Google's efforts to build Ara, a customizable smartphone with swappable modules for different functions, such as those that let users add a high-resolution camera or an additional speaker to their phones, are taking shape.
However, consumers will have to wait at least until next year before the first model becomes commercially available, Google executives informed developers at the company's I/O developers conference last week.
Google began work on Project Ara in 2013. The company's goal is to deliver a smartphone that users will be able to upgrade or customize easily by adding or swapping out modules for specific functions.
The Ara phone will consist of a baseplate or frame with a pre-integrated display, CPU, graphics processing unit, sensors and all the functionality of a standard smartphone.
Initially, at least, the Ara frame will include slots for six modules. Users can slide any Ara module into any slot and use it right away, Rafa Carmago, Google's technical and engineering lead for Project Ara, informed developers at the I/O show.
For example, a user who wanted to add a high-resolution camera capability or a more powerful battery to his or her phone would be able to get that functionality simply by adding the appropriate module into an available Ara slot.
Users will not need to reboot their devices or hunt for drivers in order for a new module to work. Removing a module will be just as easy and can be accomplished either by selecting the module and having it ejected using the device Settings app or by using a voice command, he said.
By integrating the core functions of the phone in the baseplate, Google wants to free up space for modules that will let users create and integrate functionality easily, Carmago said. The modular slots are generic, meaning they can support modules with any functionality. Each slot will support data transfer rates of up to 11.9G bps while consuming about as much power as a USB 3 port, he said.
"The baseplate is the hardware equivalent of a software API," Carmago said. It will ensure that Ara users get a consistent experience while allowing developers to focus on the core functions of their modules. "Ara is an open platform. We want to create a hardware ecosystem on the scale of the software app ecosystem," he said.
Ara modules will communicate with each other using Unified Protocol (UniPro), a high-performance interface for connecting the modules at a hardware level. Ara will also use an application-level protocol called Greybus for handling tasks such as device discovery when a new module is inserted into a slot.
Initially, Ara modules will be designed for smartphone use, but eventually, they will be capable of running on devices with a variety of form frames, Carmago said. A module designed for one Ara frame will be compatible with future frames. Similarly, frames designed in the future will support older modules, ensuring investment protection.
Google will release a preview version of Ara this fall in a bid to spur developer interest in the technology and ensure that modules for a wide range of applications are available for the smartphone at launch. Organizations that are currently working with Google in developing modules for Ara include Samsung and Sony. Among the modules that Google is working on is one that will integrate the functions of a glucometer so people with diabetes can measure their glucose levels using their smartphones.
In addition to function-specific modules, users will also be able to choose modules that let them personalize their phones.