The Blok Revolution - Modular Smartphones

7:35 AM

by Beatrice Jeschek

Dave Hakkens has reinvented the smartphone. On a basic platform, exchangeable modules known as bloks – like camera, screen or memory – offer hitherto unheard-of individuality and sustainability.

The idea of the modular smartphone became a Youtube hit overnight. Since then it has been inspiring the designers of the world’s biggest electronics companies. A first basic model has just been presented to the public at a developers’ conference in Mountain View, California – a glimpse of the first modular smartphone of the future.

“I saw a whole load of litter lying around, and thought, maybe I could solve the problem,” says Dutch designer Dave Hakkens. His idea is based on the simplest imaginable logic: elements like the camera, screen, memory and processor all become individual and exchangeable modules, called bloks, slotted into a basic platform. No longer will you have to jettison your mobile every few years because technology has moved on. Hakkens’ idea makes it possible just to replace the individual components one at a time.

Today most mobile phones end up on the scrap heap before two years are out. Mostly because they can’t be repaired, or the repair would cost more than a new piece of equipment. According to figures supplied by the UNO initiative “Solving the E-Waste Problem”, just in the year 2012 the world collected 49 million tons of electronic scrap. Top of the league in this respect are the USA and Canada, with the EU not far behind, followed by China. It is thought that by 2017 the annual quantity could rise by as much as a third.

Electronic scrap is one of the most rapidly growing sectors of the worldwide garbage mountain. Photo: Plainpicture

That’s the earlier design by Dave Hakkens that convinced millions of users 2013 from his concept. Separate components of the modular phone are designed to be just clicked together. This reduces waste by not having to throw away parts of your phone that are in perfect working order. Photo: Phonebloks

Phonebloks designer Dave Hakkens with Sebastian Chafe of Sennheiser Strategic Innovation at the Project Ara conference in Mountain View, California. Here the basic model of the modular smartphone was already acquiring a shape. Photo: Sennheiser

This is how the modular smartphone could look like. In mid-April 2014 Google presented Project Ara as a cooperative venture between Google and Phonebloks at a developers’ conference in Mountain View, California. The next step will be to really build the phone, including the Sennheiser blok. Photo: Googel/Motorola

New sound quality for old

With the new Lego style smartphone, war has been declared worldwide on electronic scrap – or at least a part of it. The idea is made up of several strands at once. Sustainability for one, but individuality is also a priority – with combinable bloks that can be assembled independently at home on a DIY basis, like the pieces of a jigsaw. To make your selection easier, they come preassembled in a virtual app. When a part of your mobile goes, now you can just replace it. If you want to take better photos, you change the camera blok. If you want better sound, you could opt for the Sennheiser blok. It should even be possible soon to print out the individual components yourself on a 3D printer.

Sounds like a pipe dream? Hakkens launched his Phonebloks initiative at the end of 2013, under the slogan “A Phone Worth Keeping”. A massive chorus of voices in the social media supported the idea – today there have been more than 20 million YouTube clicks for the first video. Just a few months later, Google and Sennheiser joined the project as official partners.

The next step was to build a prototype. In mid-April 2014 Google presented Project Ara as a cooperative venture between Google and Phonebloks at a developers’ conference in Mountain View, California. Here the basic model was already acquiring a shape, though still dependent on cable – an aluminum frame with a screen, processor and WLAN unit. As for the color, the design and the bloks – you can pick your own in future, from third party suppliers like Sennheiser. So in the blink of an eye the blok revolution segues into a sound revolution. “Now we just need to get the different companies together in order to actually build the phone,” says Hakkens. A first version of the modular smartphone should be obtainable by January 2015.

This interview was conducted for Blue Stage, the content and sound stage of Sennheiser.

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