They pop up at trade shows, are the toast of blogs and simply catch our eyes. They're concept phones: gadgets designed by handset makers, independent designers or industrial design firms for the purpose of galvanizing audiences and stirring debate about where wireless technology is headed.
To some, concept phones and the ideas behind them are invaluable. "If you don't attempt the impossible, how can you reach for the stars?" said Recon Analytics analyst Roger Entner. "It's really critical to have the concept phones, to push the envelope to come up with the new devices. Otherwise you're stuck in the same old frame of mind."
But John Jackson, an analyst at CCS Insight, is skeptical of the ultimate utility of concept phones. "I don't think there is a strong reason to go ahead do one of these ‘car-show' phones because that's not where you get your halo," he said. "The industry is too conservative in that way. You'll test on the basis of goodwill you have accumulated and ship it through a carrier for volume."
Yet, there is something to be said for pushing the limits of imagination. "It's the same reason you build concept cars," said Gartner analyst Michael Gartenberg. "Oftentimes the ideas come to market."
And that can result in better handsets. "It's always about trying to make a better experience," said ABI Research Analyst Kevin Burden. "A better experience turns into a marketable product. What doesn't work on a mobile phone? Or where does pain still exist and how can we make that better?"
To get a better idea of the purpose behind creating concept phones, FierceWireless studied some of the better-known concept phones from the past few years and determined the likelihood that these gadgets (whether it's the underlying technology or the design) will become mainstream phones.
The Nokia (NYSE:NOK) Morph, introduced in 2008, is one of the market's better-known concept phones. The Morph demonstrates the benefits that nanotechnology might someday be capable of delivering such as flexible materials, transparent electronics and self-cleaning surfaces.
Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics, said he thinks more phones will be made from flexible materials in the years ahead, as devices stretch to smaller or larger form factors. But, like any concept phone, there are practical limitations to the design and functionality. For instance, where does the phone put the dirt and dust it cleans away?
Ben Bajarin, an analyst with Creative Strategies, said he is skeptical of flexible materials making their way into mainstream gadgets as handset makers focus more on screen resolution and durability.
The Window Phone (not to be confused with Microsoft's (NASDAQ:MSFT) Windows Phone) was created by designer Seunghan Song. The gadget has a completely transparent touchscreen display and no outer casing or rim. One of the ways that this manifests itself to the user is through the display of the weather, reflecting conditions outdoors. The phone also has other modes--when a user blows on the surface, it turns into text message mode. To some degree, this feature is becoming more mainstream via user interfaces like HTC's newest version of Sense, which has cinematic weather visualizations with audio feedback.
"It's something that everyone can connect with immediately and it makes it very tangible for everyone because you can play with it," said Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics. "But it might also start to freak out people if they touch the phone and it looks wet." There are practical limitations as well: how would companies make internal components transparent?
Long Tran, the creative director at Yanko Design, which surveys concept phones and other outré designs, said that until there is a function that becomes readily apparent from having a transparent display--such as the ability to scan a surface by placing the phone on it--the technology is not likely going to go mainstream. "I personally think that until there is a clearer reason as to why we need our devices to have transparent screens, it may not make it into mobile phones anytime soon," he said. "Otherwise, it's just for aesthetic value."
The Fuse was introduced in December 2009 and is the result of the collaboration of a number of companies, including Synaptics, Immersion. TheAlloy, Texas Instruments and The Astonishing Tribe (which has since been bought by Research In Motion (NASDAQ:RIMM)).
The device has a number of unique sensor capabilities built into the design. For example, grip sensing on the sides of the phone allows the user to pan and scroll the screen. Additionally, the phone allows for 2D navigation from the back of the phone. Synaptics' solutions allow for two-finger input, proximity sensing, grip sensing, text entry and high-resolution finger input.
Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics, called the ability to navigate the phone from the back a "genius idea" and said that improving battery power over the next few years will free up some power to add these kinds of sensors to more and more phones. Ben Bajarin, an analyst at Creative Strategies, said that the concept, especially navigating from the back of the phone, has a lot of potential but needs to be revolutionized.
"You need to have a fully fleshed out user experience as part of it," he said. "Unless the value proposition within the software or user experience is tied so closely to that, those are the kinds of hurdles they are going to have to overcome."
The Teleepoch model, about the size of an iPod Shuffle, was first introduced at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show and takes motion control to the extreme. The device's main functions, including menu scrolling, are controlled by tilting the phone. Users shake the device to go into a menu. The phone also has voice controls for dialing. The phone is powered by Qualcomm's (NASDAQ:QCOM) "wearable device" WMDP chip design.
It's an interesting concept, but could be too vexing to most users. "Will you have too much frustration before you've learned it?" said Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics "Voice should have been the full control here. To me voice is more important than gestures."
Ben Bajarin, an analyst with Creative Strategies, said other consumer electronics devices, such as TVs and computers, might be more amenable to motion control than handsets.
This device was designed by Pratt Institute student Suhyun Kim and is intended for the hearing impaired. The gadget has two scroll handles that can be pulled out to reveal a touchscreen display. Users input text into the phone, which can convert voice input to text and text input to voice. The scrolls can be pushed in to make the form factor of the device smaller and more portable.
Voice-to-text and text-to-voice technology is not new, but is likely to become more mainstream. "The concept of voice-to-text and text-to-voice will continue to get more play in mobile devices," said Ben Bajarin, an analyst with Creative Strategies. "We're getting close to real mainstream scenarios." Deaf and blind users will likely be catered to even more as specific niches in the years ahead, Bajarin added.
Long Tran, the creative director at Yanko Design, which surveys concept phones, said he thinks the technology still needs to develop more, but can imagine a time when devices have a tactile surface that can change dynamically from being smooth to having Braille lettering for the blind, for example.
Coca-Cola powered phone:
Talk about eco-friendly. This design, from Chinese designer Daizi Zheng, was made for handset giant Nokia (NYSE:NOK), which has a strong presence in developing markets and a history of innovative designs. The phone converts Coca-Cola into energy to power the device by using enzymes to generate electricity from carbohydrates.
Despite the fresh take on power generation, such a design is not likely to make it into the mainstream. Roger Entner, an analyst with Recon Analytics, said once Coke is used to power phones, all options are on the table, including potato power. "This is an interesting gadget, but that's about it," he said. "Instead of hunting down a power jack, you are hunting down a dispenser."
Parkoz Hardware "Transformers" phone:
South Korean firm Parkoz hardware was definitely channeling some Hasbro mystique into the design of this gadget, which looks like one of the tiny Decepticon robots from the "Transformers" movies. While tantalizing to think about, don't expect this to make it to market.
"There's no way that's real." said Ben Bajarin, an analyst with Creative Strategies. "Obviously that would be difficult to develop when you have that many moving parts."