The future of phones: What will 2019 bring?

by Peter Griffin / 07 December, 2018
samsung flex phone

A concept shot of Samsung's foldable screen.

RelatedArticlesModule - phone related

While 2018 produced some of the best smartphones in history, with 5G mobile on the way and promising signs that the foldable screen is soon to be a reality, we can expect 2019 to be a big year for the humble mobile.

Hiding the selfie camera

With shrinking bezels on smartphone screens doing away with the home button and offering more screen real estate, the fingerprint scanner migrated to the rear of the phone on many models. However, this year saw the fingerprint scanner return to the front of the phone, but placed beneath the screen, with the likes of the Huawei Mate 20 Pro allowing you to press a finger down on the glass to unlock the screen. It probably isn’t as reliable as pressing on a dedicated finger sensor, but the pay-off is in the design aesthetic of the phone.

But could phone makers do the same thing for the camera, placing a ‘selfie’ camera and proximity and ambient light sensors beneath the screen, removing the notch that typically houses the front-facing selfie camera and sensors at the top of the screen?

Samsung and Apple have patents for just such a design that place all of these features beneath the glass, as well as the earpiece. In Apple’s case, the patent is for a display that has tiny spaces between pixels, potentially making room for a camera sensor. The Mix, a phone from Chinese maker Xiaomi, hid the earpiece beneath the screen but reportedly suffered from reduced sound quality. 

Oppo’s Find X came up with an elaborate solution to removing the clutter of camera lenses and sensors from the front and back of the phone. A motor lifts the camera and sensors out of the phone when you seek to take a photo or unlock the phone.

“When we first designed the Find X, we positioned it as a full-screen phone. We decided to use the sliding structure,” says Oppo product manager, Chuck Wang.

Putting a camera beneath the screen could have implications for battery capacity, antenna performance and phone thickness, he added, which is why Oppo had gone with the pop-up camera design.

“Whether the lifting structure is used in the other series phones will depend on the design difficulty and the cost. If there are other solutions, maybe we'll use them.”

Apple's Face ID for online payments.

Apple's Face ID for online payments.

Glance and pay

Facial recognition in smartphones has become the go-to way to unlock your phone, thanks to the accuracy of 3D facial mapping technology. But with Face ID and other systems now so good at recognising a face, is there scope to use it instead of a password or PIN code to authenticate purchases online?

It turns out that this functionality is already available, though is currently in very limited use. Apple allows its Face ID system on last year’s iPhone X and newer handset, to be used in conjunction with Apple Pay, the phone maker’s payment platform, to make credit card purchases in the iTunes Store, App Store, and Book Store in Apple Books.

Read more: Best smartphones on the NZ market: What to look for and what to avoid

It so far hasn’t been taken up by large retailers yet, but with Touch ID, the fingerprint authenticator available for authenticating transactions on a growing number of sites, adoption of the much more secure facial version can only increase in 2019.

In the Android world, face recognition is also being used to make purchases online. Oppo’s Chuck Wang told me that Find X users are the first to be able to use a system called FaceKey 3D, to authenticate transactions on AliPay, the payment system used by hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens.

Vivo, another Chinese smartphone maker based alongside Oppo in Guangdong, China, is using facial recognition in conjunction with Tencent’s chat and ecommerce platform WeChat. You just hold your phone up to your face when you’ve reached the payment screen to authenticate the purchase. In New Zealand, a fragmented mobile payment market has seen new technologies slow to gain traction. The most common form of payment authentication, other than the usual entry of a PIN number, involves using the Near Field Communication (NFC) chip in a smartphone to replace a credit card.

With the credit card companies onboard with facial recognition due to fact it is 20 times more accurate than a fingerprint scan, we can expect to see the cameraphone selfie being used increasingly to accompany our online shopping experience.

The foldable future

The big format change in smartphones on the horizon will come courtesy of South Korean phone maker Samsung, which has unveiled prototypes of a foldable smartphone screen, variably known as the Samsung Fold, Samsung F and Samsung X. With Samsung due to release the Samsung S10 early in the new year, speculation is rife that the phone will include the foldable screen.

The benefit of such a feature is fairly obvious – you could potentially double the screen real estate available to you when the screen is fully extended, for more enjoyable movie watching, mobile gaming and multi-tasking. Samsung last month showed off a prototype of a relatively chunky phone that expands into one seamless 7.3-inch screen it calls the Infinity Flex Display. Google is reportedly working on a version of its Android operating system to support the launch of the new handset next year.

Watch: A glimpse of the Infinity Flex Display:

But foldable screens have been prototyped and experimented with for decades. Previous greyscale versions using e-ink have appeared at numerous trade shows. But getting a full-colour, high-resolution screen that can handle repeated folding and flexing has been the Holy Grail of screen technology.

Samsung has also shown appetite to go even further and produce a screen that can be rolled up. We can expect a lot of action in the phone industry around foldable screens next year as Samsung’s rivals scramble to produce their own flexible screen formats.

3D video calling

With fifth generation mobile networks set to upgrade our mobile experiment with faster connection speeds and boosted computing capacity throughout the mobile network allowing us to do more complex things on our phones, you can expect 5G-enabled handsets to appear from early next year.

Oppo earlier in the year said it had demonstrated the world’s first 5G video call that uses its smartphones’ structured light technology to allow 3D images to be displayed. The high data transfer rate available on 5G networks usher in the prospect of having images appearing in 3D on video calls and even, slightly further down the track, fully-rendered holograms.

Last week, Oppo also made its first 5G multi-party video call, connecting engineers across its six R&D centres around the world on the call. Group calls are available already through various video conferencing apps, but the experience is patchy due to the data speeds and latency of 4G networks.

The move to 5G will make real-time video and augmented reality applications more accessible, says Oppo’s Chuck Wang.

“Our 5G products will be released in Europe in the first half of next year,” he told NOTED.

Instant charge

No longer do we have to wait for an hour or more, or leave our phone connected on the bedside table overnight to charge enough to get us through the day. The advent of fast-charging a few years back saw charging times reduce considerably and new records have been set this year, such as with Oppo’s SuperVOOC system, which can see its R17 Pro smartphone ($999) fully charged in 35 minutes.

Wireless charging is also speeding up, but inherent limitations in the technology mean it is unlikely to ever be as efficient as its wired equivalent. With Oppo and others having already displayed phone batteries that can fully charge in as little as 15 minutes, expect 2019 to shave even more time off standard charging times, making it easier to top up during the day and to get to use more demanding and power-draining applications on your phone for longer.

Peter Griffin visited Shenzhen as a guest of Oppo.

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