Innovation Nation: Project Ara


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Years ago, a video went viral. It proposed a radical change in the way that we view and consume electronics–a phone with exchangable parts, which would allow users to swap out components when they broke, became obsolete, or even just weren’t needed that day. It challenged us to come up with a way to create a modular smartphone that didn’t need to be ‘upgraded’ every 2 years. The plan would reduce costly electronics waste, save consumers money, and allow us all to get out of our phones exactly what we wanted.


A bigger camera? Sure, you could get a module for that. Better battery life? No problem. Just want a phone to make calls with? The fully customizable nature of the phone would allow you to choose the most cost-effective components and cut out all the bells and whistles.

The video spread like wildfire, and the idea was picked up by Google. Prototypes were made. Teams were created and shifted. Programs were written, then re-written. And then, after months and months of progress updates and tech demos, Project Ara, as it was dubbed by Google, went dark.

The challenges of designing a modular phone were certainly greater than imagined by the creator of the original Phonebloks video. But if Google couldn’t pull it off, who could? The hype died down in the following months of radio silence, and Project was all but buried and forgotten.

But, towards the end of March 2016, some observant tech bloggers noticed something–Project Ara’s site had been given a facelift. Currently, it is only one page, emblazoned with a new logo for the project. But, could they be gearing up for something big? Websites cost money, and it’s hard to see even Google bothering to update the site if they weren’t planning on going somewhere with it.

While we’re not holding our breath for the rumored 2016 launch, we may see more on Project Ara soon. The fantasy of the ‘last phone you’ll ever buy’ isn’t dead yet.

Would you buy a modular phone? What components would you want to put on yours? Let us know in the comments.

Industry Update: Proxy Power

Quick– what’s your phone’s battery percentage?

For most, it is almost certainly less than 100%. From texting to streaming video to managing our health, the average American uses their phone for 4.7 hours a day, nearly a third of our waking hours. And don’t assume that’s all teenagers skewing the data–adults between the ages of 25 and 54 are the leading users of their smartphones to check social media. Combine all this with the fact that even the best phone batteries only last about 15 hours when you’re barely using them, and you can see why almost everyone has a charger hooked up at their desk.

But what you had a way to ensure your phone never lost its charge? What if you could take it a step further–what if you could ensure nothing ever lost a charge again? No plugs or wires required?

If that sounds like science fiction to you, you’re not alone–the technology isn’t quite there yet. But the math and science exist to support it–we just need to catch up. So how does it work?

Envision a world where batteries never die, where electric cars can run forever, and your smartphone can stream all 6 seasons of Parks and Recreation in a row, no charger needed. No more expensive replacement cables when your cat chews through yet another charger. No more tangled cables, no more unplugging and replugging in the TV every time you want to rearrange the furniture–in the not so distant future, it’s possible that all power cables will finally be unplugged.

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Industry Update: The Next Industrial Revolution

In the last 100 years, the world has seen more technological innovation than in its entire history. It started out in the 1700s with the simple steam and water power. These lead to steam engine generators, and the widespread use of electricity to power everything from lights to motors. As humans do, the more we learned, the more we grew and innovated. Electricity provided the spark that allowed us to create computers in the 1900s, and with computing power doubling or more every few years, it sometimes seems like we’re well on our way to a future where robots do everything for us, from manufacturing our goods to writing our blog posts.

And yes, biologists, this applies to you, too. A team of biologists at Harvard have started creating flowers in a process they call “4D Printing”. Looks like we’re all going to be learning this new skill set sooner or later–unless, of course, we invent robots to do that learning for us soon.

These days, we can 3D print anything from action figure replicas of ourselves to firearms. It’s not hard to imagine someday using 3D printers to even make our food. In fact, one company has already produced such a device, allowing users to load ingredients and have food created for them from the comfort of their own home. Don’t get too excited–it’s not available for retail yet and is projected to cost around $1000 when it debuts. Still, it continues to show that 3D printing technology has nearly unlimited applications.

What would you print if you could print anything? Let us know in the comments.