SAN FRANCISCO — Project Ara is up and running, as members of Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) team demonstrated a prototype modular phone at the company’s developer conference yesterday. Although the smartphone prototype froze while booting up, project leads were excited about the device’s potential.
“Why choose a phone for its camera when you can choose a camera for your phone? Why not share the most expensive sensor or component among friends, family, or perhaps across a village?” Ara project lead Paul Eremenko asked attendees.
The board for the Spiral 1 prototype has a Texas Instruments OMAP 4460 mobile processor, built on a dual-core ARM Cortex-A9, as well as a large FPGA for implementing a packet switch network and a flexible power bus to take up approximately 70% of the board. Eremenko said his team hopes to switch to a bridge ASIC WiFi baseband processor in the next prototype, due in October, for increased developer functionality.
The Ara board.
Project Ara has seen a number of challenges, however, in addition to a frozen home screen at I/O. The ATAP team had to shrink its slip-and-click electro-permanent magnetic modules by a factor of 1,000 to save room on the PCB board. The team also found it challenging to minimize data loss across a range of low frequencies, while configuring cellular and WiFi antennas on a device that’s also user configurable posed its own difficulties.
“Our approach has been to use computer-optimized antennas and to leverage endoskeleton frames, the metallic structure, as part of the antenna system,” Eremenko said. “We’re also experimenting with 3D printing the antenna using conductive inks as part of the module shells.”
ATAP is working with New Deal Designs to develop a 3D printer that will operate “at 50 times the speed of current printers.” Eremenko asserted these printers will print hard, soft, and conductive materials in full 600 dpi, comparable to consumer-grade plastics.
“The principal challenge to modularity is overhead. Moore’s Law… and a modern data protocol can get the modularity penalty of the system down about 25% across the board in PCB area and device weight and overall power consumption. In exchange, users would have the flexibility to turn the device into a solution for a phone problem, or to turn their phone into a new possibility altogether.”
To encourage developers to solve previously unsolvable phone problems, Eremenko announced a developer challenge that awards $100,000 to the first group to engineer a working module for something that doesn’t exist on a smartphone today. Two runners-up will win tickets to the next Ara developer event this fall.
Developers will be able to use the recently previewed Android L kit on Ara, which Eremenko expects to act as a stress test for what the OS can do on non-traditional smartphones.
— Jessica Lipsky, Associate Editor, EE Times