Co.Design

Modai, A Smartphone Concept With Replaceable Brains

When it's time to upgrade Julius Tarng's phone, just peel back its flexible shell and pop in a new "brain."

Smartphones are the epitome of planned obsolescence. If you don’t upgrade your phone every two years, you’re likely to be left out in the cold as software outpaces its capabilities. But all you really need to do is upgrade the phone’s brain, not its whole body. What if there were a smartphone whose body was designed to let this kind of modular upgrading happen? Julius Tarng has created one called Modai. It’s only a concept design, not a working prototype or a shipping product, but I wish it were.

Tarng has devised a boatload of intriguing user-interface conventions for Modai, some familiar (separate "paradigms" for work and play, much like Divide), some more surprising (a flexible "peelstand" on the back of the phone lets it flex in your pocket to silently signal incoming messages, or stand up on edge when an alarm goes off).

But Modai’s coolest idea is its modular design to encourage users to extend the device’s lifespan. Removing the "peelstand" also lets you access Modai’s "internal pack," which you can swap out and attach a new, better CPU unit, RAM cache, or battery to, just like snapping Legos together. "From batteries to the camera, from the RAM to the CPU, most internals that evolve quickly can be upgraded," Tarng writes. "Modai employs an ecosystem that allows you to return your old module for disposal or resale after you buy a new one."

In the same way that talk is cheap, so are concept designs. Modai is an awesome idea, but fabricating and manufacturing all its components, as well as spinning up the infrastructure to support the trade-in/recycling "ecosystem," would be a mammoth undertaking, and perhaps not practical. Then again, "perhaps" is the operative word there. Modai looks like something that should exist. We’ll never know if it could exist until someone actually tries.

[Read more about Modai]

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15 Comments

  • Leo

    This model of smart phone detonates a new way for a business model, the unique issue that i can find in this fast review it is the complexity for the manufacture it and the elements compability.

    Congrats, really good concept.

  • Ryan T

    I would love if my phone's interface looked like this. The happy/sad face and juice flowing is awesome. I like it a lot. well done.

  • Phuong

    At first the idea is intriguing but after reading it the concept just contradict the whole idea. Its over complicated the manufacturing process. Yes you dont have to upgrade the whole unit but the ever countless mod and add on actually weigh the handset down with technical issue of integrating old hardware with new ones. Instead of making one phone, you need to open many factories just to engineer new ad on parts.

  • tarngerine

    Thanks all for the comments! I do realize that some of this modularity is a bit unrealistic. However, the modularity was only a small component of the whole project, which was about humanizing your mobile device and making a better intelligent assistant through an emotive UI. The modularity enables you to maintain the bond that you forge with the phone, so that you don't need to get a new phone every year to keep up to date.

    Please take a look here: http://tarng.com/#project-moda...

  • Arye Michael Bender

    Why we as a society ever bought in to the throw-away mentality still astounds me. It only serves to feed the greed of capitalism. Time to think sustainable, as the Modai seems to be doing. Think I'll buy one.

  • Charles Lehner

    PHONE SHMONE... I WILL WAIT FOR HARD-WIRED VERSION IN MY BRAIN AND A POWER BUTTON JUST BELOW MY EAR!

  • Nikoya

    Smooth concept.  I wonder if Apple is working on something similar.  When it comes to smartphones.. after awhile,  aren't they all just the same?  I guess that is exactly what inspired the initial idea of this style of cell.

  • Jake Wells

    I think one of the most important part of conceptual exercises like these is not to plan to make exactly this, but to share an idea and a vision and start to get people's brains thinking about something they might not have prior to seeing the concept. I think visualizing new concepts through prototyping is as important to innovation as actually building new things. Let's go!

  • DK

    Unfortunately upgrading a phone in a modular way like this wouldnt work. With new processors comes new bridges to transfer stuff faster between the cpu and the ram also the better the cpu the better the cooling will have to be. 

    Its c acoolc oncept but would not work.

  • Jacob

    This looks really cool but I'd have to comment on the interface. While it looks fun and well designed, it reminds me of Windows Phone how it's highly styled. Apple has a well defined style, but it's minimalism allows other app designs to fit into the system better than having to match the OS interface.

    Had this been invented in the days before phones were just platforms for apps, it would've worked better.

    Otherwise, the phone is a good sign that "personal computers" now fit in your pocket. It's the same idea as upgrading your Dell, only this has much better design. It contradicts Apple's philosophy of making the entire product a single package so cheap 3rd party products can't cause problems, but if a phone can compete with the quality of Apple where Windows PC's never could, it will be much better for the industry and marketplace.

  • Hi!

    Maybe one of the most important things to see in this concept isn't the package, but the parts. I bet any one of these neat ideas would be worthwhile implementing by itself—they don't all have to show up in the same product at the same time immediately.