Nanowires, silver, and AI: The future of our smartphones (in pictures)

The smartphone industry is reaching a peak, but may look very different in years to come.
By Charlie Osborne, Contributing Writer
1 of 16 Joseph Xu/Michigan Engineering

Silver screens

Researchers from the University of Michigan have created a flexible material made from silver and aluminum which is only seven nanometers thick and is also resistant to tarnishing and air exposure.

The material is also conductive and transparent, and may one day end up replacing our crackable screens in smartphones and tablets.

See also: Our future mobile device screens might be made of silver

2 of 16 Steve Zylius / UCI


Researchers from the University of California, Irvine, have also begun cracking the battery problem. The team has invented "nanowire-based battery material" which can be recharged hundreds of thousands of times.

After several years, our current batteries can become less efficient. Perhaps nanowires can make this annoyance a thing of the past.

See also: UCI

3 of 16 Charlie Osborne/ZDNET

Self-repairing screens

Cracked and broken smartphone screens are not cheap to repair. However, scientists from the University of Tokyo believe they may have the answer.

The team has created a new kind of polymer, polyether-thioureas, which is self-healing. When cracks occur, pressure with just your fingers can be enough to repair the surface.

If our future smartphones come with screens made of this material, shattered screens may be a problem consigned to the past.

See also: Science study

4 of 16 Charlie Osborne/ZDNET

Lithium-air batteries

Mobile devices have reached a point of saturation that no matter which vendor you go with, generally, they are "good enough."

However, battery life is still a constant issue, especially with heavy usage. One area in which vendors may stand out from the crowd is extended life, and this may be made possible through lithium-oxygen cells, also known as lithium-air.

As researchers have noted, there are still technical issues to iron out but lithium-air batteries theoretically could power our devices for up to five times longer than standard lithium-ion.

See also: Nature research study (paywall)

5 of 16 Charlie Osborne/ZDNET

Solar charging

Green energy and renewables are now hot topics, and these principles are being applied to accessories, mobile device materials, and construction methods, as well as charging.

A patent issued to Apple in 2015 indicates that embedded solar charging may one day be a commonplace element of our devices. The patent describes a way to embed small solar panels within a smartphone's display to soak up the energy of the sun to power the device.

See also: USPTO patent

6 of 16 Charlie Osborne/ZDNET

Instant charging

Someday, products which instantly charge our smart devices may be a common household item.

StoreDot, for example, is working to make this a commercial reality. The firm's "flash battery" technology, including a new lithium-ion design and super capacitors, can apparently charge a smartphone fully in under five minutes.

Via: StoreDot

7 of 16 Charlie Osborne/ZDNET

Charge your phone while you walk

An unusual alternative is the use of kinetic energy to charge our smartphones and tablets.

Engineers from the University of Wisconsin-Madison are developing energy-harvesting devices, embeddable within footwear, which grab this energy and store it. Should you run out of juice, you simply plug your smartphone in for a quick charge.

See also: In-Step footwear

8 of 16 Charlie Osborne/ZDNET

Screen fingerprint readers

In the future, we may see fingerprint and biometric readers inbuilt into smartphone screens, eradicating the need -- and space -- for dedicated scanners.

An interesting Apple patent describes an "interactive display with IR diodes" which may give displays the capacity to use light to sense and recognize fingerprints, despite the launch of FaceID.

See also: USPTO

9 of 16 Charlie Osborne/ZDNET

Wraparound screens

Samsung's Edge models, which brings the display around the curvature of Galaxy smartphones, may be the first step in the firm's venture into full wraparound screens.

A patent approved in 2017 features a dual-sided smartphone with a display that wraps around to the full edges of each side.

See also: USPTO patent

10 of 16 Charlie Osborne/ZDNET

Bendy smartphones

Apple is also exploring ways to make our smartphones more flexible. While Samsung is pursuing the idea of flexible displays, a patent awarded to Apple describes a smartphone made out of "shape memory alloy or amorphous metal and may have openings to facilitate bending."

See also: USPTO patent

11 of 16 Charlie Osborne/ZDNET

Smartphones and hinges

Microsoft has also considered ways to transform the shape of mobile devices.

However, a patent submitted by the Redmond giant reveals a different method to flexible materials -- instead, the company's design describes the use of hinges, which would allow multiple screens to create a larger display with no bezel.

See also: USPTO

12 of 16 Charlie Osborne/ZDNET

Next-generation mobile networks: 5G

5G, and whatever form comes after, is likely to become a standard for future mobile devices.

At CES 2018, Intel, Huawei, ZTE, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Telstra were among the companies touting their new partnerships, research, and products relating to 5G networks.

See also: Top 5G announcements from MWC 2018

13 of 16 Charlie Osborne/ZDNET

Voice assistants

According to HigherVisibility, 26.7 percent of US individuals use voice search technologies at least once a week. With smart home assistants including the Amazon Echo and Google Home now entering the IoT space, a deeper relationship between mobile devices and voice assistants isn't a stretch for future devices.

We already have Google's assistant, Microsoft's Cortana, and Apple's Siri, but we are likely to see their usage increase as new applications become available for the voice, rather than typing or gestures.

Also: Five ways voice assistants are going to change the office

14 of 16 Charlie Osborne/ZDNET

Augmented reality

Virtual reality (VR) has begun to creep into the PC realm, VR headsets are now a widely-available mobile accessory, and we are likely to see vendors take a step towards augmented reality (AR) smartphone support in the future.

AR superimposes digital imagery on physical environments and has untold applications in everything from education and medical purposes to gaming.

Apple's iPhones are tuned towards AR although the application market is sparse, while Google has already experimented with the concept through Google Glass, and Amazon has recently introduced AR features within its mobile app.

See also: The new 'reality' of smartphones: AR/VR applications

15 of 16 Charlie Osborne/ZDNET

AI will dominate our devices

According to Huawei executives, artificial intelligence (AI) will 'fundamentally change' the smartphone. User-machine interaction and "context-personalized openness" will prompt the shift, making mobile devices capable of aggregated services and improved interaction with users. As a result, Huawei says the smartphone will be transformed into the "intelligent phone."

See also: AI will transform smartphones into 'intelligent phones': Huawei

16 of 16 Charlie Osborne/ZDNET

Cameras will be key

Social media, including Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, and Instagram have pushed forward the interest in mobile photography worldwide.

Our smartphones have come along way from small, low-power camera facilities, and now it is common for front and back-end cameras, tailored software and lenses, and filters to be part of our mobile setups.

According to Conor Pierce, Samsung vice president of mobile and IT in the UK and Ireland, smartphones are now "used more for taking pictures than making calls," and so pushing the boundaries of what mobile photography can achieve is key to future devices.

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