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Project Ara – Google’s Modular Phone

With the current focus on the environment, it is not surprising that mobile phones get a bad press with their resource hungry construction and the owner’s desire to change them every 1-2 years, even if they are still working fine.

Now with the Fairphone 3 offering users a modular phone that allows you to replace or upgrade many of  the components – camera, battery, memory etc. the situation is changing. But Fairphone is not the first to look at this concept – Google’s Project Ara was.

Swap Out Any Part

Inspired by the Phonebloks initiative, Project Ara was originally devised in Motorola’s Advanced Technology Group when it was part of Google. The original intention was to build it so that you could swap out any part of it if it was broken or you wanted to upgrade it.

Powered by stock Android, this original idea was soon watered down so that the frame had a built-in battery, processor, memory and screen. Connection between the different modules that made up the phone was facilitated by Greybus with very fast data transfer speeds.

Sadly, the whole project was beset by high costs and the inability to overcome technical hurdles. This led to it being closed down in late 2016.

Project Ara to return?

However, a Google patent spotted early in 2019 suggests that although Project Ara is now dead, it is not yet buried. This shows a device that doesn’t have quite the same level of granular customisation that the Project Ara smartphone was aiming to offer.

Images appear to show of a number of modules that can slot together to make a complete handset. The patent describes the users’ ability to “customise and modify the device by attaching different electronic accessory modules to create new and changing devices with unique features. Additionally, different housings can be used to create customised device experiences.”

This opens the possibility of a device that can have its display, sensors, system on a chip, chassis, and camera all swapped in and out. The patent describes a module that could include anything from extra scanners, auxiliary battery or memory, an extra display, or different types of cameras. The patent also doesn’t limit itself to the smartphone form factor.

This would have big implications for waste saving as you could then easily swap out outdated or broken modules whilst keeping the rest of the phone. We will have to wait and see whether a production model actually appears, or if it goes the same way as Project Ara.

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