When you think about it, smartphones haven't changed dramatically since the iPhone was first released in 2007. Sure, they have gotten faster, more powerful, and thinner. They have far better sound, displays, and cameras. But at the end of the day, we're all still using our smartphones the same way we did then: by tapping a glass screen.
That's frustrating, because there's a world of other ways we could interact with our devices, from reaching through them to touch someone 3,000 miles away or using puffs of air to feel objects and textures in mid-air.
These methods of interacting with our devices are called haptics, and it's the area in smartphone and mobile device design where innovation has virtually stood still since the introduction of the touch screen. Why? Miniaturizing advanced haptics and making them cheap enough for mass-production is a problem, but according to interaction designer Ivan Poupyrev of Google, a bigger problem is that richer interaction on mobile devices would require consumers to start thinking of smartphones less like gadgets and more like automobiles—big-ticket items that need to be tuned up regularly. Could a Lego-like smartphone, such as Google's Project Ara, help change that?
"All haptic technology requires something to move in order for it to work," Poupyrev tells Co.Design. For example, when your smartphone vibrates, it's because of a tiny physical motor about the size of a Tic Tac inside the device. This motor is very small and simple, but it's enough to make your smartphone buzz, and it allows smartphone makers to do cool things like give you simple haptic feedback when you touch the screen.
The problem facing haptics is that the more complicated the interaction, the more moving parts are required to make them work. Consider, for example, MIT's inFORM table, which allows you to reach through it and touch people and objects on the other side. Even if such technology could be miniaturized enough to fit into a smartphone, it would require hundreds of tiny moving parts to work. And there's a big problem with moving parts: because they move, they break. Often.
"Look at a typical product people use every day with a lot of moving parts: your car," says Poupyrev. "We're used to the idea that we need to bring them into the mechanic every year for a tune-up, and that if we don't, they'll have problems. But no one views their phones that way."
According to Poupyrev, this is a big reason we haven't seen more advanced haptics in smartphones, tablets, and computers yet. "If people could be convinced to bring in their phones for maintenance once a year, we'd probably see a lot of cool new technologies come to mobile devices," he says. But to do so would to confront the idea that it is normal for gadgets to wear down and break. And as Poupyrev points out, not only are consumers adverse to this idea, but no company wants to become known for making products that break. So they play it safe, which in mobile devices, means keeping the moving parts to a minimum, better haptics be damned.
But Poupyrev sees another possible answer to the problem: module-based smartphones, like Google's Project Ara. Currently in the prototype phase, Project Ara allows you to snap together a smartphone out of individual components, almost like Lego. The advantage with this design isn't just that you could update components, like a camera or a processor, as they become obsolete; a smartphone like Project Ara would also allow companies to explore more exotic haptic technologies, which could then be easily swapped out if they became problematic.
Even Google doesn't know when Project Ara will be a retail reality, and no one is going to be convinced to bring his or her iPhone into Apple's Genius Garage once a year for a tune-up any time soon. Despite that, Poupyrev believes that the smartphones and tablets of the not-so-distant future will afford users much more sophisticated haptic interactions than they do now. "It's a big challenge, but I do think the day is coming soon when we finally figure out how to do mobile haptics really well."