A more useful and feasible take on the modular smartphone concept (Renders included)

A Very TLDR


A smart phone that has its camera components separated into a magnetically attached and wirelessly powered/charged module. Data is exchanged wirelessly so no need for proprietary pogo pin setup.

I strongly suggest you go through the entire thing regardless since if you look at the renders, you might assume certain things that are not true.

Intro


First, thank you for those who responded to the survey in my previous post. Some of the results were surprising to me but it has been informative on some of my ideas for this concept.

I will not be throwing out random specs or features unless it is necessary or beneficial to explain the concept in this post. I am keeping my expectations realistic and will note when certain parts are far-fetched. That said, the tech & components in this concept are seen in today’s world.

Basic Concept


The idea is to offload anything that is related to the smartphone’s camera into a separate module. There are many benefits to this:

  • Bigger battery in phone component since there’s more space
  • More space for IR Blaster, Better Speakers, Headphone jack etc.
  • Easier to achieve the “Bezel-less” Design
  • Camera can then easily upgraded (Just buy a new/better version and slap it on).
  • Possibly better smartphone cameras since camera module is not limited by space (Bigger sensor, dedicated Image processor, etc.)
  • Both the phone and camera module can be IP6X Rated. This is one of the weaknesses of phones that have fancy pop up cameras or sliding phones (Ala Doogee Mix)
  • Nothing really proprietary: Third party vendors can create their own camera modules if they want to (Canon, Sony, Momentum, etc.)
  • No need to worry about the feeling that “Oh it doesn’t have a good camera built in so it’s not worth my money” that some people get.
  • Possibility of having a better/dedicated camera mic built into the camera module.

But how is this all possible?

Magnets, Wireless Charging (With reverse wireless charging) and a wireless connection (Wifi, Bluetooth, NFC, etc.). All the things that we have seen before in the market.

Eve-Phone-Concept-Base-Phone-Att

The phone itself I made it around a 6 inch diagonal screen in Fusion at 8mm thick. Slightly squarer aspect ratio than the iPhones. It has a metal rim with a full plastic back (PC, PU, Acrylic, etc. I’m not discussing details). This also applies to the camera module since it will need wireless powered/charged. Again if in the event this becomes a product, people can always decide about these details later on.


Because the camera module is wireless powered/charged and it magnetically attaches to the phone, it can be oriented in any direction or placed anywhere on the back of the phone.

Because of this, the phone will be resting evenly when placed on a table, unlike other smartphones that have a fixed camera bump on the side… Or you can just detach the camera module all together if you place it on a table.

But uh… where’s the front facing/selfie camera?

Two options; you flip the camera

…or we make a larger camera module with a front facing camera

Both sides of the phone have wireless charging coils so that we can charge it in any orientation.

Side note: camera module design is just for concept purposes. It does not meen I want only a single camera in the camera module or that it is as thin as it looks

Do you prefer flipping the camera (higher quality images since using full camera) or do you prefer an included front facing camera (convenience)?

  • I like the idea of flipping the camera
  • I rather have the convenience of having a selfie camera
  • Either is fine

0 voters

Modular Accessories


The closest thing to “modular phone” that we have is the Moto Z line. It uses physical pins and the mods are unusable with other things. Here’s some accessory concepts:

Bluetooth speaker


I’m showing the render in its “unattached” view with all the modules. The middle “back plate is the bluetooth speaker”. Simple right?

The speaker magnetically attaches to the phone and it serves as an extra battery pack. It wirelessly charges the phone when it gets attached. The ports and buttons on the speaker is for redundancy.

Again, it’s a bluetooth speaker. You could just detach it from the phone and stream audio from other devices if you want to. It’s not proprietary.

Game Pad Controllers (a la Nintendo’s Joycons)

Note: Controller design is for concept only, it does not reflect the wants and needs of a typical game controller (joysticks, etc.)

Let’s take the Bluetooth speaker concept, make it wider with a bigger battery and then add Bluetooth/NFC controllers to it. We now have a game pad, should be self explanatory. The controllers are again, bluetooth/wireless so you could use it with other devices. But we have NFC for easy and seamless pairing to the phone.

Dedicated Smartphone Photography… The somewhat far-fetched


Mostly because if someone really wants to get good photos and have the convenience they could by a Canon G7X or Sony RX100 point and shoot. So the benefits here are if Eve could get it low in price and partner with other companies to make third party modules.

