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Smartphones have advanced at a phenomenal rate since the original iPhone announcement. Resolutions are skyrocketing, processing power is growing rapidly. However, as the technology has advanced, it seems like the uses themselves have stagnated — we still use our smartphones almost exactly the same ways we did back in 2007.

There is, however, some technology on the horizon that could change how we use our phones in much more fundamental ways. Let’s start with something most of you probably haven’t heard of.

Depth Cameras

We’ve kind of hit a dead end with current phone cameras. Sure, manufacturers can tweak the optics, add more sensor resolution, and eke out better pictures — but it won’t change the user experience. Smartphone cameras are already good enough for everything they’re used for.

So where do manufacturers go from here? The answer is depth cameras. These aren’t just the gimmicky stereo cameras Create 3D Images With An Android Smartphone: It's Easier Than You Think Create 3D Images With An Android Smartphone: It's Easier Than You Think Android phones are increasingly shipping with powerful cameras with at least 8MP for their backside camera. Additionally, there are some phones such as the HTC Evo 3D which come with two cameras in the back,... Read More we’ve seen on the Nintendo 3DS and the Evo 3D. These are true depth cameras: they know the precise depth of each pixel in the image, and can extract 3D geometry from the image. This is the same technology used in the Kinect 2.0.

This is astounding. Using a technology called SLAM (short for Simultaneous Location and Mapping,’) your phone can extract a 3D map of the world and use it to figure out where you are in space, as well as identify real objects. Apps can use this for a lot of things, from new augmented reality games to furniture shopping, to a sort of ultra-precise GPS that can tell when you’re in a store, for instance, and guide you, step by step, to the location of the corn chips.

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Allowing smartphones to interact with the real world like this has countless 3D mapping applications Google Wants to Put a 3D Camera on Your Smartphone -- Here's Why Google Wants to Put a 3D Camera on Your Smartphone -- Here's Why Google's Project Tango is bringing 3d sensors to mobile devices. Here's what we know so far. Read More , and I can’t wait to see what developers come up with. The most promising version of this technology is Google’s Project Tango, which you can check out in the video above. So far, there are a few thousand Tango dev kits in the wild. While there’s been no official release date for the consumer version, the device could be on the market within a year or two.

Bendable Displays

Even as smartphones get thinner, they also get wider. We desperately want more interaction surface to work with, which is why products like the iPad are so popular. However, users only have so much pocket to work with, and carrying around a bag all the time is inconvenient for most people.

One approach to resolving this conflict are bendable displays Why Bendable Displays Would Be So Cool Why Bendable Displays Would Be So Cool Bendable displays are the future. Holographic displays would be more impressive, that's true, but that probably won't happen for a long while. Realistically speaking, flexible screen displays will be the next big revolution. Read More , which are OLED displays built on top of a flexible substrate which can be rolled or folded like paper. This lets manufacturers fit a large interaction surface into a small payload that you can easily carry with you.

Picture a smartphone-sized device that unfolds to be the size of an iPad, or even a newspaper. With a little effort, you can imagine a LOT of different form factors a mobile device could take to make use of flexible technology. Flexible displays may finally change up the “slate” form factor that’s defined smart devices for eight years.

The technology is still a few years out, but the research is already playing with curved, rigid displays, some of which may prove to be more durable or more ergonomic than traditional devices.

Modular Phones

Right now, phones one-size-fits-all. Everyone who buys a Galaxy S6 is buying the same processor, the same screen, and the same speakers. This is in contrast to the way we buy PCs. Even if you aren’t into the PC-hotrodding scene, most people still customize their PCs, with a faster GPU, a nicer screen, an ergonomic keyboard, big speakers, etc.

Bringing this kind of customization to the smartphone is at the heart of Project Ara Project Ara: How Your Next Smartphone Will Be Built by You Project Ara: How Your Next Smartphone Will Be Built by You You buy an expensive device and it runs perfectly for eighteen months. Then it gradually starts to get a bit slower, and the storage fills up, and the battery doesn't last as long. Read More , Google’s new initiative to transform smartphone components into Lego blocks: self-contained units which can be mixed and matched, and upgraded in place.

