Smartphones just get smarter

6 mins read

​​Today’s smartphones continue to push the envelope in terms of capability and new models are able to deliver not just high-quality photos and 8K videos, but can now support console-quality games and allow users to connect to the internet at multi-gigabit data rates.

The changed circumstances of the past twelve months has not only forced businesses to adjust to a new digital environment but has seen technological trends and innovation accelerate – whether that’s the roll-out of 5G, the development of faster charging technologies, immersion technologies or new screens. All are having an impact on smartphones.

From new chip technology, such as Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 chips and developments at technology giants like Apple and Google, where both are looking to develop and take control of their own hardware, to different styles of phone and the roll-out of cheaper handset designs the sector is witness to changing consumer requirements and new technological trends.

One of the most significant developments is that in 2021 most premium and mid-level smartphones will now come with 5G support.

At the end of 2020, MediaTek unveiled the Dimensity 1200 and Dimensity 1100 5G smartphone chipsets - both of which are capable of delivering AI, camera and multimedia features for 5G enabled devices. These 6nm chipsets look to provide device makers with a variety of options when it comes to designing 5G smartphones and are able to support a broad range of camera features, graphics and connectivity enhancements.

"MediaTek continues to expand its 5G portfolio with highly integrated solutions for a range of devices from the high-end to the mid-tier,” said JC Hsu, Corporate Vice President and General Manager of MediaTek’s Wireless Communications Business Unit. He continued, “The Dimensity 1200 is able to deliver 200MP camera support and advanced AI capabilities, in addition to innovative connectivity, display, audio and gaming enhancements.”

The Dimensity 1200, for example, comes with an octa-core CPU that’s been designed with an ultra-core Arm Cortex-A78 clocked up to 3GHz and, as such, can deliver much greater levels of performance.

Likewise, Qualcomm’s Snapdragon 888 comes with integrated 5G on the SoC and the 5G modem no longer comes separately, as is the case with the Snapdragon 865 plus. This integration means that it will now be possible to develop more affordable 5G enabled smartphones – the improved computational capabilities have removed the need to employ ever bigger and more sophisticated camera sensors.

The possibilities that 5G brings with it, such as better quality video creation and consumption, faster downloads, immersive AR/VR and gaming experiences, are considerable. Consumers will benefit from much faster services whether that’s downloading content or sharing experiences of social media.

Both Google and Apple have moved into the development of hardware and in April last year Google unveiled a new project codenamed “Whitechapel.” An in-house SoC, it is to be manufactured in conjunction with Samsung and follows the lead taken by Apple in developing and taking over the control of hardware.

Google’s SoC comes with a number of cores that are dedicated to machine learning and the Google Assistant. Much like Apple the move reflects the company’s desire to operate its devices under one ecosystem and, simply put, it wants better chips to deliver improved camera performance and overall usability.

Google’s move mirrors that taken my Apple which launched the A14 chip and M1 Macbook chip at the end of last year.

Artificial Intelligence

Artificial intelligence is now present across a growing number of smartphones. While it had traditionally been reserved for the most expensive devices it can now be found in more affordable handsets, delivering important new functions such as voice assistants, photography, object recognition and faster data processing. AI can be deployed to help users by learning their habits and tastes and then delivering suggested actions through different applications.

AI is able to mimic the intelligence or behavioural patterns of humans and can be used to solve problems that traditional computing has had difficulty in doing in the past.

The Huawei Mate 10 was the first mobile device to feature AI and today’s smartphones using AI are better able to manage device performance and respond more accurately to their users’ needs.

The impact of Al on the smartphone market has already been significant with Amazon’s Alexa, or Apple’s Siri AI-based voice assistants. By interacting with devices in other ways than through a graphical interface it is now possible for new applications to take shape.

“One of the many problems AI can solve is to make intelligent conclusions from images or videos such as facial recognition, object detection and tracking, motion detection and motion vector analysis,” explained John Svensson, CTO of Imint, a Swedish company that specialises in intelligent sensor and data analysis.

“At Imint, we believe that with these building blocks there are even more possibilities for new applications within smartphones. We have already seen several applications such as image segmentation, face beautification, in addition to VR and AR applications like furnishing your home with virtual furniture, or trying on new clothes with virtual clothing.

