Sensors of the Future: What you can expect from your next phone?

The mobile sector has always been indispensable without sensors. Once considered as novelty facets within a phone, sensors have upped their ante and have been responsible for key disruptions in mobile tech – be it in the form of specific applications developed, or features for operating systems. All in all, sensors are driving smartphone innovation in every aspect.

But while we’re on smartphone innovation, personally I think that maybe it has been a low-key affair in the past few years. With the exception of fingerprint sensors and specialised camera modules, there really hasn’t been a sensor-based trend to follow, and we’re sadly seeing a bevy of phones, released at a mind-boggling frequency, all ending up aping one another.

So keeping these indicators in mind, can a giant company – such as Google, Samsung or Apple – revolutionise the way phones function? Can some company go off the beaten path, utilise specialised sensors and pave a new path – one for smartphones in the future to take inspiration from? The answer is yes, and the developments might not be that far off.

 

Mobile and Devices

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XIAOMI – A NEW MIX

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(Image Source: Xiaomi)

Now just a few days back, Chinese behemoth Xiaomi took the covers off its latest offering – the Mi Mix. Philippe Starck’s ingenious motif and the best specifications that the company has to offer mark their presence in a phone that flaunts an edge to edge display. Bye bye bezels, hello futuristic design.

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(Image Source: Xiaomi)

A concept phone at best, right? Nope. The phone is ready to go on sale in China next week, and people are already wondering whether Xiaomi clinched the moniker of an ‘innovation trendsetter’ from Apple and Google. Media outlets have phrased the Mix as ‘the iPhone 8, a year sooner’. The phone’s design and the specifications under the hood all point towards Xiaomi becoming more than just the ‘Apple of China’. But I digress.

One of the primary differentiators in the Mi Mix has to be the removal of the earpiece – a feature that’s central to any phone’s functioning. The Mix does away with a visible speaker that – till now – enabled users to listen to the caller’s side of the conversation.

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(Image Source: Xiaomi)

In its place, Xiaomi has integrated a cantilevered piezoelectric actuator behind the glass to produce the sound from the caller’s side of the conversation. This essentially vibrates against the phone’s metal frame to deliver an audio output. While the concept sounds outlandish, the obvious advantage is the inception of a non-obtrusive earpiece which doesn’t interfere with the display.

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(Image Source: Xiaomi)

Another feature that is a first for any smartphone is the replacement of a proximity sensor with an ultrasonic sensor. The proximity sensor’s use mainly revolved around determining the distance between a user and the phone, which in turn set the stage for ambient display, intelligent notifications and smart unlock systems besides smart covers. All these features will now be replicated through the ultrasonic sensor, in a mechanism not dissimilar to echolocation in bats.

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(Image Source: Xiaomi)

So, where can we go with this?

SENSOR TECH – TODAY

Mobile hardware has been adding paraphernalia here and there for quite some time, and the recent entrants to the (already long) list have been the fingerprint sensor and the dual camera setup. Following the lead of a few smartphone OEMs, Apple decided to incorporate the dual camera setup to its iPhone 7 Plus smartphone, thereby confirming in a way that the trend is here to stay.

(Unfortunately, the headphone jack evidently isn’t. Apple says that it took courage, but we really can’t help but miss the ol’ 3.5mm slot).

WHY THE DUAL CAMERA SETUP?

The dual camera setup can bring in certain nifty features to the existing camera setup within a smartphone. Be it in the form of optical image stabilisation (that can actually exist for multiple axes), or bringing in differently colour configurations (such as the secondary monochrome lens on the Huawei P9) or an optical zoom module, or even a mix of lenses (as evident by the iPhone 7 Plus’ setup – where one lens is a wide-angle snapper and the other is a telephoto lens).

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(Image Source: Apple)

A dual lens setup brings in more features to the smartphone camera. It is no wonder, therefore, that most smartphone companies have already begun dabbling in this trend.

FINGERPRINT SENSORS

The fingerprint sensor is the most common sensor these days. Almost all big OEMs – including Google and Apple – are trying to implement varied features within the fingerprint sensor. The selfie shutter is a big favourite, followed by biometric scanning for login and payment systems. Throw in a sleek design for the scanner, and it’s pretty much a given that the fingerprint sensor will be present on any smartphone spec sheet for quite some time.

SENSOR TECH – TOMORROW

As evident by Xiaomi’s innovations in the Mix, ultrasonic technology might just be the game changer in the existing sensor paraphernalia that smartphone enthusiasts have gotten so used to. A technology that even Google is endorsing (in the form of its Project Soli platform), we predict that ultrasonic gesture based technology will be the next big thing in smartphone interaction systems.

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(Image Source: Xiaomi)

The existing sensors in the form of gyro, accelerometer and magnetometer might evolve into a smaller form factor, with a reduced footprint. The GPS sensor – crucial for geolocation, geofencing and other location based applications – will be part of the smartphone of the future too. Some companies are developing techniques of embedding the fingerprint sensor beneath the display, so that’s a likely possibility as well. Some devices – such as the Lenovo Z2 – have also embedded multiple sensor based interactions (touch-tap, tap-long tap) on its physical home button, thereby enabling many permutations and combinations of programmable commands.

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(Image Source: IHS)

The year 2016 saw a few OEMs experimenting with the prospects of a iris scanner in their devices, notable of which are the Samsung Galaxy Note 7 and the Microsoft Lumia 950XL. The next up and coming sensor is ultrasonic, which brings in benefits such as scanning of capillaries, the ability to work through surfaces and more dust and moisture resistance.

The ultrasonic sensor will be suitable not just for sensing proximity (as is already implemented), but will also be useful for biometric scans and also some medical lifelogging in the form of pulse tracking and maybe even blood pressure monitoring at a later stage. Big players in this field include Qualcomm, Sonavation and InvenSense (in a collaboration with Swarm Labs). Moreover, according to IHS, Apple has recently patented ultrasonic sensing as a modus of active display scanning. All of which points to this technology being prevalent in the sensors of tomorrow.

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(Image Source: Qualcomm)

In fact, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Sense ID implements the usage of ultrasonic technology to sense fingerprints in more detail with comprehensive authentication. This kind of technology might just be seen in future flagships, such as those from Apple.

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(Image Source: Qualcomm)

Maybe the next stages of commercialising ultrasonic sensors – besides the massive amounts of research and development to hone in on a favourable use case – will be marking down the price to a level at which it can actually replace traditional fingerprint sensors. The scope in this regard is definitely interesting.

WHAT DOES THE FUTURE LOOK LIKE?

What I’m most excited about is not the inclusion of more and more sensors, but the evolution of the existing systems to make them as efficient as possible. Maybe this will spill onto existing modules being capable of sensing multiple parameters – such as the earpiece and microphone being responsible for ultrasonic interaction.

Modularity will also play a key role in the evolution of smartphone sensors, particularly in the iPhone lineup. I hope to see Apple – and other OEMs – incorporate practicality, efficiency and usability into their sensors.

Needless to say, ‘courage’ would be a bonus parameter. If you know what I mean.

Instant– Automatically keep track of the time spent on your phone, while travelling, at places, while sleeping & on fitness activities

Nivedit Majumdar

An analyst for the Emberify blog, Nivedit is a technophile and a blogger. He likes to observe new technology trends and write about them. Know more: about.me/niveditm

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