A Blog by Jonathan Low


Apr 14, 2016

Why Dual Camera Phones? Because Smartphones Are Boring And Their Sales Are Plateauing

Dual phone cameras, suddenly all the rage, are a symptom, not a cure. They are evidence of the growing concern that iterative smartphone enhancements are no longer sufficiently enticing to get consumers to go through the hassle and expense of getting a brand-new device every year or two.

The sales model - and the very design of the handset - has to change. Which, as the following article explains, may be about to happen. JL

Joann Stern reports in the Wall Street Journal:

These days it’s hard to decide which is more thrilling: watching a new phone announcement or doing laundry while listening to hold music.A slightly better camera! A slightly brighter screen! Rose gold! More flexible design allows you to snap on essentials you choose: screen, battery, Wi-Fi chip, camera: add-ons like a thermometer. The business model could be as disruptive as the hardware. Companies vie for (a) spot on your handset, selling through an app-like market. If phones were easily upgradeable, you wouldn’t feel so much pressure to buy new ones.
These days it’s hard to decide which is more thrilling: watching a new phone announcement or doing laundry while listening to hold music.
A slightly better camera! A slightly brighter screen! Rose gold!
I don’t mean to sound ungrateful. How powerful and accessible smartphones have become over the last decade is one of the greatest technological feats ever. But smartphone design has become as predictable as an Adam Sandler movie.
Except last week, LG’s newest flagship phone landed on my desk, proving that some phone makers are focusing on reinvention and not just refinement. The G5 has a number of tricks: Its bottom half detaches to plug in different modules, it has two rear cameras and it works with LG’s forthcoming virtual-reality headset and 360-degree camera.
That said, this shouldn’t be your next phone. The similarly priced Samsung SSNHZ 0.00 % Galaxy S7 has a sleek waterproof design and superior camera and battery life. And, of course, the iPhone 6S and SE are great choices as well.

Instead, the G5, more prototype than finished product, provides a blueprint for the future of the smartphone.
With the G5 in hand, I went in search of these groundbreaking mobile technologies. Though software will continue to be at the core of smartphone innovation, there are hardware features on the horizon that will push phones forward.
Your Modular Phone
Your future phone may be a lot like Mr. Potato Head—just pull out the camera and pop in a better one. Slide out a shattered screen, slide in a fresh one. That’s the crux of modular design.
The G5 is a first stab at this idea. Press a button and its bottom half slides out so you can attach modules, what LG calls “Friends.” The issue? Right now it feels like a gimmick. The most exciting option, a $70 camera grip with a zoom control and an extra battery, only makes existing touchscreen actions more ergonomic. I doubt this one will take off, but perhaps LG’s plan to open module design to outside developers will help.
I get more excited about building my own smartphone when I look at Google’s Project Ara. Early prototypes had a more flexible design, where a simple frame allows you to snap on essentials you choose: screen, battery, Wi-Fi chip, camera. You could get specialized add-ons, too, like a thermometer—even a breathalyzer.
The business model could be as disruptive as the hardware. Different companies could vie for the same spot on your handset, selling modules through an app-like hardware market. If phones were easily upgradeable, you wouldn’t feel so much pressure to buy new ones. It’s all still a big “if.” The project and prototypes have hit delays, but Google continues to fund the research.
Your Multi-Camera Phone
Your future smartphone looks like it has chickenpox. No need to quarantine: They’re just multiple camera lenses that fix everything wrong with today’s phone photography.
Start with two lenses on the back. Doubling your cameras can bring a variety of benefits, including increased optical range, better low-light performance and stereoscopic 3-D shooting.
The G5 is a baby step. You can switch between the wide-angle lens, to take in big scenes and groups, and a slightly crisper standard lens for everyday shooting. Neither camera, however, shoots as well as the Samsung Galaxy S7’s camera, especially in low light.
Huawei is following suit with a dual-lens camera on its coming P9 smartphone. Rather than work separately, like LG’s, these lenses are expected to work in tandem for improved quality and cool tricks. Other startups, including one purchased by Apple last year, are also exploring two-lens shooting.
Having two lenses also means shooting in the third dimension. Yes, I’m talking about 3-D selfies. Google’s Project Tango will let you to create 3-D maps of rooms and spaces.
The real revolution comes with even more cameras built into the phone, like the arrays being pioneered by a startup called Light. With six to eight cameras, a smartphone could take shots as good as a high-end DSLR camera, says Dave Grannan, the company’s chief executive.
Hit the shutter button to fire multiple cameras with different focal lengths. Processing combines all the images into the best possible photo. Without adding thickness to the phone, these systems can capture more light, more of the scene. You get drastically improved low light performance and more control over depth of field and other photo traits. Foxconn, the manufacturer of Apple, Sony SNE 0.46 % and Google phones, has licensed Light’s technology.
Your Hologram-Screen Phone
Viewing 3-D and 360-degree images won’t be a problem on your future phone. You’ll either pop your smartphone into virtual-reality goggles or look at them right on the display… as a 3-D hologram.
The VR part is already happening. Even if you think you aren’t interested in VR, you will be. Samsung and LG already make headsets that leverage the smartphone’s processing and graphics power to bring you into a virtual world. Chip makers such as Qualcomm QCOM 2.16 % now are focused on improving the performance.
Oh, you don’t want to strap your phone to your face? I get it. A startup called Leia 3D, using a special LCD backlight and optics to redirect light, built a display that projects a 3-D hologram. Images look as if they’re floating in front of your phone. It’s not quite Tony Stark, but it’s getting there.
Leia CEO David Fattal assures me it is nothing like notorious glasses-free 3-D television or the “dynamic perspective” that was a key feature of Amazon’s flop of a Fire phone. Not only is there real depth to images, you can interact with them by hovering your finger in the air.
“You will be able to see that 3-D selfie pop right off your screen and use your finger to spin it around,” Mr. Fattal says. “Going back to 2-D after this will be like going back to black-and-white TV after color.”
Your Always-Charged Phone
The most exciting mobile technology is one that solves your current smartphone’s biggest problem: battery life. No, the future isn’t a battery pack the size of a lunch box, or even swappable batteries, like the LG G5 has. The future is true wireless power.
This isn’t like today’s inductive wireless charging, where you set your phone on a pad. Think of it like Wi-Fi. When you carry your phone into a powered area—someplace with a wireless-power transmitter—an embedded receiver in the phone picks up the signal and it starts automatically charging. Very slowly. If you pass through enough powered areas, your phone’s battery could stay topped up.
Companies such as Ossia and Energous are working on this. After seeing demos, I’m confident that this is a real answer to our power demands, but there are the two big barriers: competing standards and safety.
One company’s wireless power tech isn’t interoperable with another. Your future phone may charge in some powered areas, but not in others. And will wireless power fry our brains? Ossia’s chief commercialization officer, Abid Hussain, says that isn’t a concern. The technology is intended to meet FCC approval, and is only intended for low-powered devices like phones and watches.
The biggest remaining question is... when does my fancy phone, with eight amazing cameras, easily replaceable holographic screen and limitless battery power arrive? Light expects its cameras to pop up in phones by the end of 2017. Leia 3D is targeting its holographic display for the end of 2017. Ossia’s wireless charging technology? End of 2017… or early 2018.
Even if you believe them, it’s going to take a while—and not all of these technologies will hit the ground at the same time. But look at the bright side: That black slab of a phone in your hand? It’s getting more obsolete by the second.


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