Google's one-time Modular Smartphone Project is refusing to die as a newly Granted Patent is keeping it on Life Support
Project Ara was a modular smartphone project under development by Google. The project was originally headed by the Advanced Technology and Projects team within Motorola Mobility while it was a Google subsidiary. Google retained the Advanced Technology and Projects group (ATAP) when selling Motorola to Lenovo, and it was placed under the stewardship of the Android development staff; Ara was later split off as an independent operation.
Under its original design, Project Ara was intended to consist of hardware modules providing common smartphone parts, such as processors, displays, batteries, and cameras, as well as modules providing more specialized components, and "frames" that these modules were to be attached to. This design would allow a device to be upgraded over time with new capabilities and upgraded without requiring the purchase of an entire new device, providing a longer lifecycle for the device and potentially reducing electronic waste.
Patently Apple's first report on this was in February 2014. The design concept was seen as a possible game changer for Google's entrance into the phone market with a smartphone from the ground up. Like many Google projects, it seemed to have died on the vine in 2016. Then came Google's first major patent revision in 2019 that clearly showed that Google engineers, somewhere in the company, were still working on Project Ara.
And finally, last week the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office granted Google a patent for this invention which revealed its last patent application had added a new "method of operating a modular electronic device" patent claim and list of new modules. Why bother doing that if the project has been dead for a number of years? Evidently, the project may have gone underground, but not gone away.
The Google Glass project or simply "Glass" was mocked for being too ahead of its time and yet all of Silicon Valley's big brands along with Samsung and Huawei are racing to introduce advanced smartglasses with 5G. Huawei has already introduced their first-run product last March that they will continue to advance with 5G in 2021-2022.
Project Ara is likewise a project that was way ahead of its time. Yet with the trend of ever dropping pricing in the mid-tier of smartphones, a modular design may be appealing as it could start off as an iPod-like base device for $50 or $100 and over time, the user would have the option of adding stock modules for various features like a camera or new GPU or a rear-side mini camera and so forth whenever they want to customize their device over time.
Google's granted patent reveals an advancement in the patent claims, with a few of the notable new points found in their patent claims.
Google's modular electronic device of patent claim 1 states: "wherein the at least one input sensor comprises: a RADAR system that sends, receives, and processes radio waves to determine the location of the touch of the modular electronic device by the user." This is new to the patent claims, even though it's mentioned elsewhere in the body of the patent.
Google's 2018 patent application had included a frame controller that maintains a mapping that respectively maps the plurality of electronic modules to a plurality of bays of the frame in which they are respectively received. The other major modules that were listed included the following:
"A pulse monitor; oxygen level monitor; credit card reader; a microphone; a speaker; a flashlight; a visual battery life indicator; a miniature secondary display (for the backside); a wireless communications interface; a Wi-Fi interface module; a cellular module; short range wireless radio module; a battery module, a USB module, and an antenna module."
Key to this granted patent is patent claim #42 which states: "A method of operating a modular electronic device that includes a plurality of electronic modules and a frame, the frame adapted to respectively receive the plurality of electronic modules, each of the plurality of electronic modules selectively removable from the frame, the method comprising: receiving, by the modular electronic device, data from at least one input sensor of the modular electronic device, the data indicative of a location of a touch of the modular electronic device by a user; and in response to the touch: identifying, by the modular electronic device based at least in part on the data received from the at least one input sensor, which of the plurality of electronic modules corresponds to the location of the touch of the modular electronic device by the user; and enabling, by the modular electronic device, removal of the identified electronic module from the frame."
As a refresher, Google's patent FIG. 2A below depicts a rear side of the example modular electronic device #100 while FIG. 2B depicts a rear side of the example frame #101. In FIGS. 2A and 2B, the rear side of the frame can also include a number of ridges or protrusions that form a plurality of bays. For example, the rear side of the frame can have a spine #203 and a number of ribs, such as a rib #202, a rib #204, a rib #205, a rib #206; and a rib #208. As examples, the spine #203 and the ribs #202 and #204 can form a first bay #210.
Each of the bays can removably receive a respective electronic module. As examples, the first bay #210 can receive a camera module #250; the second bay #220 can receive a wireless network interface module (e.g., a Wi-Fi interface module, a cellular data module, or a short-range wireless radio module such as a Bluetooth module); and the third bay #230 can receive a speaker module #270.
Various other modules can be received by the frame as well, such as, for example, the positioning system module (e.g., a GPS module); a battery module, a USB interface module; a diversity antenna module; or various other types of modules. Further, the electronic modules can be interchangeable, swappable, or otherwise insertable into various different bays.
Google's patent FIG. 3 above depicts the electronic modules in various states of insertion or connection to the frame #101. In some implementations, the electronic modules can respectively slide into and out of respective bays of the frame #101. In other implementations, the electronic modules snap in and out of the respective bays. In yet other implementations, the electronic modules toe-in or clip-in to the respective bays.
Google's patent FIG. 4 below depicts a block diagram of an overview example of the modular electronic device; In FIG. 8 Google depicts operation of an example modular electronic device to enable a rear-facing display module 850. At #802, the user presses a button on a side of the frame of the modular electronic device. At #804, the user touches the rear-facing display module. At #806, the rear-facing display is activated (e.g., by the frame controller) to display content (e.g., a mapping application user interface, as illustrated in FIG. 8).
The user can swipe or otherwise navigate through various user interfaces or other display elements of a collection of applications on the rear-facing display module. The rear-facing display module can have any type of display (e.g., an LCD display, a touch-sensitive display, etc.).
Google's patent FIG. 9 above depicts example user interfaces for various applications displayable on a rear-facing display module. In particular, FIG. 9 depicts a user interface #902 of a ride-sharing app; a user interface #904 of a weather app; a user interface #906 of a calendar app; a user interface #908 of an intelligent personal assistant app; and a user interface #910 of a live score app.
While Google's Project Ara was made public in 2014 and unofficially died in 2016, it's clear that this skunkworks project may still have a small team that's keeping the project alive. Whether the Google team is advancing this concept for Google down the road or keeping up to date in the hopes of selling it to an Android partner in the future is unknown at time.