Author(s): Raghu Gopal
New modular designs for handsets pop up from time to time, though there are no clear indications of consumer demand or need for them. Perhaps the right features may be eluding the market. The right approach could be out there somewhere.
Researchers from the Universities of Bristol, Purdue, Lancaster and Sussex are developing an inspiring, shape-changing device concept called Cubimorph. The team of researchers behind the project presented the Cubimorph prototype last week during the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Stockholm, Sweden.
Cubimorph is a modular interactive device made of cubes that have a touch screen on each of the six faces. Inside each cube is a turntable-like disk which enables it to pivot and form a connection to the neighbouring cube. Small motors inside the cubes allow the device to reconfigure on the fly based on different uses. Cubimorph could transform into a tablet when on the couch, a smartphone while on the go, a gaming device while relaxing, or a laptop for enterprise needs.
The research team says that the project could contribute to the vision of flexible uses of devices which can be reconfigured on the fly. It's a captivating aspiration.
There certainly has been an interest in developing modular devices, though more so among device manufacturers looking to stand out in a crowded field of lookalike products than consumers looking for a solid experience. Google's Project Ara, for example, has caught the attention of the tech savvy, though the long development times provide hints of how complex it really is: development has been going on for five years and pilot tests are only expected to begin this year.
The recently released G5 phone from LG has been one solid achievement from the industry, with interchangeable units that provide added hardware features (see LG's G5 Has Friends with Benefits). These include one for improved camera control and another for a better audio experience. The G5 model has been well received, but its standout feature tends to be its solid smartphone experience rather than expandability.
In its current form, Cubimorph does not look like an appealing smartphone replacement. The concept is years away from productization but could provide inspiration for new types of device that need a new level of flexibility. Cubimorph is a study in programmable matter, and a concept that could be built out to scale in future iterations.