Print a phone, or grow it in a pot

With a cellphone you can make calls on the go, shoot photos and pinpoint your position on a map. And who knows, maybe one day you’ll be able to grow your phone in a pot, if the futuristic ideas of technology researchers come true.

The world’s leading cellphone maker, Nokia, has worked for years with top experts to determine the needs and wants of tomorrow’s customers in order to stay ahead of aggressive new competitors Google and Apple as well as the more traditional device makers Samsung, LG and Motorola.

In 2007, the Finnish company spent about €5,6-billion, or about 11% of its €51-billion net sales, on research and development.

About 27% of its employees, or more than 30 000 people, work on research and development, 700 of whom are part of Nokia’s long-term research unit.

The Nokia Research Centre is a global organisation with activities in Britain, the United States, China, Switzerland and Finland, among others.

“Right now we are looking for things that could be relevant for Nokia in 2015. It might be that the patent for a product is relevant in 2015 but that the actual product is further away,” said Leo Kaerkkaeinen, a chief visionary at the Nokia Research Centre.

He would not disclose the industry secrets Nokia was working on but said the starting point for researchers was that anything was possible.

“We are playing with possibilities. Maybe some time in the future mobile phones will grow in a pot like plants or maybe you could print a new phone,” he joked.

Built-in antennae are one of the centre’s inventions and they are now a part of every cellphone on the market.

A more recent example is the Nokia Sports Tracker, which uses a GPS sensor to record sports enthusiasts’ location, speed, distance and time, enabling users to store the information on the website and share with others.

The Sports Tracker software has been downloaded more than 1,6-million times and it has 75 000 active users, according to Nokia.

In February, Nokia launched its “Morph nanotechnology concept” with the University of Cambridge, which could result in mobile devices made of flexible and self-cleaning materials within the next seven years.

A jogger might find it handy to wrap his cellphone around his wrist or head during a workout, especially since the phone repels perspiration—and mud.

Looking ahead
But what makes companies want to invest vast amounts of money in experiments that will only bear fruit many years down the road, if at all, at a time when investors are increasingly focused on quarterly profits?

“Futures research can help companies evaluate coming risks and possibilities, while giving them time to react and [gain] a competitive edge over their competitors,” said Sirkka Heinonen, a professor at Finland Futures Research Centre at the Turku School of Economics.

She noted the three main principles of futures studies—the future cannot be precisely predicted, it is not predestined and people can affect it.

“Today’s choices and decisions make the future. The future is like a landscape that we try to see more clearly and to which we will draw road maps,” Heinonen explained.

People have always wanted to know what tomorrow will bring, but systematic, modern futures research began in the 1940s when German Professor Ossip K Flechtheim started to talk about futurology.

In the 1950s, some US firms began studying scenario analysis. In Finland, futures research only took hold in the late 1970s.

While companies like Nokia or lift and escalator maker Kone have since been actively involved in the field, not all industries have risen to the challenge, with many opting for immediate profits over long-term investments.

Heinonen said the Finnish paper industry, struggling with rising costs while overcapacity has kept a lid on paper prices, is one industry that could really benefit from drawing up a forward-looking scenario.

Nokia, meanwhile, takes its future seriously.

“Nokia is not just looking to expand its product portfolio but also for new services to expand it. The research centre’s job is also to look for something totally different—like should Nokia start making household robots or medical diagnosis systems,” Kaerkkaeinen said.

Kaerkkaeinen revealed that Nokia is conducting trials on cellphones that could help diagnose illnesses, technology that could be used in regions where the nearest doctor is far away.

In Palo Alto, California, Nokia has also studied whether GPS censors in cellphones can be used to forecast traffic flows.

“We put a hundred cars into traffic and followed how they impacted the accuracy of traffic forecasts. The results were encouraging,” Kaerkkaeinen said.

During the past few years, growing demand for consumer products, such as cellphones, in emerging markets including China and India has been important for Nokia’s success. Last year nearly 20% of its sales came from these two countries.

The company is now conducting studies to improve its understanding of future emerging markets in order to better meet customers’ needs.

In India’s IT hub Bangalore, Nokia’s team is collaborating with Srishti School of Design and the MIT Media Lab in a project studying how urbanisation affects society and technology’s role in it.

“We are looking into how to narrow the digital divide when people do not have any technical background knowledge whatsoever,” Kaerkkaeinen said.—Sapa-AFP

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