Nokia seeks to revolutionise smartphone design

Nokia has revealed it is using nanotechnology to create a new breed of smartphone that is flexible, stretchable and operated by physical manipulation.

The firm’s research and development arm – Nokia Research Center – has been working with scientists at The University of Cambridge to create products that it hopes will revolutionise the appearance and interface of handsets in the future.

The firm is working on two concepts – one that utilises flexible touchscreen technology, allowing phones to be controlled and navigated by squeezing and twisting the device, and another that allows the user to ‘wear’ the phone, effectively as another layer of their skin.

“Nano-enablers allow us to make products that are really revolutionary devices compared to what we see today. One thing that all designers have dreamed about is free-shape, free-form products that could be more organic and put components in a different places,” explained Tapani Jokinen, head of design technology insights at Nokia.

He added that in today’s smartphones, there are certain prominent features and dominant components; a touch screen has to be big, lithium batteries also need a lot of space and this is why all of the phones in the market have “sandwich structures”; a front cover, a back cover and layered components between those.

“What nanotechnology would bring is that we could have the energy sources in each component, for example, antennas could have their own energy sources, which would be nano-enabled supercapacitor batteries, which are small and flexible. Displays could have their own battery sources so that we don’t have to have this sort of centralised energy source for everything and that gives the flexibility to create something totally new, which we haven’t seen yet in the market.”

He revealed that flexible phones – such as those recently showcased by Samsung – are on the horizon for Nokia too. However, these devices would not just be flexible and durable, but also controlled by physical manipulation.

Jokinen explained that the new innovative designs will be made possible by using a material called graphene – a one-atom-thick planar sheet of carbon. The pioneers of graphene were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics last year. Nokia is experimenting with graphene-optical electronics, as the combination of optical and electrical properties are completely unique to graphene, and its properties will enable flexibility in phones.

“The dominant interaction at the moment is the touch screen and it’s great but there are still some limitations,” said Jokinen. “There are times when you can’t use touchscreen, such as when driving a car, or walking in the street.”

He added that physical manipulation will be complementary to touchscreen capabilities, rather than a wholesale replacement.

“We’re not looking at removing the touchsreen capabilities completely because there are cases, such as if you’re inputting text, where this type of physical manipulation interface is not suitable for that. If you have a touchscreen, that’s much faster, so multi modality is the key here.”

But perhaps the development that will most revolutionise smartphones in the future, and challenge the traditional design of the mobile phone is a project called Iho. Iho is Finnish for skin and is the name given to the project that aims to create a skin-like (Skinnish? Ed) wearable phone.

“This is an electronic skin that we could use to create a flexible, transformable phone that you can attach on your skin and it will always be there with you 24×7. The material allows you to stretch the whole device and make it bigger, and it will record all of the events that the user experiences during the day. It will enable us to create totally new types of devices that have never been seen in the market before,” Jokinen concluded.

A video of what these Iho devices could look like can be found here.

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