Google’s Project Ara is among its most ambitious projects. It imagines an open-source phone that allows you to swap in special components—think glucose monitors or environmental sensors—just like popping in magnetic Lego bricks.
Google has mostly positioned Ara as a platform for smartphones. But the U.K. design consultancy Seymourpowell—which designed the Fairphone2, the first modular smartphone on the market—imagined what Ara could be if its core technologies were scaled beyond just phones by using Google’s open-hardware platform to create any customized gadget you could imagine.
"Traditionally hardware is very proprietary," says Matthew Cockerill, creative director at Seymourpowell. "Even the LG G5 smartphone has modular elements, but it’s proprietary—it’s by them. You’re not going to get Samsung or Apple going into it because it’s [LG's] system. I think Google is in a unique position to perhaps challenge that . . . they’re trying to do Android for hardware." In other words, just as Android is an open-software platform for a company to repurpose and adapt, so too can Ara be an open-hardware platform for companies to adapt.
To illustrate such a future, where developers could rapidly produce new gadgets the way they build apps today, designers at Seymourpowell created four concepts modeled specifically within the parameters of Ara’s three previously released endoskeleton frame specs, which were originally envisioned by NewDealDesign alongside Google. (They’re the scaffolding that accept Ara-compatible chips, meaning these concepts are at least one crucial step removed from pure fantasy.) Their ideas include Move, a printer on wheels that can scan and print on the surfaces below it; Wear, a biometric monitoring device worn on your wrist; Link, a networked environmental monitor (complete with mini wind turbine!) that could blanket farms to monitor crops; and Play, a tweakable mixing table of any DJ’s dreams.
There are a few benefits to a modular system that reaches beyond smartphones. For one, the products that result can be more experimental than most products we see today. Cockerill says that open hardware would vastly lower the barrier to produce new goods. So while a printer that drives around may sound silly, it’s just the sort of product that could be developed with a lower investment risk. Maybe a single custom module would need to be designed to make the product work, rather than the case, every circuit inside, and so on.
"The robot printer, you might say, ‘I have no idea if there’s a market there,’" Cockerill says. "But if we only have to develop one module, it will cost only $100,000 to get to market, and allow us to be more adventurous."
Furthermore, the modularity offers an enticing level of, not just "customization" (a word that gets tossed around so much in modular electronics that it's basically meaningless), but evolution in how products might serve the user. Cockerill imagines an Ara health wearable for a pregnant woman. At first, it would resemble an innocuous Fitbit—something that could fit on her wrist without raising any eyebrows. When she entered labor, her contractions would register on the device and beam to the hospital. Then, at the hospital, more specific monitoring modules could be added in. The patient would have a familiar, if medicalized, device that might lower her anxiety—and the Ara platform would offer her doctor a continuum of data collection that could become hyper-specific within the hospital context.
"A lot of us undergoing medical procedures don’t know where we are on that journey," says Cockerill. "The psychological element is very important."
All of Seymourpowell’s concepts offer some customization by nature. You can still swap in and out components as Ara project managers have promised. But Cockerill imagines Ara products might be sold as complete gadget kits that would be on retail shelves, rather than as standalone pieces you might buy and tinker with from some maker store.
"People actually don’t want ultimate choice. They want a few options," says Cockerill. "In a way, designers and companies, we’re the ones who should provide the right combination based upon study and use cases. Not everyone wants that massive box of Lego bricks—actually we like those little [pirate or Star Wars] kits that we can build and modify slightly."
And maybe that is the greatest achievement of Seymourpowell’s Ara concepts. They don’t just tease a modular future full of vague consumer customization. Much like a similar project designed by the San Francisco-based firm Ammunition called Nascent Objects, they make a strong argument that one modular phone can spawn a continuum of rapidly released gadgets, customized for every context, yet every bit as articulated a product as you’d buy from Samsung, LG, or Apple.
Because ultimately, Seymourpowell's Ara concepts are not that fantastical. Ara is slowly but surely coming to market as its own technical challenges are being overcome. Once they are, Google would probably need to make at least a few accommodations from the current Ara spec (which as of recently contains dedicated chipsets that focus largely on its use as a smartphone), and then someone with incredible retail power would simply need to create a viable marketplace to sell and share a larger library of third-party designs. Amazon, the world's looking at you.