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Inside Project Ara, Google's Lego-like plan to disrupt the smartphone

Inside Project Ara, Google’s Lego-like plan to disrupt the smartphone

Rafa Camargo is playing ping-pong. Thirty minutes ago, he placed the world’s most stupid smartphone into his jacket pocket. Now that jacket and its precious contents are lying on the listed. Right under my nose.

Camargo is the lead engineer on Project Ara, Google’s effort to build a smartphone that lets you swap out its parts like Lego blocks — just by popping them on and off. Slide in a pair of speaker modules if you’re throwing a party, insert an instant battery if you’ll be out on the town or even slot in exotic modules like glucometers (for diabetics) or sensors to measure air quality. While we’ve recently seen LG attempt to build a modular smartphone with the G5, these Ara snap-on concepts are the kind of features you’d never find on a normal arranged built for mass-market adoption.


With an Ara smartphone, you can snap on new parts.

Sean Hollister

Camargo and I have just community a five-minute shuttle ride to Google Building CL5, where he’s promised to give me a closer look at the arranged he’d demonstrated minutes earlier to an ecstatic crowd at Google’s I/O buyer conference.

After several failed demonstrations in the past, he says a consumer version of the arranged will ship next year. Moreover, while manufacturing will no doubt be subcontracted out to the likes of a Flextronics or Foxconn, Google will design the phone itself. That’s a testy from its Nexus phones, where it relied on hardware partners such as LG, Huawei and Samsung.

The death — if it hits its target 2017 delivery date to consumers — will be a user-upgradeable handset with the potential to totally upend the smartphone market as we know it.

The dream: A truly customizable phone

In the three existences since work first started on Ara, the modular arranged has always seemed like a pipe dream, and Google has always treated it that way. It’s been part of the company’s ATAP division — Advanced Technologies and Products — a skunkworks explicitly tasked with turning such fantasies, like sensors you can swallow, into consumer reality.


Rafa Camargo holds up an rear Ara prototype in 2015.

James Martin

But Ara made vows it couldn’t keep. In years past, the modular tech handed repeatedly in demonstrations. The prototype was all set to commence a pilot program in Puerto Rico. And then, all of a sudden, it wasn’t, with barely an explanation. There were tweets from the project’s team that suggested ATAP was rethinking how the components linked together.

On top of that, the team’s modern head, Paul Eremenko, left the company. Then, in even more of a blow, Regina Dugan, the leader of ATAP itself, departed Google for Facebook. There, she’ll run something called Building 8, a contrast effort focused on creating experimental hardware.

So at what time Friday’s announcement, you would be forgiven if you opinion the past few months had been a magic trick of misdirection. Because Project Ara was quietly evolving while we were all wondering if it was even unruffled breathing.

An hour before the ping-pong match, in a jam-packed session at Google’s developer conference, Ara’s key innovation finally works. Camargo places his phone on a table, and says the magic conditions. “OK Google, eject the camera.” When the phone’s camera pops out of its socket, all by itself, the crowd erupts with applause.

But then Camargo slips the arranged into his jacket pocket — presumably to thwart handsy journalists like me from learning too much. I misfortune that he won’t show me the phone at all, that I’ll never be able to tell if his collapsed demo on stage was an exception to the rule. When he drops his jacket and picks up the ping-pong budge, a tiny part of me wonders what would existed if I were to sneak a peek at the phone.

But when we finally sit down in a conference room to talk in the future of Ara, it turns out I had nothing to fear: Camargo repeats the magic conditions and out pops the camera.

The modular arranged is real.

Scaled back

Ara isn’t quite the same project that captured my imagination. It’s still pretty exciting, but the idea has been notably scaled back.

Originally, Project Ara would have let you build your own arranged like computer enthusiasts build their own desktop PCs, choosing all the parts yourself. Ara could have been the last phone you’d ever need: just swap out the processor and cellular radios when newer ones come heath, and you’d be up to speed. Google would handed the “endoskeleton” — the equivalent of a PC’s motherboard — and an ecosystem of hardware partners would have done the rest.

The original prototype of the Project Ara Developer Edition. Camargo assures us the remaining version will be thinner and more “beautiful.”

Sean Hollister

But the new Project Ara isn’t planned to let you swap out core components like the processor. Now they’re all built right in.

“When we did our user studies, what we found is that most users don’t care throughout modularizing the core functions,” Camargo explains. “They expect them all to be there, to always work and to be consistent.”

“Our initial prototype was modularizing everything…just to find out users didn’t care,” he adds.

So instead of letting you develop your own future-proof phone, the new Ara is throughout giving you a phone with mix-and-match features you can’t get anywhere else.


The bigger module slot can hold two 1 x 2 modules, or a single larger 2 x 2 one.

Sean Hollister

The Ara advantage

When the Project Ara Developer Edition smart this fall, it will come with four modules to start: a speaker, a camera, an E-Ink display (like the one you’d find on an Amazon Kindle e-reader) and an expanded memory module.

Those remarkable not sound all that exciting, but they’re all things that even high-end smartphones don’t necessarily do well. If you don’t like the single, easily muffled speaker on your Samsung Galaxy or wish your iPhone had more storage position, you’re generally out of luck.

