Silent speech and atomic batteries: the future of phones

What will the new decade bring for mobile phones? A look at the cutting edge of electronics shows that
 Dr. Marc Christensen
there are all sorts of new gadgets out there – mainly in the hands of the military – getting ready to make the leap into the consumer market. If history is any guide, they will rapidly be integrated into mobiles. If you thought the last decade was a good one for mobile gadgets, then the 2010s will be an eye-opener.

Silent speech

Technology originally developed for Nasa will let you talk on the phone without making a sound. Advanced Speech Encoding detects the physical signs associated with speech, specifically the movement of laryngeal and sublingual muscles in the throat, rather than the sound itself. It was designed for noisy environments, such inside a Space Shuttle during blast-off, where even the best filters could not distinguish voice from background noise. The user wears a sensor around their neck which converts throat movements into speech, even if they are not speaking aloud.
With Advanced Speech Encoding you could talk silently in a library or quiet carriage without anyone hearing. US Special Forces will shortly be using it for stealthy communication on patrol. Chuck Jorgensen of Nasa warns that it has one disadvantage: it has a horrible synthetic voice, so you'll probably sound like Stephen Hawking.

High-quality mobile snaps

Even mobile phone cameras with a high pixel count tend to be limited to party snaps because of poor image quality. A large, high-quality lens with a big aperture is too heavy and can't be made flat enough for slim modern phones. If you want a decent lens you have to get a chunky superzoom camera. But a new technology called Panoptes solves this by replacing the lens with an array of flat sensors. It’s being developed by Marc Christensen, a professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, with funding from the US Army Research Laboratory.
In Panoptes, which stands for "Processing Arrays of Nyquist-limited Observations to Produce a Thin Electro-optic Sensor." hundreds of independently steered sensors take overlapping low-resolution images. The images are stitched together by smart software, and the combination is equivalent to a single very large lens. This could turn mobiles from second-rate cameras into superior ones, as well as giving you a compact telescope for spying on people from a distance.

Signal boost

New antenna technology using metamaterials, which offer new ways of manipulating electromagnetic radiation, will get a signal in places that are currently black holes. The media have played up metamaterial invisibility cloaks, but those are a long way off as the nanotechnology needed to build them doesn't exist yet. But metamaterials that catch mobile phone signals are already here.
Rayspan Corporation of San Diego has developed a metamaterial antenna that can be printed on a conventional Printed Circuit Board. Not only does this make them more compact, but they filter out more noise and double the range compared to a standard antenna, according to Brian Hurst of Rayspan. They also require less power and so extend battery life.

Laser tagging

Laser measuring devices are in common use, and adding one to your mobile will opens up all sorts of new applications. The technology is already used by the military: by combining the distance and bearing from a laser with GPS data, it can pinpoint a target's location on the map. Future phone applications could include identifying any point of interest you aim at, and a “how do I get from here to there?" function for those frustrating occasions when you can see your destination but can't find the way. It would also enable a whole new set of laser tag games, turning phones enabled with lasers and GPS into zap guns for tagging similarly-equipped players.

Phone viruses

A more exotic development will help phones deal with viruses – real ones. For some time researchers have been able to impregnate surfaces with biocidal materials that destroy bacteria and viruses, giving us hygienic chopping boards and smell-free socks. A new approach of cold plasma deposition, being developed by US military agency Darpa, means that it will soon be possible to treat semiconductor devices, including mobiles. So you can let your friend use your phone without being contaminated, even when they're looking like an extra in 28 Days Later.

On the horizon

These developments which are just around the corner. Plans for the more distant future sound more like science fiction, such as replacing batteries with a nuclear power plant on a chip. Particle accelerators can now be made chip-size, and this has raised the possibility of nuclear fusion on a microscopic scale.  Standard fusion (as at the giant ITER facility) fuses deuterium atoms, but chip-scale fusion would fire protons at a Boron target. This would produce energy without the dangerous stream of high-energy neutrons normally associated with fusion, and it's another project that Darpa has been looking at. It will probably be much too expensive to power a car, but economical enough for portable devices. What would you pay for a phone you never had to recharge?