Reimagining the concept of the smartphone in a 5G era

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    By Qin Fei, Head of vivo Communication Research Institute
    Head of vivo Communications Research Institute

    Smartphones have not only become an important part of our lives, but it has also shaped our society, culture, and business. This is not surprising when you consider that almost half of the world’s population is projected to own a smartphone by the end of 2020, according to research firm Statista.

    By 2025, when 70 percent of the world’s population will use just their smartphones to access the Internet, the concept of the smartphone as a device is likely to be very different from what we know today. There is a sense that the future of smartphones has reached a critical inflection point.

    The arrival of 5G heralds a raft of new potential for what the smartphone can do. From high speed, high quality media content possibilities, immersive gaming, and multi-reality experiences, to a realization of mission-critical low-latency connectivity for remote health, smart city, and automated transport applications. There is no doubt it is a platform for new and unconventional opportunities. However, the limitations of current smartphone designs, display, battery life, and hardware, could spell the beginning of the end of the smartphone as we know it.

    Unconventional opportunities call for unconventional approaches, and the smartphone is no exception. vivo sees the smartphone evolving into a smart intelligent central interface for all personal information and service needs. If we look at the significantly higher penetration rate of smartphone (93 percent) over desktop (63 percent) or laptop devices in Southeast Asia, it is no surprise that the “smartphone” or “smart mobile device” will be our single centralized point of interaction to all smart connected things.

    Accelerating innovation and rethinking all factors

    5G will prompt the next major rethink in the evolution of smart devices. We don’t know yet the exact form factor of smartphones in the next 5-10 years, but we can already see how their core elements will evolve.

    The display. Screens are getting bigger but how much bigger? Curved screens are now available, but how bendable and stretchable can displays be to give users options to expand screen sizes to suit the application? While screens evolve, the pursuit of even thinner, lighter, portless, notchless devices has become an obsession for all smartphone designers. Could the future be as simple as a single sheet of glass, which is how artists and science fiction envision the future smartphone? Which leads to the idea of the smartphone simply becoming a pure display device with all processing and intelligence in the cloud.

    When thinking of the display, today’s young consumers can not live without their smartphone cameras. vivo’s latest display and camera innovations in the APEX2020 have already allowed us to embed cameras into the screen and under the surface. So while cameras appear as one with the screen, we can also expect more cameras and more lenses. One lens to take the actual picture and another lens to add depth of field is the path being followed today, as resolutions continue to improve. The human eye can see up to 576 megapixels, so we can safely assume this will be set as a benchmark, as cameras move much closer to human eye capability in years to come.

    Multi-sensory control through sight, sound, and touch

    On the topic of vision, the smartphone interface will likely present the greatest and most immediate opportunity for a major step-change. Future smartphones or devices will be controlled through various inputs – more advanced multitouch, audio, gesture, and vision will all have their applications as operating systems synchronize with natural human interfaces.

    Operating systems themselves will see rapid evolution with AI at the core. Already we see AI customizing phone settings, optimizing performance for gameplay or other applications, as well as automating camera functions and enhancements that turn complete amateurs into photography pros.

    Finally on the hardware. This is where potentially the greatest challenges lie. Ways must still be found to embed all the processing power, RF antennas, battery power, and underlying circuits into a slim and flexible display form factor. Bendable circuits are being explored in the laboratory, but some way off becoming a commercial reality. This is where there needs to be a huge shift in design and engineering thinking, to realize the future reality of a centralized smart AI-powered console which would replace today’s smartphones.

    With great innovation comes great talent

    5G does seem to be the point at which smartphone makers must break with current thinking to realize the full potential of the network. This can only be made possible by addressing the talent gap in the industry. Any progressive handset manufacturer should not only be bringing in both researchers and engineers with 5G knowledge, but also creative forward thinkers with market acumen to breakthrough and create genuine impact to consumers, industries, and society.

    Our own 5G journey began as far back as 2016, when we established our dedicated 5G Research and Development Centre, which has contributed to a wide range of original 5G innovations. In the past four years, vivo contributed more than 4,000 5G technical proposals and has now assumed a leading role with 3GPP and driving critical 5G standards. This has only been made possible by the incredible talent which drives it. This includes the cohorts of fresh graduates that we have been recruiting every year to join our 5G R&D taskforce.

    Fresh graduates are given learning opportunities, mentorship and overseas 5G conference exposure, offering them a chance to participate and contribute to the setting of 5G standards. Nurturing fresh talent and giving them new experiences is important. Whilst technical knowledge is important, it requires collaboration and creativity to pave the way for ground breaking solutions to 5G’s emerging challenges.

    Whatever the case may be, the more we explore the potential capabilities of 5G networks, the more challenges will emerge in the smartphone. But with the right mindset, where there are challenges, new opportunities can equally be uncovered. More change is likely in the next five years than we have seen in the last 10. This paves the way for a very exciting time ahead for smartphones.

    Device Ownership 2020
    Link to sourceDesktop/laptopSmartphone
    Thailand50%94%
    Malaysia72%97%
    Singapore78%95%
    Philippines67%93%
    Vietnam65%93%
    Taiwan76%97%
    Hong Kong71%94%

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