Project Ara is the codename for an initiative that aims to develop an open hardware platform for creating highly modular smartphones. The platform will include a structural frame (endoskeleton that holds smartphone modules of the owner's choice), such as a display, camera or an extra battery. It would allow users to swap out malfunctioning modules or upgrade individual modules as innovations emerge, providing longer lifetime cycles for the handset, and potentially reducing electronic waste. Project Ara smartphone will begin pilot testing in Puerto Rico later 2015 with a target bill of materials cost of $50 for a basic grey phone. The project was originally headed by the Advanced Technologies and Projects team within Motorola Mobility while it was a subsidiary of Google. Although Google had sold Motorola to Lenovo, it is retaining the project team who will work under the direction of the Android division.
Google says the phone is designed to be used by "six billion people", including the one billion smartphone users and the five billion feature phone users. Google intends to sell a starter kit where the bill of materials is US$50 and includes a frame, display, battery, low-end CPU and WiFi.
Google wants Project Ara to lower the entry barrier for phone hardware manufacturers so there could be "hundreds of thousands of developers" instead of the current handful of big manufacturers. This would be similar to how the Google Play Store is structured. Lowering the barrier for entry allows many more people to develop modules. Anyone will be able to build a module without requiring a license or paying a fee.
Structures and features
Ara Smartphones are built using modules inserted into metal endoskeletal frames known as "endos". The frame will be the only component in an Ara Smartphone made by Google. It acts as the switch to the on-device network linking all the modules together. Two frame sizes will be available at first: "mini", a frame about the size of a Nokia 3310 and "medium", about the size of a LG Nexus 5. In the future, a "large" frame about the size of a Samsung Galaxy Note 3 will be available. Frames have slots on the front for the display and other modules. On the back are additional slots for modules. Each frame is expected to cost around US$15. The data from the modules can be transferred at up to 10gigabits/sec per connection. The 2×2 modules have two connections and will allow up to 20gigabits/sec. This is to defer its obsolescence as long as possible.
Modules can provide common smartphone features, such as cameras and speakers, but can also provide more specialized features, such as medical devices, receipt printers, laser pointers, pico projectors, night vision sensors, or game controller buttons. Each slot on the frame will accept any module of the correct size. The front slots are of various heights and take up the whole width of the frame. The rear slots come in standard sizes of 1×1, 1×2 and 2×2. Modules can be hot-swapped without turning the phone off. The frame also includes a small backup battery so the main battery can be hot-swapped. Modules are secured with electropermanent magnets. The enclosures of the modules were planned to be 3D-printed, but due to the lack of development in the technology Google opted instead for a customizable molded case.
Modules will be available both at an official Google store and at third-party stores. Ara Smartphones will only accept official modules by default, but users can change a software setting to enable unofficial modules. This is similar to how Android handles app installations.
Project Ara was developed and is led by Paul Eremenko. The project falls under Regina Dugan, who runs Google's Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) organization. Both Eremenko and Dugan worked previously at DARPA, where Eremenko originated the fractionated spacecraft concept and ran the Adaptive Vehicle Make program before heading the Tactical Technology office. The core Project Ara team at Google consists of three people with most of the work being done by outside contractors. One of the main contractors is NK Labs, a Massachusetts-based engineering firm, whose co-founder is Ara Knaian after whom the project was named. Another contractor is 3D Systems.
Prior to its acquisition of Motorola Mobility in 2011, Google had previously acquired some patents related to modular mobile phones from Modu. Initial exploration of this concept began in 2012 and work started on April 1, 2013. Dutch designer Dave Hakkens announced the Phonebloks modular phone concept independently in September 2013. Motorola publicly announced Project Ara on October 29, 2013 and said they will be working collaboratively with Phonebloks. Motorola went on a 5-month road trip throughout the United States in 2013 called "MAKEwithMOTO" to gauge consumer interest in customized phones. Interested developers, testers, or users can sign up to be Ara Scouts.
The first version of the developers' kit relies on a prototype implementation of the Ara on-device network using the MIPI UniPro protocol implemented on FPGA and running over an LVDS physical layer with modules connecting via retractable pins. Subsequent versions will soon be built around a much more efficient and higher performance ASIC implementation of UniPro, running over a capacitive M-PHY physical layer.
A near-working prototype of an Ara smartphone was presented at Google I/O 2014; however, the device froze on the boot screen and failed to boot completely. Globant also announced that they will make a Google Play like dedicated hardware store for Project Ara.
Google organized a series of three Developers' Conferences throughout 2014. More than 3300 developers signed up to the first conference that took place on April 15–16, where Google released the developers' kit. Commercial release is planned for Q1 2015. A collection of modules ranging from $50 to $500 are scheduled to be showcased at the Mobile World Conference in Barcelona.
Google stated at a conference on January 14, 2015 that it would pilot the release of Spiral 2, a Project Ara prototype, in Puerto Rico. The phones will be sold out of a food-truck like vehicle, with project lead Eremenko stating “We want to create a flexible retail experience. We’re designing a food truck as a retail vehicle for the Project Ara market pilot testing.”
Initial reception to the earlier modular Phonebloks concept was mixed, citing possible infeasibility, lack of a working prototype, as well as other production and development concerns. Some production and development issues were addressed after the Project Ara announcement from Motorola as the concept now had OEM backing, but other issues were raised about the modular concept.
Potential issues with the modular concept include a tradeoff between volumetric efficiency and modularity, as the framework interface holding the device would increase overall size and weight. Eremenko says modularity would create a difference of less than 25% in size, power, and weight to components, and he believes that is an acceptable trade-off for the added flexibility. The current prototype is 9.7mm thick, slightly thicker than conventional smartphones. Additional issues include regulatory approval; the FCC tests single configurations for approval, not modular configurations. Google said the FCC "has been encouraging so far".
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