There’s no disputing in 2016 that smartphones dominate our daily lives. According to Flurry Analytics, in 2015 the average American spends 3 hours and 40 minutes on their mobile device every day, a figure which rises to over 4 hours among millennials. As smartphones are such an integral part of the lives of millions of people across the globe, phone manufacturers are constantly battling with each other to develop new technologies that will give them the edge over their competitor and protect their ideas from being copied. This has resulted in a proliferation of patents on not so much real technologies as the idea of them, allowing companies to claim exclusive ownership in a first-past-the-post competition.
Of course, this all provides tantalizing material for the futurists inside all of us. After all, who wouldn’t want their next smartphone to be able to project holograms or fold in half to fit in a pocket? Technology advances at blazing speeds — just two years ago, waterproof phones with screens that curved around their edges seemed like stuff of the distant future, but both technologies are now part of the current crop of premium smartphones. To this end, we present five pending smartphone patents that are likely to become reality in the very near future.
Long a holy grail of smartphone design, both Apple and Samsung have explored the concept of foldable smartphones since at least 2013. Samsung, for one, introduced the concept to the public with its video visualizing how such phones might attract the attention of a potential mate in a cafe. Things picked up for flexible smartphones this year, with Bloomberg reporting that Samsung was planning to unveil an OLED-equipped bendable device as early as the beginning of next year, later patenting a design (shown above) at the beginning of November.
However, given the debacle that was the exploding Galaxy Note7, Samsung is likely to be completely focused on perfecting the release of its next Galaxy smartphone instead. Meanwhile, Apple isn’t far behind, having been awarded a patent earlier this month. In the patent, Apple describes that the screen would utilize carbon nanotubes to allow the screen to fold down the middle. Taiwanese manufacturer Lenovo has gone one step further to unveil bendable prototypes at its Tech World 2016 event in June, so this is one technology you can hold your breath on.
To pave the way for truly bezel-less screens, Apple has submitted three patents to date for technologies that would remove the need for a physical fingerprint sensor. Instead, the sensor would lie just beneath the screen, bouncing ultrasound waves off the finger and measuring where the waves are impeded. Another Apple patent describes the use of an electrostatic lens that detects the electric field of your finger. The fingerprint sensor doesn’t necessarily have to be confined to a single point like the home button of yore, but can be expanded to be the same size as the screen. This would open the possibilities for multi-fingerprint configurations, providing a much higher level of security not just to unlock your phone, but also for online payments.
Released in October, Xiaomi’s Mi Mix smartphone demonstrates another technology that would make truly bezel-free displays possible with its novel earpiece speaker. Utilizing ”cantilever piezoelectric ceramic acoustic technology,” the speaker actually vibrates the phone’s internal metal frame to create sound for phone calls. This effectively removes all the dead space dedicated to the earphone speaker in conventional smartphones — a worthy trade-off given the decreasing amount of phone calls we make. Alongside this, an ultrasonic sensor has replaced the conventional infrared sensor to act as a proximity sensor that switches the screen off when you hold it to your face.
Haptic feedback for the visually impaired
Smartphones are largely visual and audio devices, with the only concession to our sense of touch made in the form of vibrating motors. However, emerging haptic technologies have much more to offer to our fingers than just the feel of smooth glass. Microsoft has been testing haptic devices since 2014 to mimic the feel of different surfaces by using electrostatic oscillations to create a cushion of air under your finger. Changes in the amplitude of these oscillations would change the resistance of the screen surface, fooling your mind into perceiving the screen as slippery, rough or even sticky.
Fujitsu also jumped on this haptic technology in 2014 with its unveiling of its Haptic Sensor Tablet, while Apple has submitted a similar patent for its MacBook trackpad. This technology is a boon for visually impaired persons who want to better navigate their devices, but given the niche applications of haptic feedback, it might be awhile before this is adopted on a mass scale.
Contactless wireless charging
With the ever-increasing number of electronic devices we carry with us everyday, it’s becoming more and more of a hassle to charge each individual device. While current wireless charging requires you to place a device atop an inductive charging pad, there are truly wireless standards being developed that will start charging your devices when you walk within a certain proximity of the charger.
Energous is leading the charge with its radio frequency-based WattUp charging solution which it unveiled in 2014, and according to VentureBeat, all signs are pointing to a partnership with Apple that would put this contactless wireless charging technology within a future iPhone model as soon as 2017. Energous’s WattUp standard can charge up to 12 devices simultaneously to a distance of 15 feet, with transmitted power weakening the further from the charger the device is. We for one are more than ready for a future where we never have to plug in another gadget again.
With Rogue One: A Star Wars Story hitting cinemas on December 16, 3D holograms won’t stop taunting us from a galaxy far, far away just yet. All the better, perhaps, that Samsung has provided the faint possibility of incorporating holographic tech into smartphones with a patent filed towards the end of 2015. While the patent only explores holographic menu items and alerts, its capabilities extend to practical applications such as previewing designs for 3D printing. Having developed this technology for three years at the time of the patent filing, the technology would create holograms from the collision of two laser beams. While this technology is still a long way from hitting the mass market, some mavericks have jerry-rigged current smartphones to project rudimentary holograms using an ingenious video format and a plastic add-on.