But here’s a concept of a modular camera attachment… Think of it as a reference design.

The middle plate is essentially a large thick battery with mounting holes for camera accessories. A thicker battery moves the center of mass to the middle module plate so that there’s a more secure magnetic attachment to the phone and larger camera module. The middle pack has wireless chargin coils on both sides so that it charges/powers the camera + dedicated flash and the phone + manual control module.

There’s a dedicated flash module and a manual control module on the right for quick controls. Wirelessly communicates with the phone. Like the game pad concept, they .

In the concept render, I’ve put a tripod mounting hole at the bottom and at the top there’s a slot that runs along the entire module. That slot fits a cold shoe mount adapter (See image above, pretend that it look like a cold shoe mount) which you can slide across and tightly screw it in securely; Similar to a truck bed’s T Pin slots.

But remember, this is a concept, we could have mounting holes on the sides, another type of adapter that can fit on the top. Make the entire middle module pack thicker so that we don’t have to use adapters, etc. etc.

What is not farfetched is Eve can partner/convince other third party vendors to make the accessories/modules.

The worse case scenario is that they make fancy battery packs. That is essentially what all the modules in the concept are: Battery packs, with extra ports/mounts + Wireless charging capability. Some of them might have Wifi ,bluetooth, NFC, etc. But all in all they are just magnetic battery packs.

I can imagine if a large camera producer were to make a camera where you can magnetically slap your phone on it and use it as the screen. They won’t even have to customize the camera to a certain size since there’s no physical pin connectors and in the case of cameras with manual controls, they offload said manual controls to a separate module (Like in the concept render above).

But with the possibility of third party modular components, we’re gonna have to deal with a bunch of apps right?


Not really,
Let’s take the dedicated photography concept for example. Third party vendors might have proprietary image processing algorithms, color science etc.

Eve can make an open sourced camera app that has the ability to install custom plugins. Any code that is proprietary can be put into the plugin. Eve creates an API and gives it to the third party vendors to make said plugin.

You as a user when you buy a third party module (for the sake of this example, lets say you just bought a sony camera attachment). You magnetically attach the camera attachment, open the camera app, then go to the camera plugin store where you download the Sony plugin for the camera app.

Instead of a bunch of different apps, you have one (or two) apps that can install a bunch of plugins so that you can customize it. A single control point.

Eve will likely not want to put their camera stuff as open sourced so you’ll just have by default an “Eve plugin” pre-installed.

The challenge would be convincing third party vendors to not make separate apps. Making the general camera app open source would help.

Being realistic and acknowledging some cons + technical challenges


To name a few:

  • Making the camera separated from the phone means that some things that are conveniently there means that the module might be bulky (can be migitated by engineering know how). You will need to add Wifi , battery (unless the entire module gets fully powered only via wireless charging/power), a dedicated Image processor (can be good or bad), storage if users store large pictures/RAW format/4k etc (Add an SD card to mitigate).
  • Figure out the balance from intermixing wireless signals, magnetic fields, etc.
  • Figuring out/balancing the amount of weight the magnets can hold (Hence plastic backs)
  • Qi/ Wireless charging coils in typical smart phones are generally located only in the bottom portion of the phone. If we are to attach the module on the back of the phone and use it in any orientation, there needs to be a larger number of smaller coils spread out across the back of the phone.
  • Con: Even if the camera module and phone are IP6X rated, the camera won’t work underwater (if for some reason you are doing that) since water is a pretty good absorbent of RF signals.
  • The camera module might be a bit more pricier than if it was built in.
  • Inconvenient/No facial biometric security system. The concept I made above as a under-display fingerprint sensor

I genuinely see a market for a product like this and it solves some problems with other smart phones. It’s unique and will differentiate Eve from other smartphone makers.

Under-Display Front Facing cameras is coming soon sure but there are benefits to offloading the camera to something else; Also we might even have to deal with lower quality selfie-cameras with Under-Display Cameras.

9 Likes

Also as a side note: The back camera module doesn’t just have to a regular old smart phone camera. It could even be specialized cameras such as a thermal camera for certain workers.

3 Likes

I really like the idea of having a modular Smartphone but I’m not that eager that it will be on the market in the next few years.

There is a big history of discontinued modular phone concepts.
I blieve the very first one was Phonebloks which then got adapted by Google running by the handle Project Ara.
And there are a frew more who gave it try:

Although the development of Project Ara is dead since a couple of years already, Google recently did file a patent which aims in a similar direction:

But why am I writing all this?
I think it’s important to see what others haven’t achieved and what were their reasons. If you do that you can learn from their mistakes without doing them yourself. With the modular smartphone my guess the biggest issue was the software.

