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The Project Ara modular smartphone could start at US$50

The fascinating modular phone project, still owned by Google, could arrive as early as 2015 and will have a low price tag.

As we reported back in January, when Google sold Motorola to Lenovo, it made sure to keep one particular division.

Early concepts for Project Ara. (Credit: Motorola)

That was the Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group, helmed by former DARPA director Regina Dugan, which got moved to the Google campus in Mountain View and integrated into the Android team.

The big project from Dugan's group was Ara, a modular smartphone that allows people to customise their hardware with keyboards, cameras, extra batteries, even different screens.

An endoskeleton, or structural frame, would hold the smartphone modules of the owner's choice and users would be able to swap out malfunctioning modules or upgrade as innovations emerge.

Speaking to Time, project lead Paul Eremenko said that the Ara was coming along rather nicely.

"The question was basically, could we do for hardware what Android and other platforms have done for software?" Eremenko told Time. "Which means lower the barrier to entry to such a degree that you could have tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of developers as opposed to just five or six big [manufacturers] that could participate in the hardware space."

The suggestion is that the base endoskeleton would start at just US$50 and could be available by the start of next year. There will be three sizes of endoskeleton: mini, medium, and jumbo. Each will consist of an aluminium frame, networking circuitry, and a back-up battery. Each endoskeleton will have several module connectors based on size. The medium frame, for example, will have room for 10 connectors.

Impressively, the modules can be swapped in and out without having to power down the phone. They'll also be thin — just 4mm wide — so theoretically the phone wouldn't measure over 9.7mm in thickness.

For the Project Ara initiative, Google has partnered with NK Labs to do the electrical, mechanical, and software engineering and with 3D Systems to make a high-speed 3D printer to mass produce the Ara endoskeletons.

This isn't the only project that ATAP has on the go, so we can look forward more unexpected innovations to be shown off out of Mountain View over the next few years.