Google’s “Project Ara” 3D printed modular smartphone has reached the next stage of its development, as the hardware kits have been sent out to developers this month.
While the ability for you to print your own smartphone at home is a long way off, Google is planning to allow you to choose from a range of “modules” that can be easily snapped in to place for you own unique build. If you want an upgrade to your camera or RAM, or a replacement part, all you have to do is buy the required module and the electro magnet slots make installation as simple as a child’s lego set.
Developers interested in making modules for the device can now request a Developer’s Kit, which includes the required circuit boards to make things compatible. Google are hoping that a wide range of developers will be able to make enough modules for the consumer to have a truly unique and customized experience.
It was announced at Google’s developer’s conference earlier this year that the best module created will earn the maker a $100,000 prize.
The first round of kits have already been sent, with new applications accepted after August 17th.
Ultimately the plan is to release a basic device in January 2015 for around $50, and the consumer can then pick and choose what extras they desire.
If Project Ara is all about customization how will manufacturers be able to produce so many parts that conform to module specifications?
This is down to the folk at 3D Systems, whose 3D printing technique will be able to create “millions and hopefully billions of units”, even with a broad spectrum of customizations. In fact they’ve even suggested you’ll be able to pick your own colour hues for the modules.
“We are creating a continuous, high-speed 3D printing production platform and fulfilment system to accommodate production-level speeds and volume,” reads a statement on their website.
“The modules will additionally be printable with full spectrum, CMYKWT color plus support (meaning cyan, magenta, yellow, black, white and clear, with support), in hard and soft composite materials for the optimum lifespan of parts and ultimate customization by the user.”
One of the key issues with the modular smartphone concept is that it most likely will end up being a step behind the current hardware. Unless developers agree to work exclusively with Google, when new innovations are created – whether that be new cameras, processors etc – there is going to be a significant gap between traditional release, and the point at which they can be modified to fit within a module.
Likewise it is far more efficient to craft a new single device like an iPhone, with the top end hardware, than it is to create something that is interchangeable. There’s a reason why you can’t pop open the back of an iPhone and take out the battery. To get the best out of a device there are certain trade-offs to customization.
Of course Project Ara’s market may not be top end consumers, but those who want a basic device with the ability to upgrade when they want. Instead of saving up for a decent phone, maybe people will be the new modules as and when they can afford them, starting with the base model and adding on with each pay check.
However there is also the hurdle of marketing the device. Is the average person going to want the hassle of choosing what parts they want? Will they even know what parts they want? Or is it easier to just buy an iPhone or Samsung Galaxy?