Project ARA – The dead modular phone project from Google

Edit (5/9/2016)

Project ARA was discontinued by Google due to technical and managerial reasons. It is reported that the underlying technology slowed down communication between separate parts of the modular phone and this issue was not resolvable. The team behind Project ARA will continue to work with Motorola. It makes sense because the Moto Z is one of the few smartphones on the market right now with modular capabilities along with the likes of LG G5.

As kids, we have all played with Legos. Those small, colorful plastic bricks that we used to assemble assiduously, integrating them together to create our little toy house. The new Spiral 2 prototype revealed at the Developers conference of Google’s Project ARA has piqued the kid in all of us.

Project ARA
Project ARA – A modular design approach (Image source)

Project ARA is an initiative by Google to create a modular hardware ecosystem. In other words, a fully customizable mobile phone that would enable users to handpick their preferred modules and functionalities, and only keeping the ones they require. It’s more like an assembled PC where you can choose the configuration as per your needs.

The following quote, as stated on Project ARA’s official site encapsulates everything the team is working towards:

The smartphone is one of the most empowering and intimate objects in our lives. Yet most of us have little say in how the device is made, what it does, and how it looks. And 5 billion of us don’t have one. What if you could make thoughtful choices about exactly what your phone does, and use it as a creative canvas to tell your own story?

And the line after the quote says, ‘Designed exclusively for 6 billion people’.

According to Google, only one billion people in the world use a smartphone, and the other five billion use outdated models of mobile phones. This is the market category that Google has been vying for. With Project ARA they wish to make smartphones for all “six billion” people.

The starter kit would cost $50 and includes a frame, screen, battery,  low-end CPU and WiFi modules (or shells, as the ARA team likes to call it). This way most of us could afford it. The minimum price of the device with additional components is estimated at $100.

Project ARA – Device Architecture

Project ARA endoskeleton
The Endoskeleton

Still, in the prototype stage, Project ARA’s Spiral 2 has a basic rectangular frame called as the endoskeleton. It is subdivided into smaller rectangular pockets having circuit boards and contact chips. It’s here that you snap in rectangular bricks for each module, say one block for a 12-megapixel camera and another block for high-quality speakers. The endoskeleton has been designed to last for at least six years, and all you have to do is to keep updating the Lego (modules) as per your need, just like an Android application does on play store.

Project ARA interchangeable modules
Interchangeable Modules (Source)

Spiral 2 looks like an epitome of customization. You choose every module and also select the color and visual design. This brings tremendous flexibility to phone owners, both in terms of their need and cost.

toshiba-camera-modules project ARA
Toshiba, along with Sony and Nvidia, is one of the companies partnering with the Project ARA team to make modules. (Source)

One of the most exciting features that come along with this neat technology is that various other components that are usually a rare sight in mobile phones can be assembled in the endoskeleton. For example, a camera enthusiast can swap his camera with a more powerful lens when shooting outside, and then switch back to the stock camera when performing daily activities.

Project ARA – Skepticism

What’s next for Project ARA?

As announced, Google plans to launch the device’s “pilot” later this year—following the launch of Spiral 3 in Puerto Rico.

The company expects that the next iteration will be packed with upgraded features such as 4G LTE connectivity, improved camera, a bigger battery, and inductive connection modules.

A concept in development, Project Ara’s modular phones aren’t meant to replace your conventional, all-in-one phone anytime soon. As with Android fans, Ara will appeal to enthusiasts who like to play and tweak with technology. The ‘replaceable’ feature will benefit those who get bored of even the slightest out-of-date technology and are in the race to get the top notch technology available in the market. I look forward to seeing how the market responds to Google’s yet another moonshot project.

To see how awesome the project looks in action, check out this video.

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