There's more to mobile apps than ringtones, text messages and casual games
Ever since the wireless sector realized that non-voice services were a ticket to incremental revenues (regardless of whenever 3G actually arrived), operators, apps developers and even governments have been trying to find new ways to get cellphone customers to use their handsets for stuff besides making phone calls.
Ringtones, wallpaper downloads and Java games are the most celebrated, and at the moment, music tracks and mobile TV are the most hyped. Very cool, but zoom in and you'll find some fairly wild ideas out there about what mobile phones can be used for.
And there are plenty to choose from. One of the nice things about the mobile ecosystem is that there are thousands of firms and organizations of all sizes that are coming up with these things. Ten years ago, who would have thought that a mobile phone could be used as a breathalyzer? Or a love detector? Or a ghost detector, even? Who would have thought up something like a ringtone that can only be heard by teenagers? Or a phone that literally screams when it's stolen? Or helps with the laundry?
Such apps are arguably niche or special-interest, but they're also textbook illustrations of the concept of the handset as a personal communications device. And judging from some of the apps Wireless Asia has come across in recent years, the possibilities for new services are only limited by the scope of our imagination.
And so it's with all that in mind that Wireless Asia has compiled some of the most interesting mobile apps we've come across in the last couple of years. We can't vouch for how much money these apps are pulling in - indeed, at least one is a gimmicky built-in handset feature - and this is far from being a comprehensive list. But so what? Our mission here is to showcase some of the more imaginative mobile apps spotted "in the wild" (so to speak), and to provide a sneak peek at what various R&D boffins think will define apps development in the future.
1. Lie/Love detector
Want to know if the person you're calling loves you? Or, if he/she says "I love you", whether they're telling the truth? South Korean cellco KTF has the app for you.
The "Truthful Calls" service uses a voice analysis system by Israeli company Nemesysco that functions as an emotion detector, assessing the level of honesty of the person you're calling. Throughout the conversation, the analysis system plays different sounds to flag statements worthy of further inspection and to mark different emotional states. When you hang up, you get a message with a bar graph depicting truthfulness, along with stress levels, inaccurate answers and attempts to divert the topic.
The Nemesysco technology also powers KTF's "Love Detector" service, which? works the same way but reports to you at the end of the conversation the "love level" of the person you've called - overall level of affection, plus graphs that measure various attributes such as level of interest, attention, expectation and embarrassment.
Interestingly, this isn't that new. Apart from the fact that KTF launched a similar service two years ago, apps developer Agile Mobile announced a lie-detector app for Nokia handsets in 2003.
The difference may be that Nemesysco's technology has been field-tested by Israeli intelligence agency Mossad (according to KTF, anyway).
2. Call yourself in the future
From Web services company CDyne, a Web-based app that allows you to call yourself in the future. Really!
The basic object is to schedule a call in advance by going to the callthefuture.org Web site and filling out the appropriate fields, which includes the time you want the call placed and the text of a message you want to send. When it's time, the server will call the number and text-to-speech software reads out the message to the caller.
The point? CDyne says the tool can be used to phone in a reminder to yourself, or it can be used to play pranks on your friends or give yourself an excuse to leave a date, family event, editorial meeting, whatever.
3. Ghost detector
TV show tie-ins are becoming a frequent excuse for mobile apps. Mobile content development company Wiretown (started, appropriately, by two men with TV broadcasting backgrounds) have developed a paranormal detector for cellphones.
Intended to promote a UK TV show called "Derek Acorah's Ghost Towns," the detector - co-developed with mobile specialist Future Platforms - purportedly uses existing mobile phone technology and "current parapsychological theory" to "detect subtle electrical changes around the user that some experts say are associated with paranormal activity," says Wiretown co-founder Tim Usborne.
No idea if it actually works, but Usborne says the app does "provide the viewer with a unique and engaging way to interact in real time with the show," according to Interactive TV Today. In any case, it probably works as well as the keitai ghost-detector charms on sale in Japan that light up when ghosts are nearby.
