ISABEL RUBIO | Tungsteno
Would you buy a mobile phone with 16 cameras? How much would you pay for one that’s foldable? Will the day come when you can play video games, send messages or check your banking transactions with just a gesture and without touching the device? We all know that smartphones have become an indispensable tool in our daily lives. In a future that seems to be marked by 5G compatibility and the design of devices with increasingly durable batteries, there are still many unknowns to sort out. The big manufacturers are experimenting with multiple cameras, flexible screens and different identification methods, but where is the future of the mobile phone really headed?
The war of the cameras
The race to house ever more lenses in mobile phone cameras continues unabated. Last September, Apple President Tim Cook announced the iPhone 11 Pro's triple camera, while a few months earlier, on the eve of the Mobile World Congress, Nokia introduced a smartphone with five cameras. Increasing the number of sensors can be used to get higher resolution images and play with the depth of field, but this obsession to equip handsets with multiple sensors has gone much further. Last year LG patented a 16-camera system for a smartphone, but is this the future of mobile photography?
In contrast, some companies are opting to improve the photographic quality of their handsets by adding larger sensors rather than multiple cameras. In the heat of the raging megapixel battle, Huawei has launched the Nova 4, and Xiaomi, the Redmi Note 7 —both with a 48-megapixel sensor. Meanwhile, manufacturers like Google are focusing their efforts on improving their camera software. The new smartphones presented in October by the Mountain View company, the Pixel 4 and the Pixel 4 XL, use machine learning to control the lighting of the different fields of the same photograph independently. In this way, the aim is to put an end to the problems that occur when taking low-light or backlit photographs.
New smartphones are incorporating large folding screens, such as this Huawei Mate X, but at prohibitive prices and with the threat of recent failures. Credit: Huawei.
Double screen or flexible screens?
Samsung planned to release its first folding mobile phone for sale in various European countries last May, but its intentions were dashed when several of the Galaxy Fold devices provided to American journalists began to fail. The Korean brand was forced to delay the sale of the 2,000-euro handset until October. This unforeseen event called into question the ability of manufacturers to start selling smartphones of this type.
But like Samsung, other companies have also been trying for years to come up with smartphones with large screens capable of being folded. For example, Royole already markets its FlexPai flexible handset in China and Huawei has announced its Huawei Mate X model, which folds out and is expected to go on sale in November. In contrast to mobile phones with flexible screens, whose prices are currently prohibitive for the average user, other brands have opted for a double screen. Back in 2017, ZTE presented the Axon M, a folding handset with two 5.2-inch screens. That same year, at the World Mobile Congress, LG opted for a dual screen as an optional accessory for the LG V50 ThinQ 5G. The manufacturer, which introduced the first OLED roll-up TV at CES in January, wants users to use this second screen to view different applications at the same time or to improve their gaming experience.
Pinch the air to interact with the smartphone
Answering or ending a call, adjusting the volume, skipping a song or delaying an alarm is now possible without touching the handset. Different manufacturers have been implementing gesture control systems in their devices for years. Simply slide your hand over the terminal to the left or right or pinch the air. For example, the Samsung Galaxy 4 already featured Air Gesture, which allows the user to control their smartphone by making specific hand movements close to the screen thanks to sensors in the device. Among other possibilities, it can be used to scroll, move from one image to another in the gallery or consult the time or unread messages when the mobile is switched off.
Newer handsets can also be controlled in this way, such as the new Pixel 4 and Pixel 4 XL —thanks to the Soli technology, which Google has been working on for five years— and the LG G8 ThinQ. The creators of the latter device insist that these systems are useful when driving, wearing gloves or having wet hands. Although it is still too early to predict whether the future of mobiles will be controlled by gestures, at the moment the possibilities offered are quite limited. This technology could be promising when developers decide to start using it generically in their apps.
Identification through the veins of the hands or eye scan promises to overcome the security flaws of systems such as fingerprint or facial recognition. Credit: Isabel Rubio Arroyo.
Face, fingerprint or veins as an unlocking method
What used to be typical of science fiction films, such as using the eye’s iris or the voice as a method of identification, is now being intensively studied in laboratories all over the world. The field of biometrics opens up an infinite number of possibilities in multiple sectors, and also when it comes to unlocking one’s smartphone. Manufacturers are experimenting with different biometric data to allow access to the device, from unlocking the device by fingerprint or facial recognition to using the veins of the hand.
Samsung was the first company to implement eye scanning when it introduced the Galaxy S8 series. In recent months, there has been a trend towards incorporating a fingerprint reader into smartphones. Some manufacturers such as Xiaomi usually choose to place it on the back of the handset, while others —for example, Sony with the Xperia Z5— prefer to integrate it on the side. Still others, like Samsung with its Galaxy S10+, embed them in the screen itself. Using facial recognition to unlock smartphones has also become fashionable, incorporated alongside other mechanisms in the latest offerings from Apple and Google. But this technology does still have some limitations. Cybersecurity journalist Thomas Brewster proved that a 3D-printed face was capable of unlocking most face recognition handsets on the market. In addition, the Pixel 4 XL allows anyone to unlock the phone by simply putting it in front of the owner's face, even if their eyes are closed. Another alternative that is being experimented with is identification by means of the veins in the palm of the hand. The LG G8 S ThinQ features a vein pattern recognition system, which is unique to each person and changes very little as a person ages. This pattern is difficult to counterfeit, as many of the blood vessels detected with the technology are not visible to the naked eye.
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Tungsteno is a journalism laboratory to scan the essence of innovation. Devised by Materia Publicaciones Científicas for Sacyr’s blog.