As laptop computers continue to shrink in size and mobile phones become more and more powerful, can it be that long before the two merge into a device with the portability of a mobile phone and the functionality of a laptop? While it is just a matter of time before the power of a fully-fledged PC can be crammed inside a device the size of a mobile phone, our fingers aren't getting any smaller so overcoming the problems of interacting with such a small device will require some creative thinking. Creative thinking like that of designer Billy May who has come up with a mobile phone concept called the “Seabird” that is designed to address some of the frustrations people face when using such physically small devices.

May developed the concept phone as part of Mozilla Labs’ Concept Series, which asked people to share ideas and develop concepts around Firefox, the Mozilla projects and the Open Web as a whole. In early 2009, May, who also came up with the Hindsight concept glasses, developed a throwaway concept for an “Open Web Concept Phone”. In response to community feedback on that concept he developed the Seabird that explores what an Open Web phone might look like and how one would interact with it.

Virtual keyboard

The popularity of standard 3 x 4 keypads has declined as the popularity of
smartphones has increased and the capabilities of mobile phones have expanded, to the point where QWERTY keypads – be they physical, such as those found on a BlackBerry, or onscreen, such as those found on the iPhone – are now the norm. Still, the size of these miniaturized keyboards is less than ideal, which is why May has opted for a full-sized QWERTY keyboard using a couple of in-built pico projectors.

When the Seabird is placed down on a flat surface two pico projectors on either side of the device can be used to display a full-sized virtual keyboard with the full complement of keys, while an unmarked area below the base of the phone serves as an infrared touchpad area. Additionally, with the use of a dock the projectors would act independently, with one used to display the virtual keyboard and the other projecting the screen onto a wall.

Pico projectors are already appearing in mobile phones and there are already virtual keyboard projectors such as the VKB on the market, so it seems likely such an input system will be built into a mobile phone in the near future. Although such a system would be an improvement over the fiddly little keypads we use today, without the tactile key feedback of physical keyboards May’s suggestion that such a system would enable “netbook-quality interaction” might be a long bow to draw.

Bluetooth Headset/IR remote control

May’s Seabird concept also features a detachable Bluetooth/IR Dongle that fits into the back of the device that functions as a Bluetooth earpiece or as a remote control to move a cursor on the phone’s screen. An infrared camera array built into the phone would detect motion of the dongle in three dimensions, allowing users to zoom in and out as well as pan.

The Seabird would include features already found in mobile phones today such as an 8-megapixel camera, 3.5mm headphone jack and mini-USB port. It would also run Android and would also charge wirelessly – again, technology that is already commercially available in devices such as the Powermat.

The device would feature a flat face with no physical buttons, while the bulge at the top of the device’s back elevates the two side projectors to allow them to better project the virtual keyboard onto the surface it sits upon.

Although there are no plans for the Seabird to become a real-world device, the technologies that May has used in his concept either already exist or are within the realm of possibility. So it’s also not beyond the realm of possibility that we’ll see a similarly equipped device appearing from a mobile phone manufacturer in the not too distant future.

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