Should smartphones have wheels? That question seems stupid at first—and maybe 10th—blush. But Takefumi Hiraki and Koya Narumi of the University of Japan have shown that wheels on phones can actually be quite useful, turning your smartphone into a little robot helper.
To be presented at the annual ACM User Interface Software and Technology Symposium in October, Hiraki and Narumi's Phone on Wheels prototype ensconces a stock Galaxy Nexus smartphone in a 3D-printed case, which comes with a pair of mounted wheels on the side. Thanks to an embedded motor, these wheels can be controlled by the phone when it's properly installed in the case, essentially allowing the device to operate like a self-controlled RC car.
Some of Hiaraki and Narumi's ideas on what you would use a Phone on Wheels for are pretty typical. For example, they imagine a smartphone that can sense your hand and runs away when you try to snooze your alarm—a higher-tech version of a Clocky Alarm Clock. But other ideas are more ingenious. For example, Hiraki and Narumi have programmed their prototype to run to them across a table when they have an incoming phone call or message, then slide silently away when the user is done looking at it, to prevent further distractions. They also imagine the wheels to be usable as input, so that you could, say, measure a wall or a piece of furniture, just by using the Phone on Wheels as a tape measure.
In an email to me, Hiraki also says they imagine a wheeled phone as being useful to people with mobility issues, like the handicapped and elderly. If they leave their phone in another room, it can come find them. By that token, people who have misplaced their phones within their homes could have it literally come to them, instead of trying to track it down by having a roommate or partner call them. And an autonomous phone, like a Roomba, is also one that you never need to remember to charge: It can run to a docking station and charge itself.
So maybe the question isn't "should phones have wheels?" so much as it is "why don't phones already have wheels?"