4. Car alarm
With the car theft rate in New Zealand approaching 36,000 a year, incumbent operator Telecom New Zealand and Navman New Zealand have developed a car alarm system that relies on mobile tech to let you know when someone's making off with your car.
The "Silent-I" system not only sends an SMS to the car's owner if the car senses a break-in, it also tracks the car's location and even the speed it's going.
For example, according to Telecom, if the culprit turns out to be, say, your underage joyriding teenage son or daughter, you'll be notified by SMS that they've borrowed the car without your permission and they're driving a good 20 kmh over the speed limit.
5. Spy phones
It sounds like something straight out of Q's labs in the James Bond films, or a cheesy TV drama - an ordinary-looking mobile phone that actually doubles as an eavesdropping device. Give one to your philandering spouse (for example), then use another phone to dial a special access number. The "spy phone" answers but doesn't ring or vibrate or light up or do anything to let anyone in the room know that the phone is now on an open voice channel. If the target picks up the handset and presses a key, the connection is broken and the phone works normally.
It's an idea that's been around for a couple of years, but Motorola, Nokia and Siemens all have spy-phone models that can be had via Web sites like Spyphones.com. Certain Siemens models come with an "interceptor" function that allows you to hear phone calls made by the user, and even sports an SMS alert function to notify you when the phone is being used.
Meanwhile, thanks to companies like Vervata, no special phone is required. Vervata's FlexiSpy software can be installed on the target handset to allow the eavesdropper to secretly record the unsuspecting user's SMSs and call history, among other things.
WARNING: Such apps are likely to be illegal in your home market. Or at least highly unethical and sneaky. In fact, FlexiSpy is categorized as a Trojan in F-Secure's virus database.
6. Halal verification service
Sometimes the best mobile apps are the simplest - like an SMS-based service in Malaysia that allows Muslims to conform the halal status (which is to say "permissible" under Islamic law) of products.
Launched earlier this year by the Islamic Development Department of Malaysia (Jakim), the service works by users sending an SMS with the word "halal" with the product's bar code number to a short-code number. The product info is then sent back to the user.
7. Liquid wallpaper
Technically more of a user-interface feature than an app, but still innovative: the N702iS handset (developed by NEC, NTT DoCoMo and Japanese design company Nendo) comes with sensor-driven wallpaper that makes the screen look like a glass of liquid.
The wallpaper - which Wireless Asia reported on last month - is part of the overall liquid theme of the handset (which also sports bubble lights on the back of the handset that move like bubbles when an incoming call or message is received). Triple-axel speed sensors create a "liquid" effect - tilt the handset, and the "liquid" tilts accordingly the way water would in a tilted glass. It even comes with an hourglass feature.
More interestingly, it's not just eye candy. The liquid wallpaper also serves as a battery level indicator - the lower the volume of water, the lower the energy left in the battery. Clever.
8. Send SMS messages and emoticons to your clothes
Cellphones have long since made the jump from comms device to fashion accessory, so why not SMS? Several projects have emerged recently that combine text messaging and clothing.
For example, Uranium-Jeans has a line of "interactive clothing" that comes with embedded flexible micro screens that display images and scrolling text messages that can either be downloaded from Uranium's Web site or sent by SMS.
Another example is MoBeeline, a company out of the NYU Interactive Telecommunications Program, which features clothes with Bluetooth-enabled LEDs that display emoticons sent from cellphones. The sender can also modify the colors or patterns of the garment.
9. Camera dictionary
With cameras virtually a standard feature on handsets nowadays, handset makers and apps developers alike have been looking at ways to transform the camera into an input device. Barcode scanning is one idea. Another, from Japanese company Mediaseek, is a camera-enabled dictionary service.
Camera Dictionary is a software app that allows users to scan English words using their camera phones and translate them to Japanese. The app also provides online links to more info about the word, like pronunciations and usage examples.
