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Project Ara's working prototype to be finished next month

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Paul Eremenko, a project leader, demonstrates a prototype pulse meter module.
MIT's Technology Review Journal paid the folks at Project Ara a visit. It seems the modular smartphone is really coming along, and its prototype form is completely true to the project's original vision. According to project leader Paul Eremenko, Google will be providing the so-called "endoskeleton"of the modular phone, which will initially have eight rear slots for smaller modules, two front slots for a display and buttons panel (for example), and on-board power and data modules based on MIPI UniPro technology - a high-speed interface for interconnecting integrated circuits. The modules will be fixed to the platform with electro-permanent magnets - there are no snaps, harnesses, or hinges.

The endoskeletons will be offered in different sizes, including phablet-size, and smaller ones akin to musical players. These aside, Ara's hardware ecosystem is completely open to interested manufacturers. And, as different kinds of components emerge, users will be able to combine the modules into a fully customized smartphone tailored to their specific purposes - such as photography, medical monitoring, experimenting with sensors, and vice versa. 

A working prototype should be finished this month, while the project's research and development process seems to be going full steam. MIT's reporter was shown prototype pulse oximeter for measuring blood oxygen levels, and thermal imaging lens modules in 3D-printed plastic enclosures, while an infrared camera lens was under development. When it's ready, users who need the functionality can attach it to the endoskeleton and go about their day. Good stuff! Talking about the plastic enclosures, Google has partnered with Andover, Massachusetts' 3D Systems to make these quickly, cheaply, and in many different colors and designs. Additionally, not only cases, but entire components as well, could be manufactured using 3D printing. Talk about potential!

We also learn that Google plans to test basic Ara devices including only a Wi-Fi module, chipset, screen, and battery in South or Central American countries where wireless hot-spots are common alternatives to expensive cellular plans. These modular phones will cost only $50 each to make, while the retail price is still under consideration. It looks like competition for the $25 FirefoxOS phones is already brewing at NK Labs, the place where MIT reported from. It's a contract manufacturer ran by electrical engineer Ara Knaian, whose name christened the project. There are several more labs, with over 100 employees working on the project simultaneously.

First-time smartphone owners aside, Project Ara will be sampled by a list of about 3328 registered companies, varying from medical sensor vendors to display suppliers, that signed up for the first Ara Developers Conference (April 15-16, Mountain View, CA). Google is tasked with convincing them to turn their technology into Ara modules.

The story of Project Ara becomes more and more interesting with each new announcement. Just looking at the photos gives us a fit of curiosity that only a tech junkie can experience. And, as today's manufacturers mostly opt for incremental power and design updates in their yearly flagship products, innovation grows increasingly rare. Ara is already shaping up to be a significant breakthrough in design and user experience, one that the phone industry hasn't experienced since it met the iPhone and iPad.

source: MIT Technology Review

Photos by David Talbot

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