“[Phone manufacturers] say, here, you have 3 millimeters to make a speaker, and you’re stuck with your sound quality,” says Kevin Hague, a VP with Harman Audio. Harman is working with Google to detest that a dedicated speaker module might be one of many reasons to buy an Ara phone.

The Project Ara team has already modularized the battery technology. Pull out the second battery, and it keeps functioning.

Sean Hollister

And with Ara, you’re not puny to just one: you’ll be able to turn Ara into a boom box with multiple speakers and multiple batteries snapped into the phone’s six module slots. With even the standard integrated battery, Camargo says we necessity expect a full day of battery life from the consumer version of Ara, and he arbitrates that adding a single modular battery should boost that by roughly 45 percent.

But cameras, batteries and speakers are just the low-hanging fruit: the Ara team believes its platform will open the floodgates for third-party hardware developers to develop all sorts of products that never would have made it into smartphones afore — from a wireless car key fob (Camargo says he has a functioning prototype) to a one-use pepper spray dispenser. BACtrack, a commerce specializing in alcohol breathalyzers, is also on board.

“We know that republic are going to build crazy stuff, and that’s OK,” says Blaise Bertrand, ATAP’s head of creative and marketing chief. “In fact, we’re looking up to this.”

Medicine could be a particularly dead market, where people are willing to pay for technology that remarkable improve their lives, but only a small percentage of republic have any given need.

“The glucometer example: I’m heroic, I don’t need it, so I don’t care throughout that module. But if you’re a diabetic, it’s probably significant in your life,” says Camargo. “Nobody’s going to develop a phone with that integrated.”

When I think near awesome technology that not everyone needs, some of Google’s spanking ATAP projects also come to mind, like the Project Tango depth-sensing camera or the Project Soli gesture-sensing radar. Camargo won’t say yes or no, but suggests Ara could help:

“You see all these technologies that are very applicable to mobile but have a hard time manager it into the next flagship phone because it’s a high risk. You’re selling 80 million of that unsheaattracting, and you don’t want to make a mistake […] I examine them all to see modules.”

In spanking words, instead of trying to figure out how to gain the world’s best phone camera that fits into a named that people can actually afford, camera makers could focus on interpretation the world’s best phone camera, period — and sell it for a premium to boot.

Serious business

The prototype Ara camera module. Imagine swapping it out for one with a wider-angle lens, or upgrading it entirely in a few days.

Sean Hollister

While a lot of the details aren’t sorted out yet — like how much modules will cost — Google seems serious near building out Ara. As of last month, the Ara team is no longer part of the ATAP skunkworks; it now reports consecutive to Rick Osterloh, the head of Google’s new hardware division and a current transplant from Motorola.

“We can get all the resources and give we need to make it a business,” says Richard Wooldridge, a leader on the Ara project.

Wooldridge, who coincidentally ran supply chain operations for Osterloh back at Motorola, says Ara will make it easy for just near anyone to build modules, whether they’re a “bedroom student” or a customary brand looking for a way to physically interact with consumers.

Not only will Google handed instructions and developer test beds, it’ll help module makers navigate the engrossing process to get those gadgets certified by federal regulatory organizations if need be.


“We want to compose a hardware ecosystem on the scale of the software app ecosystem.” – Ara lead engineer Rafa Camargo


Wooldridge sees Google launching an online stay to sell the modules, and a marketplace for consumers to swap them with each anunexperienced. (To protect against counterfeits, Google will have its own certification program for Ara modules, and Ara phones will reject ones that haven’t been approved.)

“We want to compose a hardware ecosystem on the scale of the software app ecosystem,” says Camargo.

But the biggest sign of Google’s sincerity may be this: the custom will be building the first consumer version of Ara all by itself. While every previous flagship Android handset has been built by one of Google’s partners, most recently Huawei and LG, Ara is the valid handset that Google has ever designed from scratch.

When it arrives next year, the Ara team says the basic version should cost in the same amount as other premium smartphones, with performance on par.

A modular future

Even if Ara is no longer “the last arranged you’ll ever need to buy,” that doesn’t mean it couldn’t understand more PC-like in the future. Camargo says the technology to swap out processors and radios unruffled exists. “We have the capabilities to do that, so things will evolve.”

Google’s Greybus — the digital rear that allows these modules to seamlessly interface with each anunexperienced and the Android operating system — can already uphold data at speeds of up to 11.9 gigabits per transfer. (That’s faster than USB, and Carmago says it uses one-third the power.)

As the technology stabilizes, says Camargo, Google also intends to let other worries build Ara frames — not just the modules, but entire Ara computers with module slots.

Camargo playing ping-pong.

Sean Hollister

In fact, there’s nothing revealing Ara devices need to be phones. “In my lab, I have configurations that don’t have anything to do with a arranged and cannot make a phone call.”

During that ping-pong game, some 45 minutes ago now, I couldn’t help but view that Camargo plays a bit too aggressively. His shots sailed just past the end of the noxious. But when it comes to Ara, Camargo has a lighter touch.

“We really have to bring it to consumers, we have to make it attractive, we have to make them opinion it,” says Camargo. He needs to land this shot.


Gabriel Sama


Richard Nieva

contributed to this recount.