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]