With Android it does take quite some time for brands like Samsung or Huawei to adapt a new major version (eg. Android 10), modify it to their likings and ship it to the customer. The reason behind that is that vanilla Android out of the box isn’t working on their hardware.
And if it takes them that long to do that I think that might be a big show-stopper for the modular smartphone as in this case in addition to the software the hardware is changing as well (maybe even more frequently).

So either one ditches the approach to use Android (which isn’t really feasible in my opinion) or one creates a standardized docking platform with prerequisites for the modules which should then be docked onto the phone.
That approach I believe was the one of Project Ara which turned out to be discontinued. So if even Google ditches their Project then I’m not sure if it is worth it to pursue that topic. At least right now.

Best regards
Andi

2 Likes

Hence why the proposal only has the components related to the smartphone camera separated into a different module and not every single possible component like Project Ara, Fairphone, or Phonebloks.

I think the better title for this post should have been “A more practical/suitable competitor of Motorola’s Z Line” since that is what I’m doing my main comparisons to. Full modular concepts like Project Ara have failed in the past because as you have implied, are generally unrealistic to consumer expectations.

At the base level (Having a phone with a separate camera module), this concept only requires a custom version of the camera app that can be loaded into Android’s play store which can be updated periodically. I don’t see a reason or need to use another operating system than Android.

The Essential Phone’s 360 Camera has proven that we can have magnetically attaching cameras and then stream the camera’s output via wireless. The main problem with it was that it used physical contact points to deliver power. That is essentially solved with this concept with the introduction of wireless power charging in this concept. And the essential phone ran on android.

Additional modular components (To be more accurate, they should be called magnetically attaching accessories) such as the bluetooth speaker or gamepad like the concept above. They won’t be using
some sort of proprietary pin system in the concept since the only “standards” or pre-requisites that they would follow is to be magnetic, have some sort of battery and for it to have some sort of wireless charging capabilities. Again, at the worst case scenario is that the magnetic accessories are just fancy battery packs.

Most of the attachments I proposed above can be used with Wifi, Bluetooth, or NFC for data stream connections. For the most part I only see some sort of secondary app created if the modular attachment needs high data bandwith via wifi. Android supports bluetooth and NFC connections by default.

Because all of this, I find the concept above very feasible in creation opposed to something like Project Ara. You are correct however to consider past failings of full fledged modular phones and other phones that have magnetic attachments (Such as the essential phone) which this concept is more akin to.

4 Likes

If I may chime in here, first off @arkery good job on the conceptualization and the renders. This has taken some thought and it shows.

As someone coming from a few years of experience in the design and development of expandable modular consumer electronic devices, I would say the idea is sound but the execution will prove rather impractical for this class of product.

I suspect this was one of the major considerations behind the shelving of projects such as Aura and a reason you don’t see many of the major manufacturers going down this road, too often.

Any physically modular device whether consumer, pro-sumer or industrial in orientation will require added weight, rigidity and size to support wear and tear against the surfaces directly involved in the fitting of the modules. This will instantly eliminate the use of some types of materials in the build and instantly raise the floor of your raw materials cost.

One work around is to strengthen the areas under most stress by using more of a lower cost material and while this is still less expensive than using stronger materials, it still has a higher floor compared with a fully integrated/closed design.

The second issue is you will instantly increase your base weight at the trade-off of increased cost, almost proportionately. Think of the design of the Red One Hydrogen vs a slim and sleek Galaxy S10 or something.

Clever product marketers at the planning stage will try to justify the higher price-tag and bulkier design by making it a niche and market specific product as in the case of the Red phone but it must deliver by exceeding expectations or it will be a massively expensive failure. There can even be challenges when building for a specialized target audience where aesthetics matter a bit less. This was the case with the old SwitchbackPC from the '00s. The final product’s weight proved the breaking point (pun intended) for the military contractor’s clientèle who needed a lighter unit for field use than this swiss army knife of a machine could deliver.

Ultimately it was replaced with wearable modules for the military and the manufacturer tried to give it some cool factor then push the device out to the industrial business market to see if anyone would bite before eventually retiring it to the hall of well designed and engineered but unpopular toys.

