Smartphones set to become even smarter - Sensors to automatically react to users' needs...

January 3, 2014 4:25 pm

Smartphones set to become even smarter
By Daniel Thomas

The revolution in smartphones is over. This year’s focus will instead be on step changes in technology that will help the devices play an even greater role in people’s lives.

2014 smartphone trends

Better processors and integrated applications will mean even smarter phones, not just in terms of sheer processing power but also in analysing and making use of the masses of data collected by the devices.

Kicking off the fight for supremacy in the smartphone market this year will be the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas next week, where the following technologies and trends in mobiles will be on display.

Sensors

Crucial to many devices this year will be intelligent sensors that monitor the user, allowing smartphones to automatically react to their needs – even before they are aware of them.

Sensors used so far in smartphones have been relatively crude, even if already numerous. The latest iPhone model, for example, includes a pedometer, compass, accelerometer, GPS and fingerprint scanner.

Improved sensors will allow phones to act and react in a similar manner to Microsoft’s Kinect games console, which can understand hand gestures and recognise faces. Indeed, Nokia, which is soon to be owned by Microsoft, will make a much greater play of sensors this year in a revamped range of devices expected in the spring, according to people familiar with the company.

Sensors will be able to detect temperature, pressure, eye movement and gestures, location and magnetic fields. In effect, the screens of premium phones will look back at the user and know when they are sleeping, walking, running or taking the bus; whether or not they are holding up one, two or three fingers or swiping away.

Accenture, the consultancy group, credits advancements in microelectromechanical systems for the coming wave of smaller, more accurate, and more durable sensors.

David Sovie, managing director with Accenture’s communications group, said: “Sensors will step into the spotlight in 2014 like never before, enabling the digital transformation of people and companies and feeding increasingly interconnected networks with insightful data.”

Iris scanning is being planned by some handset makers, which will allow people to open the phone using eye contact rather than a password. This will also allow improved eye tracking for applications such as reading and web page scrolling. Sensors such as those for heart rate monitoring in wearable technology will also emerge this year, according to Canalys.

Crucially, the phone itself will become more intelligent by learning from what it is tracking in the habits of the user. The phone will know who you are and what you are doing, and react accordingly having learnt from past experience.

Luke Mansfield, head of product innovation at Samsung Europe, said: “2014 will see technology start to distil data, and provide even sharper insights, into something even more actionable that can help us make decisions about our health and wellbeing.”

Wearables and watches

The proliferation of sensors will help wearable technology make the next step into mainstream use, with almost every major manufacturer lining up forms of mobile technology that can be worn on the wrist or elsewhere that will monitor activities and wellbeing on the move.

Most devices will be companion accessories to a smartphone rather than standalone products, although at least two smart watches will come with SIM cards installed that will allow them to connect independently to the mobile internet.

Most Android-based smartphone makers are planning to launch a smart watch, with Chinese makers such as ZTE already promising to bring down the prices with lower end alternatives. Apple, meanwhile, continues to work on the iWatch.

There will be a variety of forms, however, as makers seek to differentiate products with different displays, including at least one with an e-reader format. Many primarily offer notifications and controls for the phone in the pocket.

Many manufacturers are taking ideas already in the market – such as the fitness bands sold by Jawbone and Nike – and weaving them into wider applications where digitally connected people can log every aspect of their lives using their bands, watches and other wearable hardware.

This move by smartphone makers into this “lifestyle” market could cause a dip in the fortunes of specialised wearable devices that only have a single use, such as fitness tracking.

The wearable technology will also spawn new software applications – Ben Wood at CCS Insight has identified eight categories ranging from simple internet consumption and entertainment to the “quantified self” and “lifeblogging”.

Juniper predicts significant opportunities for app developers across the health, fitness, sports and communications markets.

Aesthetic appeal will become a factor, with analysts expecting a shift in fashion as “smart” clothes and other wearable products are embraced by designers. With wearables and applications able to track and predict habits, there will also be greater concerns around privacy.

Materials and screens

With smartphones increasingly identical in appearance, some manufacturers will bring in different materials for higher priced versions.

Phones will continue to be designed in various sizes and shapes. Companies such as LG and Samsung aim to bring out new versions of products with flexible or curved displays such as a sturdier version of LG’s G Flex range.

Ceramics will also be adopted, in particular on the detailing. Industry executives say one phonemaker is preparing a phone made of a type of unscratchable material that is similar to the polycarbonate bodies already used by Nokia.

Premium phones will typically use edge-to-edge screens, rather than a “bezel” rim encircling the screen.

High definition display will become normal for even midrange smartphones, while the resolution on displays will improve considerably at the higher end. The first phones to feature ultra high-definition (so-called 4K) screens are expected before the end of the year. This will offer realism akin to high-end TVs, although the phones using such displays will sacrifice battery life and need to be capable of superfast 4G broadband to carry HD content. Companies such as Sony and Samsung with divisions already producing high-definition TVs will be at the forefront of these improvements.

While better displays and sensors will consume more energy, smartphone makers will introduce bigger but slimmer batteries that will boost the life of many devices.

Camera

The major manufacturers have slugged it out for the title of the best smartphone camera last year, with resolution and low light advantages at the forefront of much of the advertising. While Nokia’s Lumia 1020 boasts the highest level of megapixels at 41, it is also far from the easiest to use and does not always take the best pictures in the untrained hand.

The fight continues into 2014, with Nokia and Sony expected to make the next steps into advancing lowlight camera quality. Samsung’s camera technology will also improve in its latest additions to the Galaxy range. There will be more made of the ability to “refocus” pictures after the shot, as well as the zoom quality, with smartphone makers taking aim at the compact camera market.

Smartphone makers will aim to replace the “point and shoot” range of cameras with added ability to share pictures instantly over the internet – indeed, central to the camera phone will be the applications able to create so-called “life blogging” diaries using functions similar to cameras already on sale.

4G and beyond

Manufacturers will this year bring 4G to even the most basic smartphones, meaning that superfast mobile broadband and all the resulting applications will be more accessible. While the first phones out this year from Sony and Samsung will boast impressive speeds, 4G will come as standard in the entry level, £100 phones by the middle of the year.

This move will be supported by a shift to 4G chipsets such as those made by MediaTek, the Chinese component maker, that are cheaper without sacrificing experience.

Meanwhile, the higher priced phones will be boosted with support for the so-called LTE Advanced standards capable of reaching 300 Mbps speeds that are being pushed by operators such as EE in the UK. Handsets capable of LTE Advanced are being planned for the second half of the year.

There will also be more powerful, and again cheaper, chips becoming available that will boost the performance of more basic handsets.

Better processors will better support the health and lifestyle apps and the range of clever sensors, enabling the smartphone to become a true mobile computing device.



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