Hi-tech advances in smartphones are opening up a world of possibilities

Beyond theTechnological advances open up a world of possibilities for smartphone users, writes Jamie Carter

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 November, 2013, 8:14pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 November, 2013, 8:14pm

It's your favourite gadget. You spend your entire commute interacting with it, and it's becoming increasingly essential for both your work and social life. You even sleep with it. But how much is the smartphone really changing? Despite the trend for ever bigger screens, the physical shape and core features of a smartphone have hardly changed in the past five years.

So have we reached a plateau in smartphone development? Not a bit of it. In a few years your smartphone will have quadrupled in speed and power, opening up a new world of possibilities, but it's not brands like Apple, Samsung and Lenovo that are the critical players. This revolution is all about the processor chip inside.

Existing single-core and dual-core phones will eventually become 48-core super-computers thanks to processor manufacturers such as Qualcomm, Nvidia and Intel. And with new power comes a change in how a smartphone both performs and is perceived.

Smartphone cameras long since killed-off compacts and camcorders, but there's about to be a huge jump in the quality they're capable of capturing. This is the swap from HD to Ultra HD or 4k (4,000 pixel resolution) quality, a revolution that's already under way in flat screen televisions despite there being no official source of 4k movies yet.

"You don't have to wait for 4k movies - you can just create your own high quality 4k video straight from your smartphone," says Bala Sripathirathan, senior staff manager of engineering at Qualcomm, whose Snapdragon 800 processor is the only 4k-capable processor out there. "We now have high bandwidth mediums like Wi-fi and 4G LTE to transfer 4k video onto the cloud, and once it's on there you can stream it to your TV."

Snapdragon 800 is already found in popular handsets from Samsung, Nokia, HTC and LG, but its capabilities are only just beginning to be exploited.

However, moving 4k content from one device to another is way beyond the limits of Bluetooth; cue TransferJet, a Sony-made "proximity" wireless technology that can send video at a colossal data rate of 133 megabits per second - and that's in its slowest mode. In the demo I saw a five-second video transferred in four seconds.

Prototype smartphones with Snapdragon 800 also exist that use multidirectional - although completely hidden - microphones that record surround sound.

So is this the end of DVD and Blu-ray? "Absolutely," says Sripathirathan. "These devices are really powerful and you can capture and store high-end content." Qualcomm is also promoting the idea that HD games can not only be played on smartphones, but they can now be stored on, and streamed from, the small screen to a television. Who needs game consoles?

Visually, 4k video on smartphones is quite something, but do we actually need it? "We don't need it, but we will want it," says Norm Johnston, chief digital officer for global media network Mindshare Worldwide. "4k is a quantum leap in HD resolution that simply blows away current HD technology, the only barrier to 4k adoption is the price. With competition in the portable device space only increasing, there is a high probability that all of the major players will try to upgrade to 4k in the near future in a cost-effective way."

The 2014 World Cup in Brazil next summer is destined to be the first big Ultra HD event, which will be shown to satellite viewers in Japan, though the early leader in the broadcasting of Ultra HD is expected to be South Korea. In the pipeline is an even higher quality that is bound to hit smartphones in the future. Super Hi-Vision - known as 8k - broadcasting was trialled at the London Olympics.

To demonstrate just what can be achieved by the humble smartphone camera now, Qualcomm set-up the ultimate smartphone photo booth in New York recently that used 140 HTC One phones strung together in a spiral-like structure that recorded everything inside at 60 frames per second. At 360 degrees, an involving 3-D image was created, complete with slow-motion "bullet-time" effects first seen in The Matrix. Those green streaks of "digital rain", also made popular by the 1999 film, are beginning to come true, too, with smartphones fast becoming the conduits of the coming era of the so-called Internet of Things. With an increasing number of gadgets and appliances connected to the web, it's from apps on a smartphone that all of us will control our homes, cars and much more besides.

"The smartphone will fulfil almost every function you can dream about, from starting your car to changing the room temperature to monitoring your blood pressure to telling you to get an umbrella as it will start raining in 30 minutes," says Johnston, who thinks that a smartphone will be everyone's personal dashboard, assistant and control centre for the Internet of Things.

"As more objects, including yourself, get connected to the internet, the smartphone will be the device that will help you quickly control this hyper-connected and highly adaptive ecosystem all around you."

What's physically around you - wherever you go - is also set to come into much sharper focus in the next generation of smartphones. Mapping and navigating using apps like Google Maps at present only applies to the outdoors. That's about to change, with smartphones increasingly able to navigate indoors, too. Shopping malls, airports, zoos, sports complexes, concert halls and museums are being fitted with Wi-fi, Bluetooth and/or RF beacons that let smartphones in the vicinity know exactly where they are. New "iBeacon" technology in Apple's latest iPhones technically allows the owner to pay for something - using their device - just by being near the checkout in a store.

As smartphones get more and more sensors that measure altitude, Google Maps will know which floor of a shopping mall or office you're on, but it goes much further. Qualcomm has already announced its iZat "ubiquitous location" platform, while Google is expected to extend its reach indoors, too. The next stage is what's being called "location-based sensor fusion" in smartphones, which, by 2016, say analysts at ABI Research, "will enable the dawn of the quantified self [and] ambient intelligence" by allowing data from sensors to fuse with online knowledge engines to produce a smartphone that can learn and anticipate. Siri had better watch out.

A more immediate prediction is that smartphones will soon become curved, flexible and unbreakable. Samsung's recently announced Galaxy Round has a 5.7-inch horizontally curved screen, while the Korean manufacturer is believed to be planning a smartphone for 2014 with a display that curves to wrap around the sides.

"Curved phones by themselves do not change the face of mobile devices," says Kevin Curran, senior member at the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers.

"They are more a signpost to a utopia where we can bend, fold and squeeze our unbreakable phones into tight spaces."

Curved screens could also bring forth an era of smartphone functions and features embedded in clothing and furniture. "They usher in the ubiquitous world of communications much more seamlessly than Google Glass, which attempts to do the same," says Curran.

Does the smartphone have staying power? With both "wristables", such as Samsung's Galaxy Gear , and smart glass head-mounted displays like Google Glass beginning to offer alternatives, some doubt it.

"The real question is whether the smartphone will still look like a phone in a few years' time," says Johnston.

"Google's new version of Glass, or Apple's long-rumoured iWatch, just may be the revolutionary wearable technology devices that will make the smartphone obsolete."