3D, 4G and laser projectors: We look to the future of mobile phones

Predicting the future of mobiles is easy -- devices will get thinner and Steve Jobs will get richer. For a more optimistic vision of the future of mobile phones, read our list of probable prophecies.

Mark Harris Special to CNET News
6 min read

Predicting the future of mobiles is easy -- devices will get thinner, Steve Jobs will get richer and the names of Android handsets will become increasingly smug. Magic? Incredible? Ultima? It can only be a matter of weeks before the HTC Stupendous Chocolate-Covered Jesus handset is available for £99 on a two-year contract. Read on to hear of other mobile miracles predicted for the years ahead...

Haptic technology was all the rage a year or two ago, and what did we get out of it? Touchscreens that buzz a little when you press them. Wow.

The next generation of touchy-feely gadgets won't be quite as underwhelming, if Intel has anything to do with it. The chip company just demonstrated the first system that can simulate different kinds of springs using miniature actuators and software. It sounds pretty esoteric but the applications are actually pretty cool.

A phone equipped with Intel's virtual springs could give sight-free feedback on all kinds of things. Want to know how many texts or emails you have waiting for you without fishing your phone from your pocket? If you squeeze your mobile and it feels like a squidgy banana, your inbox is empty. If it feels like a rock-hard avocado, it's time you started ploughing through them.

Intel's other sensitive device is a TV remote that knows who's holding it. Apparently, we all have slightly different ways of pressing the damn mute button when the ads start shouting, or making a little pointy movement when changing channels. Intel's intuitive remote can identify different family members and pre-select their favourite channel lists, volume and picture settings -- without having to be told who's commanding the box.

Likely release date: Squeezable phone -- 2013. Personalised zapper -- 2012.

When we reach the point when every phone in the world has a gorgeous 4.3-inch touchscreen, how are manufacturers going to persuade you to upgrade? Add another dimension of course. Mobile phones are likely to be one of the first gadgets to get good-looking autostereoscopic (glasses-free) 3D, thanks to new technologies just emerging.

All autostereo systems have one problem or another. Lenticular screens (as seen on Fujifilm's W3 camera) have annoying black bands, while parallax barrier displays (like Nintendo's 3DS) reduce the resolution and brightness. Even the very latest tech, a micro-lens film from 3M, suffers from having just a single 3D sweet spot.

But on mobile gadgets, none of these really matter. It's easy and natural to twist portable gadgets until the 3D looks its best, and you don't really need a 'Full HD' screen on something palm-sized anyway. Multi-dimensional mobiles will start with 3D menus -- imagine pushing an icon and seeing it sink down into the screen. Next up will be basic 3D games and shooting your own 3D memories on your phone, which merely requires a second tiny camera on board.

"Almost certainly we will see a plethora of autostereoscopic products in the handheld market," says Michael Bove, director of the consumer electronics laboratory at MIT. "We don't know at this point whether or not phones or media players really need autostereo, but I applaud those hardy souls who are willing to bet their companies' future on there being a business, because we learn a lot from it."

Likely release date: First autostereo mobile -- 2011.

Take a brand-new Android handset, throw it on the floor and stamp on it. Go on, really hard. Now try to update your Facebook status. That's how useful 3G phones will seem once 4G arrives in the UK. The problem is, no one yet knows exactly what 4G is going to be used for, when it will arrive, or how much it will cost. It's a bit like a new Trident submarine, except without the ability to vaporise Belgium.

There are two contenders slugging it out to earn the 4G crown: LTE and WiMax. Both have had limited roll-outs around the world and both offer spiffy maximum data rates -- around 128Mbps for WiMax and 100Mbps for LTE. That's lightning-fast compared to average 3G speeds, which in the UK today hover at an embarrassingly sluggish 1 to 1.5Mbps.

The International Telecommunication Union must have been sniffing sci-fi space dust when it set the standards for 4G. It says both systems need to be ten times faster still, reaching a goggling 1Gbps maximum speed and never dropping below 100Mbps, even if you're driving a Tesla Roadster at top speed through an urban canyon while wearing a tinfoil hat.

The truth is, real 4G won't be here within three years or even five, and may not get here at all. It's all down to tariffs. Unless truly unlimited data contracts return, who's going to want a phone that can run through a month's data (currently a meagre 1GB on even the most generous networks) in just a few seconds?

Likely release date: 4G in the UK -- 2015.

Anyone who's ever shopped for a Mac computer knows Apple likes nothing more than getting close to your wallet. And it doesn't get much closer than this. As soon as the iPhone 5's release (mid-2011), Apple may deploy a patented radio-frequency-identification (RFID) reader, turning its smart phone into a wireless bus pass and e-wallet.

Nokia has already tried out a couple of phones with built-in RFID chips that work with Oyster and Visa PayWave readers, and Japan is rife with wireless money boxes. It's only a matter of time before Visa or MasterCard offer a branded phone (possibly even for free) that locks you into using their payment system for everything from your monthly contract fee to a quick espresso on your commute.

Security will be key when wireless payments go mainstream. The Nokia handsets require a PIN for amounts over £10, but next-generation phones may prefer biometric security, such as a built-in fingerprint scanner or even facial recognition using the phone's camera.

Likely release date: Visa walletphone -- 2011.

Mobile-phone makers are in a pickle. They can easily make screens that are bigger and sharper (see the 5-inch Dell Streak) but it turns out that no one really wants to carry a mini tablet in their pocket. The next step for video has to be mini projectors, but it turns out no one really wants to watch movies in a dim, fuzzy rectangle.

Enter the micro laser projector. The major selling point of lasers is that they are always in focus, wherever the light lands. That means you can fire a micro laser at the corner of a room, or the back of an airline seat, and the entire picture will always be razor-sharp -- if sometimes slightly wonky.

Microvision already has a pocket(ish)-sized stand-alone laser projector, using a tiny micro-electromechanical (MEMS) mirror to combine the light from miniature red, green and blue lasers. The first phones with built-in frickin' laser beams will hit shelves within a year or two.

"Lasers have the ability to do it at all," says Andrew Rosen, a product applications engineer at Microvision. "There's not only infinite focus but laser light also lends itself to doing anaglyphic effects for 3D video."

Likely release date: Laser mobile -- 2013.