Google just released a prototype of its Transformer-like smartphone of the future—a modular design called Project Ara that users can swap or add components onto at will.
A Project Ara phone, once available to the public, would consist basically of an aluminum endoskeleton with a spare battery and connectors. All the other traditional components such as a processor, camera, and display–plus many more, most yet to be invented–would be available as attachable modules.
This Lego-like design is no less than an attempt to radically rethink the concept of a smartphone, which we generally imagine as a single device that can fit many roles. Independent hardware developers will be able to build their own components to integrate into the Ara phone. The possibilities such a gadget could open are practically limitless.
What are some uses? Users could snap screens of different sizes together to build a giant TV for the Super Bowl, or create a shape-shifting display so that two users could “touch” each other. Or, they could simply upgrade individual components of the phone, such as the processor and camera, rather than having to buy a new smartphone every year or two. The environment would benefit from that, too.
Project Ara is the brainchild of Motorola’s secretive Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) division, which Google retained while selling the rest of the company to Lenovo last year. It is not the first concept of its kind—there was the hapless Modu, whose patents Google acquired in 2011, and there is also ZTE’s Eco-Mobius—but it is the most high-powered attempt to date to develop and push this idea into the mainstream.
Google is planning to reach a wide consumer base—according to Time Magazine, the simplest version would cost just $50. But don’t chuck your Android phones yet: Numerous technological and other challenges remain before it hits distribution stands, much less the best-seller charts.