Yesterday, Lenovo announced its newest addition to the Moto mobile phone line. The Moto Z is basically just a bigger and thinner Moto X, except for a very interesting addition to the back. Down near the bottom are 16 visible pogo pins, and a couple of invisible yet powerful magnets. Moto phones have had customizable back plates for years, but this data port enables the phone to snap on “Moto Mod” backs, accessories that add new electronic components.
LG introduced a modular phone earlier this year, but it required disassembly and a reboot to swap parts. Lenovo’s solution means that the Moto Mods just slap right on and power up. So far, the existing mods include a powerful JBL speaker back, a miniature projector back, and a basic extended battery. In order to encourage other developers to create backs for this new line of phones, Lenovo has offered a $1m prize for the best prototype, and Hasselblad has already announced a camera back. Let’s throw out a few ideas of our own, shall we?
1. Solar Battery Pack
While InCipio is already making a smart rechargeable battery back for the Moto Z, it would be neat to have one with a built-in solar panel. Previous attempts to add solar panels to phones have been unsuccessful for several reasons, mainly because a cell phone is usually in your pocket or being held in your hand or away from sun, because cell phones usually overheat when they are in the sun, and because a phone-sized solar panel doesn’t provide enough juice to power a phone.
However, using a solar panel to trickle charge a removable battery back makes way more sense. You could leave this battery back on your window sill or your dashboard, and it would always be topped up and ready to go when you needed it. Then you’d just slap it in place, and be good to go for another day. I think it would be a good idea to put the solar panel on the inside of the battery, so that it doesn’t get scratched when attached to the phone.
2. E-ink Rear Screen
If you’ve ever used a Kindle e-reader, you’ve seen how good an E-ink display is for reading text, and since they only require electricity to load an image, and not to maintain it, a Kindle’s battery life is measured in weeks rather than hours. PopSlate has already created an iPhone case with an e-Ink panel, but since it relies on Bluetooth to connect to the host phone, there’s a limit to how seamlessly it can integrate with the OS and how much battery it can actually save. The Russian-made YotaPhone is a well-reviewed Android mobile with a second E-ink screen, but it’s hard to find cheaply around here.
A second E-ink display on a cell phone would be a great place to keep a shopping list, a calendar itinerary, a map, or a page of a book. This would be a great accessory for readers, but also anyone that is looking for a device that is easy to read in direct sunlight.
3. Tango 3D Tracker Back
The other product that Lenovo launched yesterday was the long-awaited realization of Google’s Tango project. The Phab 2 Pro uses multiple cameras to build and track 3D model of objects or even rooms in front of it. These models are accurate enough that they can be provide fine measurements, and are created in real-time. This tablet will be going on sale at Lowes later this year, complete with a Lowes app that lets you visualize large appliances, cabinets, and furniture inside your own home.
Perhaps Lenovo could put this multi camera array into a magnetic back and slap it on a Moto Z, but unfortunately this will only work if the Moto Z has enough processing power for the real time geometry generation… and if Lenovo is sure that it wouldn’t cut into sales of the Phab 2 Pro.
4. Video and Audio Input Jacks
Most phones nowadays have a video-out capability, but the ability to view or record video coming in is rare. This ability would be handy for videographers that would like to use their phone as an external viewfinder for their cameras, or to record video coming off of some other device. A couple of professional audio inputs would also make the device incredibly useful to podcasters and radio producers. A headphone jack is also a must.
Since Blackmagic Design already produces a number of pocket-sized digital signal converters and recorders, it would be very easy for them to put a bunch of their chips inside a phone back. At this point, we don’t know what the bandwidth of the Moto Z’s connection port is, but if it is capable of live-streaming a viewfinder signal from a camera, it should be able to handle uncompressed audio and compressed HDMI video.
5. Thermal Camera Module
FLIR has already created some small, cheap thermal cameras for phones, but they attach by plugging into the USB port. This is bulky and fragile, not nearly as safe and secure as if the camera module was magnetically attached to a flush back. Not everyone needs thermal imaging in their pocket at all times, but it would be extremely handy for certain tasks. Since Lenovo has promised that the Moto Mod specs are “future proof,” I think it could be worth FLIR’s time to prototype a camera back for this and future Moto Z phones.
6. Software Defined Radio mod
This device would have an even smaller audience than the thermal camera (at first), but it would have an awful lot of uses for an awful lot of electronics hobbyists. It could either be an extremely simple RX-only chip with antenna ports, or it could be a completely contained HF transceiver like the open-source PSDR that Michael Colton created on Kickstarter.
Even if it was just Michael’s main board, and used the Motorola’s screen, controls, battery, and storage, it could be made pretty cheap, and it would be an incredibly powerful tool. Hobbyists could use it (with the right antennas) as a spectrum analyzer, handheld radio, police scanner, and more. As new software gets developed for it, it could be a walkie-talkie, translate Morse code, download NOAA weather satellite imagery, give pilots a cheaper ADS-B receiver, and much, much more.
Unfortunately, I’m not sure what the future of these Moto phones is under the new management of Lenovo. The old Motorola would probably have been more interested in hobbyist tools (and customer support), but now that they have become a fully-owned brand of Lenovo, things aren’t so good. I’m afraid that the Moto Z will probably get a bunch of boring mods like flip-out gaming pads and stick-on notification lights, end up looking like every other Android phone, and eventually Lenovo will buy another phone company and start using its brand.
But I am excited about this clever way to add capabilities to phones, and I’m eager to see what other inventors come up with. What do you want your phone to do?