Smartphones and the technology that powers them are constantly growing more advanced. Many of the features that we routinely use on our phones — from shooting billboard-quality photos to streaming live video to playing augmented reality games — would have been difficult for most of us to imagine back when we were lusting after the Motorola RAZR or the T-Mobile Sidekick in the early 2000s.
But fortunately for us, the many engineers, designers, and developers in the smartphone industry envisioned advances that have taken us far beyond flip phones and sliding keyboards, and created the designs and the technological advances that enabled the modern smartphones that many of us have in our pockets. Bright screens, powerful processors, fingerprint authentication, and sharp cameras are all features that would have been difficult to envision when you were choosing a ringtone for your first cell phone or playing Snake on an early handset.
Even as you scroll through Snapchat on your iPhone, play a graphics-intensive game on your Android smartphone, send a text or an email, or snap one of the billions of photos we take with our smartphones each year, some of those same engineers and many new ones are hard at work creating the technology that will make the device you have in your hand or in your pocket feel very outdated, very soon. So soon, in fact, that we already have an idea of what future smartphones are going to look like. If you’re curious, read on to learn about some of the many things that your smartphone will be able to do as soon as just five years from now.
1. Bend and fold with the help of flexible displays
Currently, most smartphones have rigid displays that may bend a little bit, but will certainly break or shatter if you apply too much force. That’s likely to change in the near future as bendable, foldable, and flexible screens become a reality. It’s been rumored that Samsung is working on a flexible display for the Galaxy S8. While the first iteration of that technology would likely be accompanied by rigid internal components, Samsung and others are likely working on making things like the battery and processor flexible as well. That could pave the way for another innovation that Samsung is reportedly working on: the technology to mass-produce phones with foldable screens. The idea is that the device could feature a large, even tablet-sized screen that folds in half to become just as portable as today’s smartphones. OLED screens will play a key role in making all of this possible.
2. Disassemble and reassemble thanks to modular builds and components
To the average person, modular smartphones sound more like science fiction than a viable design option. But modular phones are coming, and there are plenty of reasons to love modular design. With a modular smartphone, you’ll be able to disassemble your device and reassemble it with new parts, which means you’d be able to upgrade just a component or two. (Which will be great both for the environment and for your wallet.) You’ll be able to customize a modular smartphone so that it has the best components for the tasks that are important to you, while you might opt to save money on the features that aren’t a big priority. From the stalled Project Ara to the Fairphone to incremental steps like the LG G5 and Moto Z, we’re making progress toward modular smartphones and exciting new ways for users to customize their phones.
3. Offer you information about your surroundings with augmented reality
Whatever your opinion on Pokémon Go, the game demonstrates the major potential (if not the execution) that you can expect from the augmented reality apps we’ll have in the near future. Soon, you’ll be able to point your phone’s camera at real-life places and see not Pokémon, but information about businesses, schedules for trains and buses, a trailer for the movie advertised on a billboard, purchase information about a product in a magazine, or search results for the nearest cafe, library, convenience store, or gas station. Apps like Google Translate are already incorporating some augmented reality features, like the real-time translation the app can complete when you point your phone at a sign in a language you don’t understand. And another Google innovation, Project Tango, demonstrates what it will be like when smartphones can help you with indoor navigation. In the near future, manufacturers will create phones that are capable of nailing down your precise location in a 3D environment, and developers will build apps that are capable of recognizing the things around us.
4. Make entertainment more engaging with 3D screens
Rumor has it that Apple is working on 3D displays for future iPhones. These “autostereoscopic” screens would offer glasses-free 3D, a concept that has shown up before but hasn’t yet gained popularity in smartphones. Amazon’s notoriously failed Fire Phone attempted to use the technology but simply offered a “dynamic perspective” system instead of a true stereoscopic effect. The most successful device to use the technology so far has been Nintendo’s 3DS handheld. But in the future, you can expect that more smartphones will integrate 3D screens, and developers will build apps that take advantage of the effects and interfaces that the technology will enable.
5. Accurately interpret voice commands thanks to better artificial intelligence
We’re all used to directing fun questions at Siri, even if few of us know how the digital assistant actually ended up on the iPhone. But whichever voice assistant you’re talking to — whether it’s Siri, Google Assistant, Cortana, or Alexa — you’ve probably noticed that the program can’t always understand what you’re saying, and often can’t complete all of the tasks that you’d hoped. That’s likely to change in the near future, as artificial intelligence becomes more advanced, speech recognition grows more sophisticated, and companies like Apple realize that their assistants need to be open to integrations with third-party apps in order to reach their full potential.
6. Authenticate yourself anywhere with NFC
Mobile payment systems like Apple Pay and Android Pay are taking off thanks to the integration of NFC, or near-field communication, radios into flagship smartphones. But in the near future, your phone’s NFC capability will enable you to do more than just pay for your order at Starbucks or pick up an energy drink on your run even if you’ve left your wallet at home. As part of a trend that’s beginning to happen already, you’ll be able to use your smartphone to unlock your hotel room, quickly board mass transit, open the door to your apartment, or walk into a concert. NFC will make it possible to replace many of the cards, codes, and keys that you currently use with your smartphone.
7. Enable you to do more with integrated projectors
A few smartphones, both prototype and production, have integrated projectors in the past, like Lenovo’s Smart Cast, or Samsung’s Galaxy Beam and Galaxy Beam 2. But future smartphones may do a better job of enabling users to do more than they’d be able to with the limited real estate of a small smartphone screen. A projector would enable you not only to project a video or a photo slideshow onto the wall, but could also project a virtual touchscreen onto your table or desk. With the help of more sophisticated technology, including cameras and sensors, a smartphone with a built-in projector would enable you to use apps and complete tasks that are much less realistic on the physical touchscreen of a smartphone.