From afar, the device in Garrett Kinsman’s palm looked like a prototype of Google’s Project Ara modular smartphone: a shiny slab of a handset composed of thin, removable orange squares—each representing a different function that the user could easily swap—flanked by the golden-brown ribs of the internal skeleton that held the squares together.
It wasn’t improbable, as Google had just shown off an actual, though not functional, prototype phone that mid-April morning at a developers’ conference for the forthcoming smartphone, which Kinsman was attending.
Yet it was actually a 3-D-printed plastic model, which Kinsman, an 18-year-old college student from Rochester, New York, modeled using early images of a Project Ara prototype and then convinced the engineering department at his school to print. Kinsman held it in his hands, sliding the squares in and out, showing how simple it was to switch them on a whim.
“I wanted to play with it—I wanted to actually hold something, mess around with it,” says Kinsman, who’s working with a company called OpenMod Wireless that hopes to help companies build a range of modules.
Kinsman is one of many Project Ara enthusiasts who are considering making modules for the forthcoming smartphone, which is being developed by Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group (a unit of Motorola that Google kept when it recently sold the company to computer maker Lenovo) and a number of other companies (see “Why Google’s Modular Smartphone Might Actually Succeed”).
Project Ara’s goal is to create an inexpensive smartphone that users can customize and upgrade according to their needs and budgets; you might buy a second battery to get better battery life if you’re far from a charger, or carry several different camera modules to get just the right shots at a concert. Modules will be held in place by electropermanent magnets and will be swappable without turning off the phone.
Google expects to roll out the first Ara device early next year. It is targeting both the majority of the planet where smartphones aren’t yet widely used, and touting the customization potential for tech-savvy users. Paul Eremenko, the head of Project Ara, says the basic Ara handset—a so-called “gray phone” that includes an endoskeleton, display, Wi-Fi capabilities, battery, and processor and runs Android—will cost about $50 to make, though it’s not yet clear what the sale price will be.
There’s no functional Ara prototype for developers to mess around with yet, just a downloadable module developers’ kit that includes reference designs and hardware specifications.
And yet, there’s no shortage of ideas for ways to modify the basic Ara hardware with add-on modules, ranging from medical devices to DIY-like modules to which users can assign functions.
Eric Blanchard, a senior design engineer at satellite tracking device maker Spot, is contemplating a satellite communications module that would let hikers in remote areas alert loved ones of their location. A Spot module would allow people who want the feature to add it to their existing phone instead of buying the company’s stand-alone device to do the same thing. It could also open the door to using the company’s technology as a satellite modem for smartphones, he says. This could allow users in areas with spotty or no wireless network service to access the Internet.
Health modules are also being mulled. Derek Rinderknecht, a senior scientist at Caltech who studies noninvasive methods for predicting heart failure, is interested in the idea of a module that could give users real-time information about their heart health. He can envision a module being especially helpful in developing countries, where cell phones can be more common than medical instruments.
“You could have a village where there was a set of health-care modules, and instead of somebody having to travel four or five days to get to see a doctor, they can at least decide whether or not they need to make that trip,” Rinderknecht says.
At least one developer is interested in creating modules that hardware hackers could customize. Chris Taylor, head engineer at SparkFun Electronics, which sells electronics parts for hackers and hobbyists, wants to build a blank, open-source module containing an Arduino microcontroller. This could make it easy for nearly anyone to assign whatever functions they want to it, and to quickly and cheaply build prototypes, he says.
What does he hope they’ll build?
“Break the phone. Do something weird,” he says. “That’s obviously the lunatic fringe, but the idea is to give people that power.”
Beyond Project Ara’s smartphone focus, there’s a possibility that Google’s support for ever-changeable electronics could lead to more modular gadgets. Rocky Lin, chief engineer at automotive electronics maker Alpine Electronics’ Silicon Valley development office, is interested in exploring how, say, a modular console might work in a car where drivers could easily swap in and out parts for the stereo, navigation, and other functions.
For now, though, there are still plenty of questions, such as how difficult it will be to build modules and how much it will cost to develop them—both big concerns for small companies and individual developers.
“I’m very keen on the idea, but as it stands, I don’t know that I’ll be the first one out the door with an Ara product,” Rinderknecht says.
Hear more from Google at EmTech 2014.