Google has scheduled its first software developer’s conference for Project Ara, a customizable smartphone concept that can be upgraded with a quick swap of component blocks.
Google thinks Project Ara will be a historic advancement in smartphone technology -- so much so that it has scheduled the event at the Computer History Museum in the heart of Silicon Valley. The conference is expected to be held in April, two months before Google I/O, the company’s main software developer’s conference.
Google says it wants to offer the basic Project Ara frame to consumers for as low as $50, later selling the rest of the components at varying prices. In that way, Project Ara would upend the traditional sales model for consumer electronics devices, where one company markets and sells a device made up of components made by several different manufacturers.
Last fall, a Dutch design student created a video showcasing a smartphone that could be updated simply by snapping out a component, like the camera, for a newer, better model. Creator Dave Hakkens called the concept Phonebloks, and the Internet took notice. Hakkens said the project could reduce the amount of consumer waste created by smartphones undergoing an endless upgrade cycle in a video that has garnered nearly 20 million views on YouTube to date. Google also took notice, as did Motorola Mobility, which had recently been acquired by the tech giant. Motorola’s Advanced Tech and Projects (ATAP) team was already working on a similar project under the codename Project Ara, with the patents and manufacturing know-how to back it up.
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ATAP shifted Project Ara into high gear after the Phonebloks video started generating online buzz, and Google coordinated a partnership with Hakkens, where the designer would run a community website for the project.
Google sold Motorola Mobility to Chinese tech company Lenovo in January, but retained ATAP along with the noteworthy projects it had been working on, including an electronic tattoo that acts as a password. Google also held onto the patent portfolio as it sought to protect its Android mobile operating system, as well as ATAP’s Regina Dugan, former head of Pentagon think tank DARPA.
The project combines the upgradability of a home-built PC with the ubiquity of smartphones, which the world now spends more time on than any traditional computer.
ATAP now has a working prototype, complete with display, battery, Wi-Fi, and speaker modules. The ATAP team said that it will soon release an Alpha of the Module Developer’s Kit into the wild. A limited number of people will be invited to attend Google’s Project Ara conference in person, with Google offering a live stream to watch online, complete with an interactive Q&A on Google Plus.
Motorola Mobility partnered with 3D Systems Corp. (NYSE:DDD) shortly after announcing the project. The 3D printing outfit will manufacture Project Ara’s frame. Abraham “Avi” Reichental, the chief executive of 3D Systems, said that the company plans to offer modules that customers can print at home.
“To print modules … intelligent, functional modules with conductive elements and circuitry,” Reichental said, is “one of the most exciting initiatives that we have at 3D Systems today.”
Follow Reporter Thomas Halleck on Twitter @tommylikey.