Google's Project Ara: a click-in/click-out modular concept phone

Modular mobile phone design feels important; I've been excited about the idea since Xeni posted about Phonebloks last September. Now, Google and New Deal Design have floated a concept for a modular Android phone ecosystem called Project Ara that's got me even more worked up. Project Ara lets you swap modules (batteries, radios, cameras, screens, etc) around between "exoskeletons." They call it an "ecosystem" because third parties are meant to be able to supply their own modules for an open spec.

A good overview in Wired discusses the possibilities this opens up (night vision, 3D imaging, biometrics) but I'm more interested in the possibilities for surveillance-resistant open source hardware, and hot-swapping modules that lock phones into carriers. Plus, as a serial phone-shatterer, I love the idea of being able to click out a busted screen and click in a fresh one.

For a modular phone to function, the designers surmised, each module will need to have direct access to a central piece of electronics, without having to worry about neighboring modules impinging on its space or function. “We want an arbitrator–some element that is objective and is neutral, that nobody can manipulate, that has a very clear spec that everyone can adhere to,” Amit says. The endoskeleton is that arbitrator.

Created with NK Labs, the Massachusetts firm responsible for the bulk of Ara’s electrical and mechanical engineering, it’s the bus to which all modules attach. Parceling dictates that every module has its own plot on the endo, making it so that module makers don’t have to worry about building on top of other modules–or other modules building on top of them.

Ara’s hoping to tap into a handful of next-gen technologies to make it all work. A prototype uses electropermanent magnets for attaching modules and an emerging standard called UniPro for letting them talk to the endo. Still, the concept of parceling was crucial to the vision. Creating a design where modules are both physically and electronically independent from their neighbors was the only way to establish an ecosystem in which anyone could bring a module to market.

“We had to create a system that allows everyone to understand the boundaries of where they can operate or not,” Amit says. “That was somewhat restrictive. But the notion was that this minimal restriction would allow this economy of third parties to thrive.”

Three Big Ideas in Google’s Modular Phone That No One’s Talking About [Kyle VanHemert/Wired]

Notable Replies

  1. Looks like the modules slide in from the sides. That's all well and good until the first time you drop it - a corner will squish and the module will get crimped into place, never to be removed.

  2. Why hasn't anyone tried building a modular PC this way? It seems like it would be an easier technical challenge, and it would keep a lot of e-waste out of landfills if consumers could easily swap out a processor on their home computer when it was time to upgrade instead of having to replace the whole tower.

  3. mrtut says:

    I'd kickstart a parachute module

  4. Its basically a 'cool' but useless idea.

    PC's already are modular and you already can swap out pieces... for the approximately two years that is worth doing as an upgrade before you could just buy a whole new one for a better performance gain at a lower cost.

    For a mobile device this equation is only worse as you care a lot more about how big the thing is, and a large portion of the cost of existing devices is explained by the need to make them small.

    Notice how laptop computers are far less upgradable than desktop computers? That's because desktop computers are allowed to be 20x the volume, mass, and power consumption.

    A far better way to add 'accessories' to a phone is via wireless communication.

  5. The thing is, you can't just swap out a processor. You'd definitely need a new motherboard, and probably new RAM as well.

    Had you been using a PC, this would have been easy. PCs are still using variations on the ATX motherboard form factor standard from the 90s, which is still somewhat compatible with the AT standard from the 80s. If you still have one of those awesome gateway towers from the early pentium days, you could still be using it with cutting-edge components.

    But apple being apple, nothing is standard if they can help it. They's much prefer you have to buy a whole new PC every time any component gets too old.

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