Your final issue is product cycle and obsolescence. A device of this nature in the consumer space has to deal with the 12-18 month mobile product life cycle before it’s either an under performer or just no longer in vogue (thanks for that Apple). This means that to avoid breaking compatibility with the slew of accessories that have been created to match the first design, you will either need to come up with an industrial design and tooling model that can somehow forge a new form-factor in the industry, or you will need to be absolutely certain you won’t need to retool the physical design of the refresh meant for release in 12 months. Take a look at the Asus Padfone series to see how despite the best of intentions, this can go very wrong.

So with that said, I can recommend that you look into a hybrid modular design where you seal your main unit then make use of off-the-shelf modern short range wireless networking technologies and use as many wireless connections as possible, including power, to enable your modular ecosystem (incidentally, this is what you are actually building). Have a look at the Asus ROG Phone II to see a working example how to do this correctly. This doesn’t necessarily work well in every area and while not impossible, a wireless camera module can be challenge to get right.

This was the very thinking behind one of my personal pet projects which I featured on the community forum some years ago to see if there might be a wider interest in its development.

Happy to discuss further.

3 Likes

Your post was a really enlightening read.

Again like you iterated, most of the components proposed above communicate wirelessly so by your definition it would be considered as a “hybrid modular design” and not a typical modular phone concept like the Project Ara .

Initially, my idea only focused on offloading the camera of a typical smartphone to something separate. The additional wireless magnetic accessories (I think I’ll use this term from now on; It’s more accurate) was more of an afterthought. It’s more because people are keeping their smartphones longer (as they should); Photography on smartphones are one of the more important things that can be improved upon year after year.

I’d also like to distinguish two types of cameras for this post since you mentioned the Sony QX100; smartphone cameras (smaller sensor, components, etc.) and fully fledged cameras (full point-and-shoots, SLR’s, Cinema, etc.).

Putting a fully fledged camera a la QX100 is very far fetched, hence why I mentioned it above. They would be bulkier than your typical point and shoot and potentially have questionable benefits to SLR’s without relying on the still growing field of computational photography. I am more or less targeting smartphone cameras to be separate; The essential phone and its 360 camera was my main inspiration for this concept.

The edge case idea was that unless Eve can invest significant R&D to create a competitive smartphone camera, Eve could instead go to other vendors for them to create a magnetic camera attachment. It’s been… 7? years since the QX100 was released and we haven’t seen a sequel to it (for likely obvious reasons). Eve could approach Sony, pitch this concept and possibly have a sequel to it created (Again, far fetched but possible).

I don’t really see any significant retooling needed or a redesign of the manufacturing process once we’ve figured out the final dimensions and material specifications for the phone component. Subjectively speaking, once a phone has reached a design where it’s “bezel-less” without the usage of punch-hole cameras, notches, sliding cameras, etc. the phone has reached “end-game” (Unless the technology to make phones with literally no bezels arise). After that it could just be iterative improvements (newer SoC’s, denser batteries, etc.).

The camera component is a different story of course, since the dimensions and internal components might change year after year.


With that said, lets only focus on the phone and the wireless smartphone camera module. Ignoring the extended magnetic wireless accessory ecosystem (for now). With what you know @hatter, how feasible would the concept be?

Bulk and weight are obvious cons as I’ve acknowledged above. They can be mitigated by engineering know how and using certain materials. Eve as a company is unique in that it does decisions based on the community rather than doing case studies so I’d imagine a lot of us would be fine with plastic in our smart phones opposed to something “premium” (Whatever that means). Material cost is something that I wish people would talk further about though…

I’m interested in extending the discussion into a more of a deep dive into what would be necessary for it the concept to work (As a starting point, only the smartphone + Magnetic wireless camera attachment, not the other accessories), what’s feasible or not, etc. Maybe we could brainstorm this all the way to a super final concept. Almost all of us are under quarantine after all.

3 Likes

Sorry for the absence, I have been a bit tied up with a few work related matters. This crisis is screwing everyone in one way or another.

I will revert with my feedback in a day or so, bear with me @arkery

Those are some great ideas and renders already. I personally really like the idea of a flippable camera since that gives the front facing camera the same quality as the rear one(since it’s the same camera, duh) an example of this would be the ASUS Zenfone 6.

I have some reservations about a under-display fingerprint reader, since, in my experience, they are rather slow. (Might just be because the only one I’ve tried is a friend’s Motorola One Action) another way would be to put it on the back of the phone, like in most huawei phones.