Google’s Project Ara: the first 'Lego' phone toys around with grand ideas


There is a phone out there that is unlike any other.

You build it and design it yourself: some would call it the ‘Lego’ phone, others would prefer to refer to it by the name of the original ‘Phonebloks’ idea, but most would know it as simply Ara.

It all started with an idea - why throw our phones in the junk every two years or so, when we could just upgrade the components that we need? Thus, the ‘Phonebloks’ idea was conceived in the head of Dutch designer Dave Hekkens. However, up until recently, this was nothing more than a fancy idea that geeks could talk about.

Then, Google came and picked it up, and christened it ‘Project Ara’. The development of the world’s first modular phone actually began at Motorola, but after Google sold the company to Lenovo, it kept the research team to itself and now Ara is part of Google’s top-secret Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) division.

Today, right after the first developer conference for Ara, we know that the 'Lego' phone is real and it’s indeed coming to market in less than a year. Here’s what it’s all about.

The Project Ara idea: accelerate innovation and accessibility of hardware

Before getting into the bits and bolts of Project Ara, let’s first see what the idea is and why it is worth your attention. With a modular ‘Lego’ phone like Ara you can choose every component of a smartphone instead of getting an assembled package that gives you no such choice. It’s up to you to select whether you want the latest and most powerful (and expensive) processor, or a cheaper but still decent one; whether you want a camera like no other, or no camera at all; a heart rate monitor on your phone or no heart monitor. Moreover, you can also customize the looks of each and every one of these pieces.

The idea goes even beyond that, though - it changes the whole business of making hardware. Instead of having to rely on Apple, Samsung or another company to assemble parts from component makers, you can just shop directly from the component manufacturers. Actually, in the plans for Ara is a marketplace (not unlike the Google Play store) for hardware - where you shop for parts: cameras, processors, memory, and so on.

The endoskeleton (endo)

While Ara is all about changing separate modules as much as you like, there is one integral part that cannot be changed on Project Ara. Google calls it the endoskeleton (endo, for short) - the physical body that holds and connects all modules together.

Ara will launch in three sizes, with three different endos:

  • mini (2x5 blocks) - minimum size: not wider than 45mm
  • medium (3x6 blocks) - flagship sized, minimum size: not wider than 67.02mm
  • large (4x7 blocks) - phablet sized, minimum size: not defined yet
Think of the endo as a modernized motherboard. It’s the bread and butter of Project Ara, and it's packed with impressive new technology.

You’d see that each endo comes with magnets that hold each of the pieces of Ara together. It’s surprising how easy it is to put modules in and out, and how it’s practically impossible for a module to fall off. Google is using a special types of magnets for that: electro-permanent magnets, a type that is passive (does not consume energy) when the connected module is there or when it’s disconnected, but that requires energy for the transition between that on and off state. Put simply, it takes no energy to hold a module, but when you try to disconnect one, the strength of the magnet shoots up by an order of magnitude to over 30 newtons, way more than you can overcome with your finger.

However, what we’re really excited about is the interface that is used for the modules to transfer data (talk to each other) and power. This connection comes courtesy of an open (as in not proprietary) protocol stack called MIPI, and in particular, the modern M-PHY protocol layer. It allows speeds of up to 10Gbps per connector, and for the 2x2 modules with two connectors - up to the whopping 20Gbps. We won’t go into much detail on M-PHY, but we’ll just say that it features many similarities to the PCI-E protocol, without the bulk of legacy support requirements.

Finally, the most impressive feature of endos might just turn out be their price - Ara has a price target of $15 for an endo. It’s important to note that while modules can be developed by practically anyone, third-party endo development is not permitted.

Modules: possibilities you’ll never have in a mainstream phone

While endos are the heart of Project Ara, modules could be interpreted as the brain, eyes, and all the other parts of the ‘Lego’ phone. 

You can freely change, swap and customize these little pieces that come in three sizes:

  • 1x1 - 18mm x 18mm (0.7” x 0.7”)
  • 2x1 - 40.5mm x 18mm (1.59” x 0.7”)
  • 2x2 - 39.5mm x 41mm (1.55” x 1.61”)
These are the sizes of modules you can put on the back of the phone, while up front, modules always span to the whole width of the phone. There are some limitations - you cannot put 1x1 modules on the large endo, and you cannot put 2x2 modules on the medium endo, while 1x2 modules will be universally available on all three endo sizes. There are also some new possibilities - modules can extend over the body - for instance, a pulse detector module could extend over the length of the phone, while a performance-oriented camera module could be thicker than other modules.

