Google’s Project Ara update: New partners, inductive data transfer, and cutting-edge battery tech
Ever since Google’s Project Ara debuted, consumers have been interested in the possibility of a customized smartphone with hot-swappable modules and varying functionality that can be changed on the fly depending on the user’s needs. Today, Google gave a major update on where the program is and where it’s headed through 2015.
Right now, Google is focused on building what it calls the Spiral 2 device, a new version of the hardware that will include multiple modules, greater flexibility, the option to swap out the battery while the device is in low power mode, and the opportunity to use multiple antennas for better signal sourcing and multiple carrier support. Spiral 2 also shifts from FPGA’s (Field Programmable Gate Arrays) to ASICs — specialized application-specific integrated circuits with superior performance and generally lower power consumption compared to FPGAs.
Spiral 2 still has some problems with signal degradation over the long term and an issue with the framework used to attach the various modules. Google is reportedly working on induction signaling, with a 150-micron gap between components that will prevent the wear and tear that comes with repetitive switching back and forth. These improvements will come with Spiral 3, which adds additional RF field improvements as well (as shown below).
Project Ara’s roadmap
Google also laid out the Project Ara longer-term roadmap through 2015, including plans for an eventual market test in Puerto Rico by the end of the year.
Spiral 3 will add the Rockchip reference design, an LTE 4G modem, an Android release, packaging and decorating improvements, and an updated framework for software development that’s meant to make it easier for both software and hardware developers to build their projects. Google also talked up the concept of giving new and unusual battery designs a forum to experiment with Project Ara — there are battery technologies that offer substantial improvements over conventional lithium polymer architectures, but either cost too much for typical inclusion into smartphones or have other, specialized requirements. Some of these could be met within the Project Ara modular concept, and Google wants to see the platform used for prototyping and market testing.
Longer term, the goal is to create an initial pool of some 20-30 modules, including some of the options shown above. Google didn’t go into detail on what a “pollution sensor” might be, but it’s possible to include a carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and other types of smoke detector modules in a smartphone platform. A Project Ara device could conceivably include multiple modules to scan for various types of atmospheric contaminants, along with an LTE modem to report their prevalence at specific locations.
Google has stressed the goal of creating an entire ecosystem around this concept rather than simply throwing it to the consumer-wolves, which implies that the device could at least find targeted applications in specific markets or spaces where its customizability are a selling point. It’s not clear if the wider consumer space will take to the device (this will likely be cost-dependent) but the modular nature could prove popular with enthusiasts and hobbyists who want the ability to customize a phone for particularly long battery life or with specialized sensors. The ability to use multiple antennas could also prove useful for globetrotters, if the phone can be equipped with a sufficiently flexible LTE radio to allow for a truly global device.
If the Puerto Rico tests go well, Google intends to move forwards with market availability in the 2016 timeframe.
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