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The Future of Cell Phones

Nokia's head of R&D discusses technology that could shape the look, feel, and function of mobile devices in the next few years.

By Kate Greene

The face of the phone is going to change, according to Bob Iannucci, head of the Nokia Research Center (NRC), in Helsinki, Finland. The NRC is hard at work, along with other branches of Nokia, on software and hardware for future cell phones.

While your current model might seem like the digital version of a Swiss Army knife, Iannucci sees lots of room for improvement. Novel displays and myriad coordinated radios could make your cell phone a lot more entertaining and useful.

Last week, Nokia announced a new research lab and collaboration with Stanford University. Technology Review caught up with Iannucci in Palo Alto, CA, to ask him how Nokia's research is pushing mobile devices forward.

Technology Review: Your job, as the head of Nokia's research center, is to imagine the mobile devices of the future and to use existing and future technology to make it happen. From this standpoint, what new technology do you predict could be in phones five years from now?

Bob Iannucci: One of the things that we're intrigued with is the potential for what nanoscience and nanotechnology can bring to phones. Here's an example: right now, we're very close to having 8 radios and 11 antennas in a cell phone. In a couple of years that'll be commonplace. Now the question is, as a manufacturer of phones, how do we simplify 8 radios and 11 antennas? Well, the holy grail of simplifying radios is software-defined radio, where a radio, controlled by software, uses a broadband antenna to access a wide range of frequencies, instead of a single band. We're looking at material-science solutions on the antenna side to make software-defined radio happen.

TR: Like what?

BI: At Chalmers University, in Sweden, researchers have demonstrated, using carbon-nanotube technology, a tunable radio-frequency cavity that, in just the first version, can tune in between two and three gigahertz, picking up multiple bands. So now the idea of taking the antenna and running it through a tunable carbon-nanotube filter into an analog/digital converter might be a key enabler to actually making software-defined radio work. That's breakthrough thinking. That could be an enabler to making that 8 radio, 11 antenna thing a whole lot simpler.

TR: How would this affect the average mobile-phone user?

BI: It boils down to simplicity in cost. If we can drive down the cost by simplifying the guts inside the phone without compromising the functionality, then that's big. And software-defined radio could also enable cognitive-radio capabilities, where two devices dynamically create the best wireless channel for transferring data. This would make it possible to transfer a movie from your PC to your phone in two seconds. The idea is that the radios in my PC and phone realize when they're close to each other because the signal strength is high. So we can use very weak signals because we're only covering a short distance. We can reduce power, increase the bandwidth, but not create a tremendous amount of interference because we're only transmitting at low power. And the radio's smart enough to figure all that out.

TR: Nokia recently announced a new short-range wireless technology called Wibree. It's like Bluetooth, which is used for headsets, but Wibree uses less power. How else is it different from Bluetooth?

BI: It's the same radio-frequency hardware, the same antenna, and the same baseband processing as Bluetooth. The only difference is, there are a few changes in the digital logic. So the cost of adding Wibree to a Bluetooth chip set is a few cents, and a person has both capabilities in their phone.

TR: Why would someone want Wibree on his or her phone?

BI: Wibree is designed for short-range communication, and it could enable a phone to act like a node in wireless-sensor networks. The phone would have more power and processing capabilities than the other sensors, so as well as collecting information about the environment, like pictures or location information, it could also aggregate data from nearby sensors, process it, and send information to other sensors and phones via Wibree and cellular or Wi-Fi networks.

TR: When do you think we'll start to see the fruits of this sensor-network research?

BI: There are a couple of companies that have come out of the early work, and there are other companies that are starting to spring up, so I think there are going to be real commercial applications very soon--within the next year.

TR: What do you see as something new in user designs in the next couple of years?

BI: Making the shapes that we're familiar with more adaptable. For instance, the buttons could go away and get replaced with other things so that the device adapts more to the application, instead of trying to funnel every function through a zero-through-nine keypad. It's really pretty intriguing. What a user sees when he or she looks at the face of a phone is going to change in two years. It won't look like it looks right now.

TR: What about the display? At TR, we've covered research on projection technology for phones (see "High-Definition TV from Your Cell Phone"). That could really change how people share information from phones.

BI: It hasn't escaped our notice. There are a couple technologies that exist today that could be used in large-format displays that you can carry around. Why is that important? Because most of the world's information is authored for a 1,024-by-768 screen, and we've got to deliver an equivalent experience if we want to make the claim that we've really brought the mobile Internet to life.

TR: How soon do you think projectors could be available in mobile devices?

BI: The technology is close; we're looking at it. Believe me, I'm number one in the queue to get mine. Just imagine, as a business traveler, being able to open up your phone in a hotel room and have real-time video conferencing with the image projected on the wall and stereo sound. We're not far.


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