Mobile Tech

Nokia Tinkers With Morphing Phone Concept

Imagine what you’d get if you crossed Gumby with a smartphone, and you’ve got some idea of what a new, nanotech handset from Nokia could be like.

The new Morph, which was jointly developed by the Nokia Research Center and the University of Cambridge in England, is a bendable, flexible and stretchable device that can be folded into pocket size and used as a handset, or unfolded and opened up to display more detailed information.

The Morph was unveiled Monday as part of the “Design and the Elastic Mind” exhibition that runs through May 12 at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York. Morph is featured in both the exhibition catalog and on MoMA’s official Web site.

Transformative Technology

Morph is currently just a concept that demonstrates how future mobile devices might look, Nokia said, with pliable materials, transparent electronics and self-cleaning surfaces. Actual, commercial devices based on the concept won’t be available for a good seven years at least.

“Nokia Research Center is looking at ways to reinvent the form and function of mobile devices; the Morph concept shows what might be possible,” said Bob Iannucci, chief technology officer for Nokia.

When the technology reaches full development, however, it could transform the world of mobile devices as we know it today, allowing users to transform their handsets into radically different shapes.

Mimicking Spider Silk

Nokia’s technology uses Fibril proteins woven into a three-dimensional mesh that reinforces thin elastic structures. The resulting elasticity is much like that of spider silk, and it will enable the devices to change shapes and configure themselves to adapt to the task at hand.

Users could fold or unfold the device to suit their immediate purpose, whether it’s to talk on the phone or use input devices such as keyboards or touch pads. Even the electronics integrated into the device, from interconnects to sensors, would be flexible, Nokia said.

The Morph would also be built from biodegradable materials, making production and recycling easier.

Solar Charging

Built-in solar absorption could charge the devices, while batteries could get smaller, longer-lasting and faster to charge, Nokia said. Integrated sensors, meanwhile, could let users learn more about the environment around them.

Devices like the Morph could also cost less while including more functionality in a smaller space, the company said, while interfaces are simplified and usability is enhanced. The result, it added, will be the ability to communicate and interact in unprecedented ways.

Nokia and the University of Cambridge forged their partnership about a year ago, and the Nokia Research Center has established a research facility at the University’s West Cambridge site focusing on nanotechnology.

Transformation Trend

Nokia’s Morph is part of an ongoing trend toward transformable devices, Chris Hazelton, senior analyst for mobile device technology and trends with IDC Research, told TechNewsWorld.

“We see variants of this already, such as in Motorola’s Rokr E8,” Hazelton noted. Announced last month, Motorola’s device is designed to physically transform from phone to music player at the touch of a button.

Polymer Vision’s forthcoming Readius, a 3G cell phone with a 5-inch, foldout screen, is another example, he noted — and “even the iPhone has some degree of flexibility,” he pointed out.

Miniaturization Challenges

So “this idea of morphing is not new for mobile devices,” Hazelton explained. “This is different device vendors trying to meet the demands of users and push capabilities into the phone but still keep it pocket-sized.”

Nokia’s Morph continues the morphing trend, as software transformations give way to hardware ones, he said.

Of course, several barriers will need to be overcome, Hazelton added, such as the miniaturization of internal components including the processor, memory, storage and particularly the battery. All parts will either need to be flexible or be small enough to fit into a tiny corner of the device that doesn’t need to bend, he pointed out.

Future Potential

The technology is certainly leading edge “if not bleeding edge, and the fun part is to speculate what it could mean,” Neil Strother, a wireless analyst with JupiterResearch, told TechNewsWorld.

Technology embedded in clothing or other items that aren’t traditionally considered devices could be among the applications that might follow, Strother pointed out. The Morph’s flexibility could also unlock some of the potential for phones to be fashion items, he added.

“We just don’t know where a lot of this is headed, because nanotech is pretty out there and exciting,” Strother said. “It may take a generation or two, but this certainly has some interesting applications.”

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