“AI can be used to enhance traditional applications. This is especially true with the explosion in AI-processing power in new chipsets. That said, solving problems usually requires enormous amounts of data so that algorithms can learn to perform well, which puts certain companies, such as Google, in a strong position.”

According to Svensson, AI can be used to address many different areas and applications.

“The specific application that pertains to Imint – and the best way to describe it – is that it’s an extremely powerful technology that enables improved real-time video enhancement processing on a device in a way that anticipates the user’s videography desires and/ or intent – and then auto-applies the appropriate adjustments to produce improved content.

“We’ve already been integrating AI into Vidhance - our flagship product suite. The Vidhance Selfie Mode combines AI and facial recognition to help ensure a user stays in-frame when video chatting or recording Instagram stories, for example.”

By integrating AI and ML directly into smartphone software Svensson said it was possible to create more compelling video content and enjoy richer communication with friends, family, and co-workers.

“The ideal scenario for an end-user, when it comes to making a video, is when the technology knows what the user wants beforehand, and makes the requisite adjustments and corrections,” Svensson suggested.

This could include technical adjustments, like auto-correcting a horizon or the auto-removal of noise and discolorations, or delivering creative adjustments, like auto-framing video subjects or auto-applying filters and effects.

“AI can also be used in up-scaling or super-resolution where users want to have many more details than what's actually physically captured by the sensor.”

But that’s only one of many benefits from using AI.

“There are a variety of benefits to the end-user. For one, the user will be able to have access to many new types of applications and features that will be able to gather even more types of information and intelligence.”

The roll-out and availability of 5G will accelerate the use of AI, according to Svensson.

“With the bandwidth and low latency that 5G promises, we can start redefining the way in which network infrastructure is developed. Previously, with less bandwidth, many applications have been required to do calculations in the edge, simply because it would take too long to pass the data from the edge to the cloud.

“With the speed of 5G, more of the computation can take place in the cloud, enabling more applications to send data to the cloud for processing.”

Consequently, with more data available more advanced applications that take advantage of data from more dispersed applications will be possible.

“More data is exactly what AI-applications hunger for, so we will see more advanced applications that take advantage of more data from more applications,” said Svensson.

When it comes to future applications, Imint is planning to incorporate AI into object recognition and object indexing technology. Though not yet on the market, the core technology has already been developed.

“We just need to find the right application and partner to bring it to market,” added Svensson.

Key trends

Among other key smartphone trends are likely to be an up-take in the availability of gaming and video applications.

The Coronavirus pandemic has certainly accelerated that trend whereby there has been a shift from console to mobile gaming and this is expected to continue over the coming year with the demand for more powerful smartphones with gaming capabilities expected to grow.

These types of smartphones will need to provide high refresh rate screens, use more powerful processors, offer ultra-fast storage and cooling capabilities.

The Snapdragon 888, for example, already comes with variable rate shading to improve gaming performance in smartphones and new smartphone models are expected to deliver more of these types of features.

But when it comes to gaming, for example, users also need improved audio that is capable of delivering immersive sound and ultra-low latency connectivity. In response, Qualcomm has developed the aptX Adaptive audio technology which is able to provide a Bluetooth wireless solution that can work across gaming, video and music and has been designed to adjust performance based on the environment in which the user is using their smartphone and responds differently to what is being played on a device, whether that’s video, music or gaming.

As Svensson explained, “Across the board AI has a significant role to play when it comes to improving the user experience and there are many ways to improve that experience. One specific use-case scenario that we strongly believe in is the ability for video to be utilized in a collaborative environment, where multiple producers provide their parts to a video. With AI engines helping to identify the relevant parts of different producers’ videos, we foresee that producers will be able to seamlessly merge these videos to create a professional looking end result.

“Imagine being at a football game where hundreds of people are filming from different angles. The ability to get a video from all different angles of the winning goal is something that many would want.”

All these improvement will require power and charging technologies are evolving with fast-charging products coming to market which can charge a smartphone from zero to 50% in just a matter of a few minutes.

While the technology is improving there is a call for OEMs to make this technology safer for the user, minimising any potential safety hazards and risks, while at the same time providing an efficient and secure charging experience.

A number of companies have developed battery safety monitoring chips that are capable of monitoring a mobile phone in real time to see if it has been damaged.

The smartphone market continues to evolve rapidly but as consumer demand continues to change, so smartphone brands will need to come up with newer and more innovative technologies to meet changing market requirements.