It would work something like this: consumers would buy a cheap smartphone skeleton, with slots for various modules. Those modules would contain processors, speakers, memory, batteries, and the like. These modules could then be replaced and upgraded, without having to get rid of the rest of the phone, and with no special tools or expertise.

This allows for consumers to take much finer control of their smartphone experience. If you want a nice camera or a huge battery, you can prioritize that. Ditto for more exotic features like a high-end speaker, or a retinal scanner. This new paradigm allows for smartphones to do more diverse things, because not everyone needs to be able to use a feature for it to exist. It also puts users in a position of more power, letting them mix and match components between manufacturers to get the best possible device.

Virtual Reality

Let’s talk about something a little more fundamental. A smartphone is a widescreen HD OLED display, connected to a computer that’s a bit faster than a last-generation console. You might recognize this as about 90% of the hardware needed to provide a convincing VR experience. The rest (head tracking hardware and some basic optics) can be purchased, right now, in the form of the Gear VR, Oculus VR’s mobile offering Samsung and Oculus Announce "Gear VR" Mobile VR Platform Samsung and Oculus Announce "Gear VR" Mobile VR Platform Samsung executives and Oculus CTO John Carmack got up on stage to finally talk about a secretive project they've been toiling away at for the last year called "Gear VR." Read More . While the headset currently finds support on a select Samsung phones, this kind of functionality is becoming more ubiquitous. Google Cardboard has been wildly successful, and LG is shipping a low-end VR shell with every LG G3.

Today, the Gear VR is the gold standard for this kind of thing: Samsung gave Oculus special, low-level access to the operating system, allowing Oculus to cut nauseating motion lag down to a minimum. The Samsung phones also have an OLED screen, which allows for a low-persistence display that eliminates VR motion blur. And, unlike most cheap VR shells, the Gear VR comes with its own motion tracking hardware, which is a far more precise than the poorly-calibrated gyros and accelerometers already in the phone hardware. This said, it’s only a matter of time before other hardware manufacturers get their product to the same level of quality.

Mobile VR is already a great experience for watching movies, and in another hardware generation or two, it may prove to be useful for mobile computing, letting us use crazy VR operating systems on the go, creating huge virtual screens to work on when we’re away from our desk. Perhaps depth cameras will provide the positional tracking needed for such an application.

Ultra-capacitors

One of the major limiting factors on phones these days is the battery. Batteries are advancing, but not nearly as quickly as screen resolution, processing power, or storage space. The result is that many cool phone features can’t be implemented because they would represent too much of a drain on already-scarce battery life.

There are a lot of technologies that could improve battery life Battery Technologies That Are Going to Change the World Battery Technologies That Are Going to Change the World Battery tech has been growing more slowly than other technologies, and is now the long tent pole in a staggering number of industries. What will the future of battery technology be? Read More . One of the most promising, in the long term, is ultra-capacitors — a process that uses nanotechnology to create devices which can charge almost instantly, while storing far more energy than normal batteries.

Normal capacitors work by storing a static charge between two layers of conductive material, which can be discharged later. Ultracapacitors use nano-structured materials like graphene to create enormous numbers of those layers, which can be discharged one at a time, creating a slow, continuous flow of power. These capacitors wouldn’t degrade over time like batteries, and could potentially be far more energy dense.

Deep Machine Learning

You may have heard quite a bit of fuss about the Internet of Things What Is The Internet Of Things & How Will It Affect Our Future [MakeUseOf Explains] What Is The Internet Of Things & How Will It Affect Our Future [MakeUseOf Explains] It seems like there are new buzzwords popping up and dying off with each day that passes us by, and "the Internet of Things" just happens to be one of the more recent ideas that... Read More  — the notion that we will one day be surrounded by smart devices that network together in intelligent ways to make our lives easier. Will that happen? I don’t know. What I do know is that developers can get a lot of the same value using just an internet-connected smartphone.

