Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Your next iPhone might use motors, thrusters to prevent screen-cracking falls...........

You know that weird quirk of physics where toast and iPhones always fall face down? Well, I have good news: Your next iPhone might have the ability to change its angle mid-fall, so that it lands on its side or back, saving the brittle glass display. Apple is researching a whole host of weird and wonderful ways of correcting the trajectory of a free falling smartphone — some are sensible, such as using the phone’s vibration motor to change the fall angle slightly; others, such as using small canisters of compressed gas to act as retro thrusters that can slow the descent, are slightly on the, er, futuristic side.iPhone 6 with Apollo lunar landing retro rockets
Other than battery life, by far the most irksome aspect of smartphone ownership is droppage. Whether it’s due to gloved or sweaty hands, bumping into someone on the street, or some other unfortunate circumstance, by far the most common mode of smartphone death is a sharp drop onto the ground. Cases and bumpers certainly mitigate against some phone-drop scenarios, but at the expense of size (modern phones are big enough!), weight, and beauty. One solution is developing materials — primarily hardened display glass — that can survive a fall, which is exactly what Corning is doing. The other solution, which Apple is taking, is engineering the device so that it never falls face-down in the first place.
What the “falling damage prevention” flow chart looks like
The clamping headphone jack and pop-out airfoils
Apple’s work so far is detailed in US patent 8,903,519, “Protective mechanism for an electronic device.” It covers a range of ideas and inventions that could, theoretically, prevent a smartphone from falling on its face. The most realistic method uses the internal vibration motor to alter the momentum of a falling phone, but there are mentions of retractable airfoils (wings) that alter the phone’s aerodynamics, and miniature gas canisters that can apply enough thrust to get the phone into an orientation that is favorable for a collision (usually the back or sides). One of the more novel solutions proposed by the patent is a headphone socket that clamps onto the 3.5mm jack, essentially turning your headphones (and ears) into a safety cord.
Cracked iPhoneAs surreal as most of these techniques sound, they’re actually fairly feasible with state-of-the-art technology. The only real problem is that most of these techniques require some way of sensing the distance to the floor — something that can’t be done reliably with current sensors (GPS, gyros, etc.) You would probably need some kind of ultrasonic sensor, which could quickly and accurately generate a fall-distance reading. This isn’t too far-fetched — just recently we wrote about small, high-resolution ultrasonic sensors that could fit in a smartphone; a fall-protection mechanism could make do with something far cheaper and simpler than that.
Put simply, it’s quite possible that the next iPhone — the iPhone 6S or 7, perhaps — will have the ability to save itself during free-fall drops. I don’t seriously think it will employ pop-out airfoils or compressed air retro rockets, but a clamping headphone socket or vibration-motor-self-righting mechanism is entirely feasible.
With high-end smartphones hitting saturation point, and with real stand-out, differentiating features a rarity, it would be pretty cool to see Apple actually innovate with the next iPhone, rather than just making it thinner and lighter.