10. Mobile breathalyzer
Not sure if you or your driver has had one too many martinis? Use your mobile phone to check his or her alcohol level via a breath analyzer connected to the handset.
LG has had a consumer breathalyzer phone out for about a year, and NTT DoCoMo launched a mobile breathalyzer service for enterprises in June. Say you're a transport agency and you want to randomly spot-check your drivers. Make a video call and have the driver breath into the analyzer (the video connection intended to be a safeguard against the driver getting a breath sample from a nearby sober person). The breath/alcohol data is sent to a transport company's central database. If the driver tests positive, a large red warning appears on the driver's phone screen. Busted!
Five developing technologies coming soon to a cellphone near you. May involve cybernetics
That tingling sensation
Motorola hopes to take "silent mode" to new heights with its patented electrified stimulator pad. When your phone receives an incoming call or message, says the patent documentation, "an electric potential is placed across the electrodes and physically stimulates the body, such as areas of the epidermis and underlying muscles, alerting the wearer of the incoming call in a completely silent manner."
In other words, incoming calls will give you a tingly sensation.
Or perhaps a therapeutic massage, if you like. Motorola says that stimulus patterns can be manually programmed into the device by the user, selected from a programmed list of patterns in the device or downloaded from, for example, a doctor's Web site or in-office computer. "In this way, the patterns that provide the most therapeutic benefits can be provided to the user."
That smelly sensation
In the future, you will be able to smell your phone, thanks to companies like Samsung developing a handset that emits perfume from a cartridge when you receive a call. And thanks to Bell Labs, the mobile phone will eventually be able to smell you.
Seriously. Bell Labs president Jeong Kim says that cellphones will be able to identify their owners by smell much in the same way that dogs can, only via an electronic nose that analyzes smells. He also says Bell Labs is working on such a nose with Quantum Cascade Laser, a unique material invented by Bell Labs researchers in 1994.
The geniuses at Nokia Forum are leaving no stone unturned in ways to create a better user interface.
One idea in development: controlling the phone by using your muscles.
The Muscle Monitor app, built for Series 60/80 handsets, monitors muscle activity with two channels, one for each muscle. As a proof of concept, Arto Holopainen configured a muscle activity command sequence for Nokia's SnakeEx game controls. So, for example, you could flex the right bicep to turn the snake clockwise and the left bicep to turn counter-clockwise.
Holopainen reckons that more channels would enable more controls, and says the same technology could be used for other things, like writing text messages.
Ghost in the cell
Professor Kim Jong-hwan of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology wants to take the "genie in a bottle" concept and bring it to the mobile phone in the form of a software robot.
The "robot" would be something like a 3D avatar that would adjust itself to the characteristics of the cell phone owner.
"An owner will be allowed to set its first personality through defining the underlying DNA," Kim told the Korea Times. "However, it is up to the avatar how its personality develops in tune with responses of the owner. Its personality can head either way - getting better or worse - depending on how people treat it."
Put another way, if you don't treat it properly and with care, you may end up with a manic-depressive mobile phone. Douglas Adams was SO right.
Since battery capacity has hit a brick wall and fuel cells in are the distant future, clever people have been looking at ways to keep handset running for as long as possible - solar power, wind power, etc. Others have been looking at new ways to recharge batteries without relying on electrical outlets. Hand-cranked rechargers, car batteries, the muscle power of an albino buffalo, even urinating on the battery.
In the Indian state of Himachal Pradesh, 19-year-old Pankaj Sharma has invented a device that charges a cellphone while you walk.
The device is basically "a dynamo attached to the shoe that converts the mechanical energy produced by the pressure of the foot on the sole into electrical energy," Pankaj told CNN-IBN. "A bridge rectifier further converts the AC current into DC current and produces 5 to 6 volts of electricity."
Pankaj hopes the military will use the technology to enable soldiers to charge their wireless radio sets. If nothing else, he nabbed first prize in the student category from this year's National Innovation Foundation.