Some not-quite-ready technologies could improve smartphones’ design—hiding the three-eyed monster and helping Siri stay off the cloud.

Talk that the smartphone has peaked gives a sense that our co-dependent pocket pals have reached some pinnacle of evolution. Nonsense. There is a lot more to come, especially if youre hoping for improvements in design, interface and privacy. Were not talking about 5G and folding displays. At the CES conference in Las Vegas this year, some of the most potentially disruptive inventions were tiny components from companies youve never heard of.The arrival of 5G, the next-generation wireless networks, requires phones to have more antennas. Because metal in the phones body can block antenna signals, phone makers are rethinking their designs, wrapping the whole phone in plastic or glass, and ditching mechanical buttons. However, some people panic when you take away their buttonsweve heard from many people who are holding on to old iPhones because they still have a home button.
In lieu of making the back of a phone as touch-sensitive as the front, which would be expensive and a power drain, designers could add virtual buttons, such as ones developed by a startup called UltraSense Systems. These tiny little chips, which use ultrasound to detect your finger, lie just beneath the phones surface. One placed on the back might be a camera button, with multiple functions: a quick tap for a selfie, a double tap to switch to video and maybe a long hold to open your photo library.
Gamers might want a phone with invisible buttons all around the edges, hidden controls that only respond when you launch a game.
The trouble with invisible buttons is you might forget where they are.
Daniel Goehl,
UltraSenses chief business officer, says a designer could add a little divot where your finger should go. Another option is haptic feedbacka gentle vibration or clickto signal to your finger that it has found the sweet spot.
2. Electric Feel
Phones already give us such feedbacknewer iPhones shake if Face ID fails, for instancebut our fingers generally follow our eyes around a touch screen. With the right haptic responses, they can do more.
French startup Hap2U developed a prototype smartphone with a haptic display. Its meant to restore some of the physical sensations that were lost when we abandoned physical keyboards for a sheer glass. (RIP BlackBerry. Hello, iPhone!) Instead of shaking the whole phone, electronics under the screen pinpoint spots to generate friction, so that your fingertip detects a physical change.
The assessment from Wall Street Journal reporter Katherine Bindley, who tried out the Hap2Phone at CES in a demo involving on-screen game controls and volume sliders: Its as if the keys or sliders are elevated slightly from the rest of the display, like the thinnest button you could imagine, she says. It was sometimes too subtle. In one scenario, she tried to set an alarm without looking, using the hands of a clock. (She failed.)
Hap2U, which doesnt build phones but sells its technology to device makers, also sees adding tactile sensations as a way to bring touch interfaces to the visually impaired.
3. Better Biometrics
Since the iPhone X came out,
has led the way with facial recognition, unlocking the phone with only your face. But there are times when a fingerprint is preferable. Last year,
embedded a fingerprint sensor inside the bottom half of the display on the Galaxy S10. You get the benefit of a fingerprint scanner without losing screen real estate, except sometimes you dont know where youre supposed to put your finger.
Isorg, another French startup at CES, has the solution: It turned an entire smartphone screen into a fingerprint reader. Rather than an ultrasonic sensor, like the one in Samsungs Galaxy S10, Isorgs is optical, and you can put your finger anywhere. Better yet, the device can read multiple fingerprints at once. This could equate to more security, because a set of fingerprints is presumably more difficult to spoof than just one.
Isorgs sensor can be built on plastic and shaped as needed. In addition to lurking under a phones screen, it could be built into the grip of a scooter or bicycle, for on-the-fly biometric verification.
4. Body Camouflage
OnePlus has made a name for itself as the upstart Android brand, the anti-Samsung, designing cheaper but innovative handsets for the discerning Apple hater. This year at CES, the company showed off a concept phone with a solution to an aesthetic problem: the three-eyed monster.
As smartphones slimmed down, the cameras on their backs multiplied, while getting bigger and chunkier. OnePlus explored using electrochromic glass to hide the camera array when its not in use. The glasswhich you might have seen in fancy bathroom stalls and the windows of the latest airplanesgoes from clear to opaque on demand. OnePlus says it made a thin yet durable version for phones, that turns clear in 0.7 second when the camera is activated.
You wouldnt want to miss a great shot, just because your phones camera has a cloaking device.
5. A Closer Voice Assistant
To be clear, the amenities described above might never make it to your phone; perhaps theyd add too much thickness or cost or technical complication. There are other improvements in the works that I didnt touch onbattery and power advancements deserve a column to themselves. But you will definitely experience some variant of this next innovation quite soon. In fact, owners of Googles Pixel 4 are already getting a taste of it now.
Ever notice that Siri and Alexa require an internet connection? Even doing something as simple as setting a timer requires your voice command to be sent up into the cloud for interpretation.
A new breed of chips is bringing artificial intelligenceor particularly, deep learningdown from the cloud. Not only does this save on both bandwidth and battery life, it also adds to a devices privacy protections. People want a relationship with their digital assistant, not necessarily with everyone at the company that built it.
Navigational directions or weather reports require an internet hit, but theres no reason everything you say has to go to the cloud, says
Kurt Busch,
CEO of Syntiant, a chip maker focused on on-device voice processing.
While Syntiant gears its chips for everything from laptops to earbuds, Mr. Busch says that his companys current goal is an always-listening voice assistant in your ear that can execute a small set of commandsadjust volume, skip music trackswithout a wake word or even a tap.
In a few years time, Mr. Busch sees full natural language processing coming to devices. These assistants would be trained in the cloud, and receive periodic updates to improve performance. Ideally, they would learn things about youyour accent, for instanceto perform better. They would only go online when you completely stump them.
If youre an iPhone user, youll have to wait until the fall to see whats in store. Samsung devotees have a shorter wait: The next big Galaxy reveal is in early February.
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Write to Wilson Rothman at Wilson.Rothman@wsj.com
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