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Summary:

Have you seen the Mozilla Seabird concept phone yet? It has amazing design features and enough tech to make even the most hard-core geeks drool. You won’t see the device come to market, but it does illustrate how future smartphones must evolve to improve user interaction.

seabird-phone-input

As a self-admitted hardware geek, I had to wipe the drool from my mouth when I saw the Mozilla Seabird concept phone designed by Billy May. In a traditional open-source fashion, May created the idea based on user community feedback in terms of features, form and function. Seabird has all three, as you can see in the video overview: It’s a phone from the future. While the technology used for Seabird impresses, what stood out even more for me is how Seabird illustrates the growth of the smartphones as the central device in our lives and how such a device will become even more useful.

May’s semi-crowdsourced concept is really trying to break the biggest confines of today’s handsets: input and output. Look at any phone today and these are the two most constraining aspects. The Seabird concept tackles the input challenge with projected keyboards and infrared signals. Why? Today we’re essentially stuck with small keyboards, which, while they’ve improved over time, still keep most of us from typing at a healthy clip.

New keyboard technology, such as that from Swype is helping to speed our typing on handsets, and voice input is becoming a solid secondary input method as well. I’m generating most of my text messages with Google Voice Actions, for example. But for serious text entry, we’re using external keyboards with our phones or simply using other devices like a netbook or notebook. May’s personal website emphasizes this point:

The Seabird, on just a flat surface, enables netbook-quality interaction by working with the projector’s angular distortion to delivery interface, rather than content. With the benefit of a dock, each projector can focus individually on either interface or content at laptop levels of efficiency.

Seabird also approaches the output problem (getting pictures and video off the small screen) with pico projectors, plus a dock, similar to the docking functionality found on many of today’s laptop computers. Pop the device on a dock and instead of viewing information on the small screen, Seabird projects a higher resolution image on a flat surface. Granted, one would need a relatively dim room to make this work, but it’s a clever use of existing technology to break the smartphone out from its handheld limitations, although pico projectors and additional sensors would challenge battery life.

The Seabird phone is definitely a conceptual idea: Mozilla has squashed any thoughts of actually building the Android-powered device. So don’t expect to see such a handset at next year’s Consumer Electronics Show. Even though the phone itself will likely never appear, it is a safe bet that future phones will leverage some of the technologies found in Seabird. And newer solutions could evolve to take the place of a projected keyboard or display as handsets evolve, and that’s the key word: evolve.

From a hardware perspective, smartphones are gaining faster processors with multiple cores, more memory, faster mobile broadband, greater storage capacity and larger displays, but what good is all of that technology if users are constrained by small screens and keyboards?

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  1. Wow, I would trade my new iPhone 4 for this smartphone. Maybe in about 4 years we might see something like this. I’m sure you would trade in that Nexus 1 for this as well Kevin.

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    1. Hector, as long as I could still put hacked ROMs on the phone, then yes, I’d consider trading in my Nexus One for this type of device. ;)

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  2. Yes I know what you mean, about hacked ROMs. I picked up a Sony Xperia X10, just to try and see what can be done on this phone… well I think I will be returning it. I was able to rooted it, but not much more than that. AT&T blocks 3rd party Apps, and I have tried using sideloader, with no go. Might pick up the Samsung Captivate to load some cooked ROMs ;)

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  3. It’s scary how all the technology to make this happen exists and has existed for a long while. Right now the only prohibitive component is the battery, basically.

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  4. That projected keyboard is gonna suck to touch-type on, probably murdering my fingers in the process. I need a physical keyboard-preferably with mechanical keyswitches (specifically buckling springs like the old IBM Model M, but Cherry MX Blues would probably be fine too).

    Aside from that, I’m still thinking of interesting, Sixth Sense-esque methods of leveraging projection as input that wouldn’t suffer from the lack of tactility.

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  5. last time I’ve seen this kind of contraption was when handspring or something alike called was selling pdas that have pluggable hardware components… question: where’s handspring now?

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  6. Or we could just project it all into our eyes (or glass’s) and emulate any sized device we like via AR.

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