Deep learning technology is progressing at an incredible rate, and the smartphone is an ideal platform to leverage that technology to improve your daily life. IBM’s Watson artificial intelligence platform is rapidly developing into a competent doctor, lawyer, and (as I recently discovered), a pretty decent chef IBM's Watson Created My Thanksgiving Meal - Here's What Happened IBM's Watson Created My Thanksgiving Meal - Here's What Happened IBM's artificial intelligence known as Watson can do lots of smart things, but can it create a complete and unique Thanksgiving meal? I give it a try. See what happens! Read More . When all of that technology is sitting in your phone, ambiently monitoring you and making intelligent interventions, your life begins to look a little different.

Should I see a doctor about this bump? What am I forgetting to pick up on the grocery store? What was that girl’s name? With machine learning, a simple phone can become a guardian angel, looking out for the users’ interests in subtle ways.

This technology becomes more powerful as it gets access to more data. How long until there’s a checkbox in Google Now to have it refine your search results by listening to your microphone? How long until there’s a similar checkbox for the camera on your smart glasses?

The privacy concerns are enormous — but so is the potential.

The Phone of the Future

Smartphones have caught on to an incredible degree. Their form factor allows them to seamlessly fill small roles in our lives — providing small services that we didn’t even know we wanted. Phones settle bar bets and entertain us on the bus and let us sing karaoke and track our exercise and a thousand other little things we didn’t know we wanted.

If they succeed, these technologies will enhance that property of phones — allowing them to fill new and unexpected roles in our lives, becoming more invisible and more indispensable. Personally, I can’t wait.

How about you? Which future technologies are you most excited to see in your phone? What will our phones look like in five years? Let me know what you think in the comments!

Image Credits: futuristic smartphone via Shutterstock

  1. Philip Bates
    May 29, 2015 at 10:17 am

    The bendable phones prospect is certainly an interesting one, particularly as I think it's just what Apple needs right now. The iPhone 6 and 6 Plus are just slabs. They're uncomfortable and hard to hold. Bendable designs might help this; mind you, if a company can't figure out simple ergonomics, they should probably work on that before 'innovative' tech upgrades. Obviously there are those who love the 6 and 6 Plus, but I'm not one of them!

    • Sony Lindberg
      May 29, 2015 at 3:10 pm

      Apple has never been about ergonomics (look at the mac books, mighty mouse etc etc) but rather design and a small bit of ergonomics if theres room for it in the design.

  2. Luide Kakembo
    May 29, 2015 at 6:27 am

    And therein lies the problem. All these innovations sound perfect in theory, but as long as smartphone manufacturers keep chasing the wrong features such as making screens uncomfortably big with impractical pixel densities, rather than focusing on ergonomics and longevity (which is what mobility is about in the first place-allowing one untethered use for long periods), then we shall forever be stuck with the problem of a dire lack of innovation.

  3. Matthew Arntzen
    May 28, 2015 at 9:17 pm

    Novel idea... Can we get a phone that has a phone that works? Something that doesn't drop a signal by moving a few feet in your own home/apartment or work. Something that has clear reception both ways - especially since most of us are talking cellphone-to-cellphone. Battery? Oh yeah...either give us a battery that lasts a full day or bring back the phones that allow removable batteries so we can swap the crappy one you provide with a battery that has some REAL capacity. And - can we bring some REAL cell phones to America. Like the ones in Asia and Europe. This crap sold in the USA is a joke compared to what the rest of the world has available to them. Geez - you can buy a cellphone from a vending machine in Tokyo.

  4. Mark Davies
    May 28, 2015 at 5:15 pm

    None of these ideas really grabbed me! What I'd like to see is improved interfaces, virtual keyboards, seamless cross platform capabilities and easier use when travelling!

  5. ringhalg
    May 28, 2015 at 11:00 am

    The one I am most excited about is the bendable phones. I currently have a small basic Nokia phone bought over 5 years ago that fits nicely into my small pockets. A smartphone is about double the size and although I could manage it, it's not something I'm looking forward to. The other issue is the screen size or resolution compared to a full size desktop or laptop screen.

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