Google’s Project Ara: The Modular Smartphone

ara-apartLast week, Google held their first developer conference for Project Ara, Google’s modular smartphone. The concept of this particular modular phone started off as Phonebloks, an initiative by Dutch designer Dave Hakkens to reduce electronic waste. Google and Motorola adopted the concept into Project Ara, which is headed by Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) team.

Project Ara aims to create a low-cost smart phone for the 5 billion mobile users out there that have yet to jump from their basic feature phones. The modular phone proposed by Ara is a barebones phone that can be customized with the addition of various modules.

An easy analogy would be a custom-built PC that users can upgrade with a selection of components from various manufacturers, things like memory, video cards and higher capacity storage. Now imagine a phone you can upgrade without junking your old one. Want a better camera phone? With a modular phone, there’s no need to buy a whole new phone for that. Just swap out the old camera for a higher resolution camera.

At Google’s event, someone actually dropped the phone, cracking the screen. Fortunately, the nature of the project turned this incident into a selling point. The idea is you’d simply be able to swap out the broken display for a new one, as nearly every part of this phone is designed to be easily replaced.

Because the hardware can be constantly modified, Ara engineers need to be economical about their designs to make the best use of the limited space available. The result is that Project Ara features some innovative, creative design and just plain cool engineering.

The Modular Design

The base of the phone is called the endoskeleton, or “endo” for short. This metal foundation is divided into a grid of several blocks. There are plans for various phone sizes, each with a different number of blocks. The standard size is 3×6, a large phone would be 4×7, and a small one would be 2×5. Each phone features a vertical spine that further segments the grid to accept external modules made up of a certain number of blocks.

endosizesModules are made up of 1×1, 2×1 and 2×2 block configurations, and fit into the corresponding slots on the endo. The CPU, memory, and other core hardware are located in a single 2×2 primary “Application Processor” module, or “AP.” Theoretically, if you want a faster phone, you could just swap out the AP for a newer one. Google hopes to attract various component manufacturers to develop their own modules for the device, including items like displays, microphones, speakers, batteries, cameras, biometric readers, and more.

Modules don’t have to be dedicated to a single function. Since space is very limited, developers are encouraged to maximize their use of space, meaning larger modules can have multiple functions. For example, module designers could fill any left over space with an extra battery, extending the overall battery life of the device.

Integrating New Mobile Technology

Modules communicate with each other by a high-speed interface protocol called UniPro. This interface technology targets mobile applications, featuring high-bandwidth and low power consumption.

Modules physically connect to the endo through capacitive M-PHY surfaces. The capacitive interface allows for clear connection points, minimizing wear and tear when replacing modules and extending the lifetime of the device. Endoskeletons are expected to last 5 to 6 years.

Electropermanent magnets hold the modules in place. As opposed to electromagnets that need a constant current to keep on, electropermanent magnets only need a current to flip between and on and off state, saving on power and battery.

Thanks to a small battery built into the endo itself, the phone continues to receive power, even if the main battery is removed. This means that you’ll be able to swap in and out most modules without having to power down or reset the phone.

Innovations in 3D Printing

In relation to Project Ara, Google is also taking another initiative in the 3D printing space. Google is working with 3D Systems to develop a new 3D printer that excels at printing in volume, something that existing printers have trouble with. This new printing system lays materials down in an oval track, as opposed to the back and for the construction process of traditional 3D printers.

The faster production will allow for mass-production of module shells, and users will able to print their own custom shells to meet their aesthetic desires. Google is also working on developing conductive ink printing, which would allow 3D printers to build electronics within the module cases.

A second Project Ara developer’s conferences in July will specifically cater to artists and 3D printing companies.

Project Ara In 2015

Development lead Paul Eremenko is taking his team through a new work philosophy, adopted from his previous experiences working for DARPA. The team only has 2 years to go from concept to final product. The small time frame encourages the team to take more risks to meet the deadline, leading to more innovation in the development process.

Project Ara will launch in early 2015. There will be two more developer conferences before the end of this year, and pre-production prototypes are already in the cards for December.

Google says consumers should expect the endoskeleton to cost under $100. They plan to release an endoskeleton package called the “grey phone,” which will include an endoskeleton frame, the display, a battery, the main Application Processor module and a Wi-Fi unit. Google hopes that the module ecosystem will see a number of components from different manufacturers, offering more pricing options for consumers to choose from. The idea is that users will be able to customize their experience, going from a blank “grey” phone to whatever color or flavor of device they desire.

By Alfredo Dizon, eParisExtra

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