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All systems go for Project Ara

Posted: 01 Jul 2014 ?? ?Print Version ?Bookmark and Share

Keywords:Project Ara? ARM Cortex-A9? OMAP 4460? Wi-Fi?

Project leads remain excited over Project Ara despite freezing while booting up as members of Google's Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) team finally demonstrated the prototype of the modular smartphone at the company's developer conference.

"Why choose a phone for its camera when you can choose a camera for your phone? Why not share the most expensive sensor or component among friends, family, or perhaps across a village?" Ara project lead Paul Eremenko asked attendees.

The board for the Spiral 1 prototype has a Texas Instruments OMAP 4460 mobile processor, built on a dual-core ARM Cortex-A9, as well as a large FPGA for implementing a packet switch network, and a flexible power bus to take up approximately 70 per cent of the board. Eremenko said his team hopes to switch to a bridge ASIC Wi-Fi base band processor in the next prototype, due in October, for increased developer functionality.

The Ara board

The Ara board

Project Ara has seen a number of challenges, however, in addition to a frozen home screen at I/O. The ATAP team had to shrink its slip-and-click electro-permanent magnetic modules by a factor of 1,000 to save room on the PCB board. The team also found it challenging to minimise data loss across a range of low frequencies, while configuring cellular and Wi-Fi antennas on a device that's also user configurable posed its own difficulties. (See related story on Google's Project Tango.)

"Our approach has been to use computer-optimised antennas and to leverage endoskeleton frames, the metallic structure, as part of the antenna system," Eremenko said. "We're also experimenting with 3D printing the antenna using conductive inks as part of the module shells."

ATAP is working with New Deal Designs to develop a 3D printer that will operate "at 50 times the speed of current printers." Eremenko asserted these printers will print hard, soft, and conductive materials in full 600 dpi, comparable to consumer-grade plastics.

"The principal challenge to modularity is overhead. Moore's Law... and a modern data protocol can get the modularity penalty of the system down about 25 per cent across the board in PCB area and device weight and overall power consumption. In exchange, users would have the flexibility to turn the device into a solution for a phone problem, or to turn their phone into a new possibility altogether."

To encourage developers to solve previously unsolvable phone problems, Eremenko announced a developer challenge that awards $100,000 to the first group to engineer a working module for something that doesn't exist on a smartphone today. Two runners-up will win tickets to the next Ara developer event this fall.

Developers will be able to use the recently previewed Android L kit on Ara, which Eremenko expects to act as a stress test for what the OS can do on non-traditional smartphones.

- Jessica Lipsky
??EE Times

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