If you look at all of the current smartphones on the market, there is very little differentiation across every smartphone lineup on every carrier. The most unusual form factor you will see is a phone with a physical QWERTY keyboard. (We're not going to count the Echo. That one is best left swept under the carpet.) Other than that, pretty much every other smartphone out there is your most basic candybar form factor.
Most would say this is because the candybar form factor is the most ideal – there is no other form factor that is more efficient or that can improve the way we use our phones. Maybe so. But it's thoughts like those that force me to believe otherwise.
For the past year or so, I've been searching high and low, keeping one eye open at all times, for any hint of a new and improved form factor. Yes, Kyocera thought outside the box with the Echo, and I will admit I'm still interested in multi-display phones. But running with a new idea at half-capacity won't get you anywhere. Not to mention, battery technology needs a little more work before a pocket-sized, battery-powered machine with multiple displays can last for more than a few hours per charge.
More recently, however, some companies have revealed research and development projects that have easily piqued my interests.
First and foremost is Samsung, who announced plans to mass produce flexible displays in 2012, with hopes of also bringing flexible phones, or at least implementing the bendy displays, in phones shortly afterward. The usefulness of a flexible phone is still questionable, but being less rigid could definitely add to durability. And much like the fake, yet still totally awesome Galaxy Skin, you phone could be propped sans kickstand, wrapped around your wrist and worn as a watch or simply folded in half for easy pocketing.
At Nokia World last month, the Finnish company displayed their kinetic interface, which was featured on none other than a flexible phone. In order to browse the interface, the user must bend and twist their way around, instead of touching, tapping and swiping. But I have my concerns about this technology: the flex of the phone was minimal and stiff, bending and twisting is in now way comparable to the accuracy of touching and swiping and most of the navigation controls seemed to be unintuitive ... or unnatural.
Late last month, Nokia stemmed off of its kinetic design and uploaded a concept video to YouTube, delving further into what their R&D department is really up to: HumanForm. HumanForm is a "visionary solution beyond touch screen and voice communication where technology becomes invisible and intuition takes over."
The two-minute video displays a teardrop-shaped phone that is flexible and has a transparent display. It incorporates nanotechnology (which just sounds awesome), gesture-based navigation, a touch-sensitive casing and the kinetic controls we saw at Nokia World. In addition, it shows a technology which the video calls a "skin joystick" (poor choice of words, there), which allows the user to pan the interface by pushing or "stretching" in different directions with their finger instead of sliding (similar to how trackpoints work). It also touches on "Electro tactile" displays which intelligently replicates the texture of what is displayed (and looks to be initiated by a multitouch gesture) and lets the user "feel the image." On top of all of this, it touts a "natural interface" which appears to break the bounds of the standard home screen and app drawer to offer free-floating icons, that we can only assume are based on your mood. (A lot of this technology seems to be mood-driven.) Incoming calls also display the face of the caller, and let the recipient of the call know the mood of the caller with mood recognition.
Phew. That's a lot to take in after a short, two-minute video. But I like the direction Nokia is headed. Granted, there are some things in the video that beg a lot of questions and create cause for concern. Nonetheless, it's nice to see them heading in a different direction. Personally, I've been getting bored with most technology that's out there. It's easy to get burned out when everything looks and acts the same, even when switching between brands and platforms. It's the potential for features like these that keep me interested and excited for the future.
To be honest, I don't think I've been this excited for devices and technology to come in a long time. The most intriguing part for me was the touch-sensitive case. Instead of panning and scrolling around on the display and mucking up the screen with nasty fingerprints, you can scroll on the corner or edge of the device. It brings back fond memories of the BlackBerry trackwheel, but puts a twist (see what I did there?) on it. The other part of the video that really caught my attention is the skin joystick. I was never a fan of trackpoints on old IBM StinkPads (ThinkPads), but on a smaller device, it might not be so bad. And it would keep you from having to constantly lift your finger from the screen to keep scrolling.
Still, after seeing the kinetic interface navigation, I'm not impressed or overly confident in the technology. I think it might be cool as an option, but not as the main form of navigation. And I'm left wondering just how realistic electro tactile can possibly feel. They both sound and look very gimmicky to me.
So, after digesting the video and re-watching it a few times, what features do you like (or would you like to see) the most? Is there any part you feel might be a nice big gimmick? Will flexible phones be the future, or will they just be a short-lived fad like (hopefully) 3D?