Google's aborted Ara phone was supposed to launch with an aquarium module full of wriggling tardigrades

Back in 2014, Google announced Project Ara, a click-in/click-out modular concept-phone that you could customize by adding or removing modules as you saw fit.

The project is -- alas -- dead, but it nearly came to fruition. There was a whole launch-plan complete with a planned retail shop in LA. As part of the PR push, Google hired avant-garde design studio Midnight Commercial to create "the weirdest possible module for this thing."

Midnight Commercial mooted some strange plans: a touch-transmitting haptic module, access to a private "luxury" satellite, an ink-spraying graffiti module. But they settled on a tiny, magnified aquarium full of tardigrades, the legendarily hardy microscopic organisms that are sometimes called "water bears" because of their silhouette and little claws.

Water bears are capable of surviving for hundreds of years in cryptobiosis -- a kind of hybernation in which they expel 90% of their body water -- and have been found in ice cores, from which they were revived. But it turns out that this hardiness relies on gradual, not sudden, environmental change. The kind of temperature swings inside of a mobile device whose battery and radio were radiating heat was beyond the metabolism of the little critters.

This posed some weird and amazing design challenges -- as did the previously unforeseen behavior of lab-grown carnivorous tardigrades, who turned cannibal inside the prototype modules -- which are documented in a fantastic Venturebeat article about the weird future we didn't get when the Ara was canceled.

“The first time that we discovered that the camera being on was an obstacle for these guys staying alive was a little bit of a frightening moment. It got to such a temperature where these guys were dying off, and if you don’t think about it too hard, that’s almost like, ‘Oh my gosh, how are you going to take pictures of these guys if they can’t survive for a long period of time when the camera’s on?’ That’s kind of a mini-crisis that sort of requires a lot of rethinking,” said Gonzalez.

The team “collected data on shaking, rapid heat changes, suffocation, and population control,” said project manager Jennifer Bernstein, Midnight Commercial’s main contact with Google. But unlike a virtual Tamagotchi pet, tardigrades are living creatures. And if they die before reproducing, all they leave behind is algae.

Midnight Commercial resolved to fix the problem with software. The engineers designed the experience around nudges that let you “play” with your tardigrades without killing them with love. “If you’ve been looking at [them] too much, we’d have a control that says, the next time you try to open the app if it hasn’t cooled down enough, it would say ‘They’re resting right now, why don’t you see some videos that we’ve taken before’, or what-not,” said Feehan.

“We had started out with: ‘It’s going to be a tardigrade parade’, and we ended up realizing that the most durable experience was going to be the miracle that is this whole world in this little drop. The algae on its own, watching it bloom or being eaten, is just as interesting.” The team planned for the biome to eventually include rotifers, ostracods, and a spotter’s manual to help module owners identify their micro-pets.

Complicated. Weird. Beautiful! The secret Google project to put an aquarium full of tiny, wiggly water bears inside your phone [Harrison Weber/Venturebeat]

(via Super Punch)

Notable Replies

  1. Somehow this seems emblematic of everything that was wrong with the Ara phone.

    From capabilities that only a vanishingly small number of uber-nerds care about, to gratuitous form-factor bloat in what's supposed to be a handheld device, to difficult technical challenges that went unappreciated by people with no expertise in the problem they were trying to solve...the tardigrade module has it all.

  2. Yeah, forget the phone, I just want a tardigrade aquarium.

  3. Wait, you were supposed to attach physical modules? Like... telephoto lenses and aftermarket carburetors? And they go click?

    I wonder why this didn't catch on.

  4. I oversaw the optical and mechanical design on the tardigrade ARA module. It was a truly mad concept. A lot of the appeal of this project, and the ARA phone in general, was the ability to integrate peripherals with the phone no other manufacturer would even imagine shipping. In some ways the tardigrade module was to be the "least able to be integrated into a unibody phone ever" module. The eventual plan was to figure out how to get smaller players on board for things like science-specific or education-specific modules for your phone so you could load in all the modules you needed for, say, teaching your beginner electronics workshop in the morning, and swap them for your load out for trail riding in the afternoon.

  5. It's a neat idea, but what I hate about Android phones is that if you want a simple protosomia app to work, you have to give it permission to access the entire animal kingdom.

    They say it's because certain metabolic functions are common to all animals, and so a developer would never, for example, try to sneak an elephant in through a secret backdoor. Oh, how comforting, an anonymous developer somewhere promises not to do anything shady. But even if I believed that, any phone is just one exploit away from some Romanian script kiddie filling my house with wildebeests because Android couldn't be bothered to limit permissions.

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