extend the device’s battery life. (The next-gen YotaPhone, pictured above and below but not due to be released until the end of the year, will offer a Smart Power mode that enables the user to switch off the colour display entirely to keep the device going when battery levels are at critical. This mode will allow them to retain basic functionality, such as making calls and sending texts, by performing them on the e-ink touchscreen.)

The e-ink display can also be used to display notifications permanently, including a real-time dashboard showing sports scores, or even quantified health data. It also enables user customisation and personalisation of the device, by offering a canvas for displaying photos and wallpapers. Even if the phone’s battery dies, an e-ink imprint can remain — so it can also be used to retain a map or mobile ticket without having to worry about keeping the device juiced.

The first gen YotaPhone, which has the e-ink second display but without it being fully touch-enabled, went on sale in its sixth market, the U.K., back in March.

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Turning to larger players, Google’s Project Ara modular smartphone (actually inspired by Phonebloks and work being done at Motorola, the company since sold by Google to Lenovo), is another example of the rear of the phone becoming a canvas for change and creativity.

From the front, the forthcoming Ara handsets won’t look that different to any other standard smartphone. But turn them around and it’s a different story. Here the phone’s rear will be transformed into a mosaic for a user-choosable pick & mix of modules that will spec out the overall device’s functionality.

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It’s early days for Ara, with Google only just releasing an MDK for hardware developers to think about building these modules — and a commercial release not likely before Q1 2015 at the earliest. But the modular concept introduces more possibilities for extending the phone’s functionality — and for making the smartphone itself a more mutable tool in hardware as well as software terms.

You may not want to upgrade your entire phone just to get a heart rate monitor or a pulse oximeter or a geiger counter but, assuming this phone makes it to market, an Ara owner could hot-swap particular sensor components that make sense for them at a given time. Adding a geiger counter if they’re traveling somewhere where radiation levels may be higher than normal, for instance.

Ara clearly takes inspiration from the crowdfunding-powered trend to extend standard smartphones via additional connected/sensor hardware which either plugs in via the headphone jack, or connects wirelessly via Bluetooth. But instead of plugging new stuff into a port in the side of your phone, Ara deconstructs the entire handset — turning all that underused rear space into a modular mosaic and allowing the user to choose the bits and pieces that make most sense for them.

The Ara concept supports user-customisation at both a design and functionality level — and it’s all thanks to the remaining wiggle room on the back side of the smartphone.

Ara is undoubtedly massively ambitious, and may well prove a user flop, but again it’s interesting to see phone makers trying to do more with the least exciting surface of the modern smartphone.

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Even Apple, whose iPhone has had but the merest design tweaks over the years since launching in 2007, has been filing patents that could see some growths swelling on the rear of future iPhones.

Earlier this month it was granted a patent for bayonet mounts (pictured below) on the rear of the iPhone that could allow for swappable lenses in future. Other patents show Apple has also been exploring extensible iPhone cases and magnetic attachments — both for extending the camera.

These patents are nowhere near as radical as Ara, certainly, but it’s telling that even in Cupertino the unused space on the rear of the iPhone is being eyed up as a possible development plot where new hardware innovation could take root.

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Android OEM behemoth Samsung, meanwhile, has slapped a heart rate monitor on the rear of its latest flagship handset, the Galaxy S5. Again, it’s not a huge change to its standard smartphone formula — but it’s still telling placement for the sensor, utilizing what is otherwise mostly wasted space.

The rear of the smartphone has always been a resting place for our hands and fingers — and Samsung is making more of that passive touch by siting a sensor that requires contact with human skin on the backside of the device.

The advantage of that positioning is it’s easy for the user’s fingers to reach and does not eat into screen space, allowing for usage of the heart rate monitor not to impede the screen.

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HTC has not overlooked developments taking place on the rear of phones either. Its new flagship, the One M8, has two camera lenses on the back, extending the camera’s capabilities via twin imaging sensors.

These dual lenses can be used to improve the phone’s ability to recognise background and foreground portions of images to allow for filters to be applied differently to different portions of the picture. It also means the M8 can perform Lytro-style refocusing tricks on users’ photos, after the shutter has been clicked.

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Again, as with Samsung’s S5, there’s still an awful lot of wasted space on the M8’s rear. But radical changes tend to take place in the margins of a market, before they filter into the mainstream, so these small initial steps by mainstream mobile makers are what you’d expect.

HTC has also cooked up something more radical with an accessory for the M8: a case that allows users to view dot-matrix style notifications through the casing itself. Admittedly this does not enhance the rear of the phone — the active portion of the casing is a screen protector cover for the front of the device which works by relaying LED and touch-sensitivity from that front display through the protective casing.

But even though this development is not focused on the rear of the smartphone, it’s interesting nonetheless, as another example of phone makers thinking about how to do more with previously uninteresting surfaces — whether that’s the back of the phone, or, as below, the plastic cover of a protective screen casing.

HTC ONE

Making all surfaces smarter is the name of the game, here. The backside of the smartphone is just the most obvious candidate for upgrading, since there’s so much surface there — yet, in general, so little being done with that space.

Add to that, for certain smartphone users, the number of notifications pinging into view from the plethora of apps they have on tap is getting unworkable. Creative solutions for better managing ambient information transfer so that the main smartphone screen doesn’t get cluttered up with too many alerts makes plenty of sense.

In the hierarchy of information, certain apps and functions are always going to be more important than others. So here’s to lots more creative reworkings of the lesser seen side of smartphones — to better layer and manage the things we need our phones to do.