What will your phone be like in 20 years?

From batteries that charge in minutes to screens that let you feel

Think the phone industry has become boring? A few millimetres added here and there? Slightly sharper displays? Marginally faster processing? Well, all that’s about to change. There are advances in phone technology on our doorstep that will make today’s phones look about as powerful as a Tonka truck. From batteries that charge in minutes and last a fortnight, to mobile internet that lets you download a movie in three seconds, to screens that don’t just curve but fold into sections, phones aren’t going to look and feel like they do for long.

Nanobatteries

Battery life is the biggest bugbear among phone users. With our phones becoming more powerful and boasting better displays, it’s understandable that the batteries struggle to last a full day. The good news is that the nanobattery is coming. Made of tiny tower structures that are hundreds of times smaller than the bits in current power packs, they’re so fine they can be 3D printed. So what’s the benefit? There are a few: the power you get for their size is incredible, they can be squeezed into more phone components, and they can fully charge in minutes. Soon, we won’t talk about topping up overnight, but while the kettle boils.

Want something even more out- there? How about a phone battery that’s powered by water? Hydrogen fuel cells, first proposed by Samsung back in 2008, use the reaction between water and a metal element in the phone to produce hydrogen gas, which then powers the cell. We’re still waiting for a Samsung-Evian tie-in, though.

Folding phones

LG has already released two flexible phones in the G Flex series, while Samsung is being tipped to release a folding mobile by the end of this year, with patents hinting at a three-way folding device that can flip its insides out to make a tablet. The next step after that is screens that can be folded and even rolled up. LG’s display team showed off a folding device last year, and claim we’ll have roll-up devices by 2017. Like current curvy phones, they will use OLED screens, which will also get you near-perfect contrast.

Magic touch

Typing on a touchscreen just isn’t the same as clicking away on a keyboard, but cool new technology is merging those two worlds. What’s more, the technology that could add keys to touchscreens when we need them could also add Braille, change the surface texture to let us ‘feel’ what’s
on screen, or just poke us in the leg all day long when some fool makes an app for your friends to annoy you with.

One company working on this innovation is Tactus, and it already offers a way to invisibly add contours to a phone screen. Called Tactus Phorm, it makes bumps appear over your phone’s keyboard, enabling you to touch-type in a way that most people just can’t with a normal phone. It works by pushing liquid up through a film into invisible bubbles in a layer above the display. It’s currently a bit limited, though, as it’s operated manually, feels a bit mechanical and can only pop up in a pre-defined spot.

But this is a space that’s got a lot of clever heads nodding in labs the world over, as companies seek to do something with phones that will help them grab an edge. Take Fujitsu’s pioneering work with haptic feedback: using ultrasonic waves to create tiny vibrations in the screen, it can make parts of the display seem rough, bumpy or extra-smooth. It can even mimic textures, giving you a feel completely different from standard glass, which could make Candy Crush Saga even more addictive than before.

We’re not sure why you’d want it, but Senseg has been working on a way to make your screen feel like sandpaper, using electrostatic vibrations. We can just see the tagline now: ‘Samsung Galaxy S7: your DIY buddy’.

The PS4-killer

Back in the day, we dreamed about home consoles beating arcade-machine graphics. Then it was all about seeing how long it would take PCs to flatten console graphics. Now we’re in the big race to see how long it’ll take phones to outdo the consoles.

Given its prowess in the graphics- card space, it’s no surprise that Nvidia is pushing forward to make the mobile phone a real rival for your console, with the brand confirming to us that the tech is advancing at a rate of knots. It’s already using PC-style processors in its Tegra phone chips, and next year we’ll see graphics brains that are ten times faster than the current crop. Considering we’ve already got chips that can handle 4K output and 256 cores, that’s a huge amount of power from a teeny space.

It thrashes the Xbox 360 and the PS3 by some metrics already. So by the time next year’s models roll around, the PS4 and Xbox One will barely be out of primary school in console-lifespan terms, but may already be old news.

Super speeds

Most of us are just getting to grips with 4G, but 5G is already revving its engine. You probably won’t get to taste its goodies until around 2020, but they’re set to revolutionise the way we use phones, offering speeds up to 70 times faster than what’s currently available.

Want a movie in three seconds? Done. Fancy that Spotify album but not sure if you’ve got time to download it? It’s already happened in the time it took to read that sentence. Not only is that mind-bendingly fast, it’s about ten times quicker than your old computer hard drive could even save stuff. Good job tomorrow’s phones will use Flash memory that can write in hyperspeed.

Streaming console-grade games to your phone will no longer have that annoying lag, so PS4 Remote Play on the bus will finally be a reality. And as long as the servers and websites on the other end are quick enough, browsing the Web and watching streamed videos will be just as quick as looking at content stored on your phone.

Frankenphones

Here’s one you may have heard of: Project Ara, the modular phone. It’ll let you play Dr Frankenstein and construct your own modular monster out of the bits you always wanted in a mobile. It may sound like the LEGO of the phone world, and it sort of is, but it’s anything but an elaborate joke. Google is behind the Project Ara platform, and is working with a bunch of other companies to make the bits to help you craft your perfect phone from a base level of £35. How about a phone with a radiation sensor? Or a breathalyser attached?

Or a module with a set of stereo speakers so you can bang out tunes with, shock horror, some actual bass? These are all in the prototyping phase and, as the idea of modular phones takes off, we can see Kickstarter being littered with amazing suggestions.

3D screens are back

3D is in a sad state right now. No one cares about it in TVs any more, and while the new 3DS has a decent stab, its graphics could have been piped from anywhere in the last 15 years.

So who would have guessed phones would be the thing that sees it return lurching from the dead? Clever new screen tech could see 3D finally coming back to phones, after HTC and LG made glasses-free 3D phones back in 2011 that were so bad we haven’t seen any since.

The dream for future 3D is to get to the point where the screen doesn’t become an insta-headache mess when you move your head more than about
a centimetre to the side. And it looks like MSL technology might just do that. It will use a plane of thousands of teeny-tiny micro lenses that sit on top of a display, boosting the possible viewing angles of a glasses-free 3D display from about 20 degrees to a full 90. All the 3D, none of the compromise.

With 4K phone screens in the works, and head-tracking already as advanced as it needs to be, your phone display may one day look like a portal into another world. Granted, it may just be your nan’s face on the other side, but it’s still the future and that’s good enough for us.

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