“The ambition of this is just breathtaking,” said Terry Moore, CEO of MCCI Corporation and one of the many out-of-town attendees who took a pilgrimage to Mountain View to learn more about Google’s modular phone at the Project Ara Developer Conference.
While many of those in attendance were awed by the idea of a smartphone with swappable parts, there were several developers who were more preoccupied with concocting different scenarios in which the modules could be used.
During the conference, I talked to several developers who were there to learn more about how to leverage the technology used in Project Ara. Some of the ideas are quite lofty, but one thing is clear: Project Ara has the possibility to pave the way for more than just an Android-powered smartphone with removable components.
Making open hardware mainstream
Adam Convington has spent seven years researching NetFPGA at Stanford University. It’s a low-cost, reconfigurable open hardware platform that’s designed for research and teaching. Covington came to the Project Ara Developer Conference for inspiration. “We’re trying to build this development community around this project and platform,” he said. He went on:
A lot of what [Project Ara] is doing is essentially creating this developer ecosystem for open source hardware. They’re putting a lot of things in place that are needed in open source in general.
With open hardware, how do I get from a schematic to a board layout?…From a board layout to an actual [Printed Circuit Board]…and then verify that it works? Having an open source tool chain like that is something that’s missing currently from hardware.”
Convington hopes that he and his team can figure out a way to apply the same philosophies presented at the Project Ara Developer Conference to NetFPGA. “What they’e done here with the modules can go far beyond the phone.”
Bringing medical tech to where it matters
“I think we share a common vision,” said Derek Rinderknecht, a senior research scientist and Project Lead at CalTech. “They’re trying to make this modular phone to reach the other ‘five billion’ and that’s sort of where medical [technology] needs to go, as well. There’s a huge underserved population that just don’t have access to the technologies that you’d need to save lives.”
Rinderknecht’s is researching a non-invasive way to quantify the data associated with the human heart, and he’s hoping to figure out a way to successfully do so through a simple phone platform using camera sensors. “From there we can tell you relevant information,” he said. “[Like] the amount of the blood that is ejected from every cardiac cycle.” As for how Project Ara’s modular technology could benefit this:
The common medical device is thousands of dollars and is not usually accessible... But on a simple mobile platform like your phone, that could make it more affordable. It could be used in Oncology, for administration of drugs, being able to monitor this stuff in real time…It just gives another level of personalization to medical that is totally not already available.
Helping small villages share technology
Covington was enthusiastic about the prospect of a modular smartphone coming to market. “By providing open hardware you’re letting the consumers decide what they want, as opposed to another company,” he said, referring to Apple and Samsung.
But Tushar Dadlani, a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon, thinks that this particular phone will be an even bigger hit in the developing markets Google is aiming for. “The Indian market is very capable of using technology like the Ara platform,” he said. “They adopt phones really fast. Almost every person in India has a feature phone.” He went on:
In a village, you don’t have to donate smartphone to everybody. You just donate a couple of modules and then there’s a community center where they’re available. So, if I need Wi-Fi, I just use the Wi-Fi module. Whenever you need modules, you have a community of modules, like a library.
Some of the ideas spouted out by developers seemed ambitious or farfetched, but it’s a testament to the kind of innovation that Project Ara could spark—and that’s exactly why the company held this developers conference in the first place. The idea of a modular smartphone is still highly experimental, for the most part. But the possibilities for something greater to stem from it seem endless.