Best of all, though, there are no ‘required’ components to build a phone with Ara. Sure, you need to have the basics, but you can have a phone without a camera, for instance, but with a few blocks for a humongous battery. Google actually plans on launching a ‘Grey Phone’ version of Ara with only the basics - a screen, low-end processor, battery and Wi-Fi modules, all running on Android, of course.

There’s enough excitement in such a configuration that could cost as low as $50, but what we’re really fascinated with are the possibilities that modules open up.

Experimental modules

Google itself showed a heart rate monitor sensor module that some people might want to get, but developers are already working on other captivating ideas.

The Institute for Health Metrics’ senior engineer Peter Sisk has said he is working on an Ara module to analyze a drop of blood, turning Ara essentially in a blood lab on a chip. Imagine how doctors could travel with just their Ara phone to monitor patients in the far-away corners of our planet. Such functionality will probably never make it in a mainstream phone, but it’s possible with Ara.

Satellite communications firm Globalstar’s design engineer, Eric Blanchard, has said his company could manufacture a module that you can use when you go out of coverage. That module would connect to Globalstar satellites and allow users to make calls and access the Internet, something that currently requires an expensive and separate satellite phone.

Actually, Google has just announced a challenge for the best module design with a $100,000 prize fund, looking for the most novel, functional, elegant, impactful, and commercially plausible ideas, so we expect a lot of new module ideas to come in the near future.

Project Ara might be a solution to our battery problem

Even a module as common as a battery suddenly becomes very interesting in Project Ara.

You can have more than one battery in the Project Ara, and each unit could have it’s own charging port. This means that you can charge two modules at the same time, which in turn should translate into much faster recharging of batteries.

Not only this, we have not yet clarified that each endo ships with a very tiny built-in battery. It lasts for just a very short while, but it’s enough time for you to swap battery modules without having to even power off your phone. What this means is that once you start running out of juice, you can quickly swap battery modules, and not worry about your phone dying on you.

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Open marketplace for modules: think Google Play for hardware, not App Store

The biggest idea of Ara, however, is that it could change hardware innovation from the ground up. Google plans to launch it with a marketplace where you can buy modules, much like you buy apps right now. It will be an open marketplace, similar to the Google Play store open model of submission rather than Apple App Store’s policed catalog.

For users, such a market might mean that no longer would you have to wait for Samsung to release the S5 with the latest Snapdragon chip - you’d be able to get that chip straight from Qualcomm.

It’s a win-win too: hardware makers can enter the business directly rather than going through phone manufacturers to get sales. Companies that were previously limited to selling products on smaller-scale markets, could now get open access to the huge phone market. For instance, an acoustics company could start making components directly for smartphones, an option it does not have with the current model.

Some say this could hurt carriers and phone makers, but it seems that first and foremost, this is a move to speed up the pace of innovation rather than hurt anybody.

Since modules all come with a removable shell on top of the circuitry, you can also easily customize that shell to your liking - with different colors, shapes, and so on. Third-party companies and accessory makers would certainly offer plentiful options, but with arrival of 3D printers, why not design and print one yourself?

Project Ara: release data and price

Project Ara has already gone halfway through its ambitious two-year mission.

There are still some concerns (most notably, about battery efficiency), and some rough edges to polish. However, under Google’s wing, Ara has skyrocketed from a mere concept to a very real prototype that is already in the hands of some developers.

Ara team leader and former DARPA engineer Paul Eremenko promised endos priced at just $15, and the most basic yet complete Grey Phone package should cost merely $50. At this price, it’s truly a phone for the 5 billion people not yet connected.

Ara, the first ‘Lego’ phone, is coming to market in January 2015. With Google’s promise to back it up and protect it from carriers and phone makers (who’d most definitely prefer to keep the status quo), this truly affordable device might just change our ideas of what a phone is in the future.

reference: WSJ, TheVerge, Engadget

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