Assorted smartphones. From left to right, top row: iPhone 3G, Blackberry 8820, Nokia N78, Nokia N81, (bottom row) Nokia N95, Nokia E65, Nokia N70.

Smartphones are handy little computers that fit in your pocket, or anywhere else that a compact, easy to program computer with a nice display and lots of great features can be put to good use. So much more than just making phone calls.

Smartphone – a mobile phone built on a mobile operating system, with advanced computing capability and connectivity. The first smartphones combined the functions of a personal digital assistant (PDA), including email functionality, with a mobile phone. Later models added the functionality of portable media players, low-end compact digital cameras, pocket video cameras, and GPS navigation units to form one multi-use device.

Many modern smartphones also include high-resolution touchscreens and web browsers that display standard web pages as well as mobile-optimized sites. High-speed data access is provided by Wi-Fi, mobile broadband, NFC and Bluetooth. The rapid development of mobile app markets and of mobile commerce have been drivers of smartphone adoption.

  • Blackberry – a wireless handheld device introduced in 1999 which supports push e-mail, mobile telephone, text messaging, internet faxing, web browsing and other wireless information services. Developed by the Canadian company Research In Motion (RIM), it delivers information over the wireless data networks of mobile phone service companies. BlackBerry first made headway in the marketplace by concentrating on e-mail.
  • iPhone
  • Android
  • Windows

mobile application (or mobile app) – a software application designed to run on smartphones, tablet computers and other mobile devices. They are usually available through application distribution platforms, such as the Apple App Store, Google Play, Windows Phone Store, and BlackBerry App World. Some apps are free, while others must be bought. Usually, they are downloaded from the platform to a target device

How Smartphones Work – what makes a cell phone a smartphone, how the idea came about and what you can do with it.

Wi-Fi Direct – a Wi-Fi standard that enables devices to connect easily with each other without requiring a wireless access point and to communicate at typical Wi-Fi speeds for everything from file transfer to Internet connectivity. Only one of the Wi-Fi devices needs to be compliant with Wi-Fi Direct to establish a peer-to-peer connection that transfers data directly between each other.

Some examples of smartphones “non-traditional” (not just phone calls) uses

  • recording the sounds of critters in the jungles of Costa Rica and the oceans off Hawaii and Central America – in the Science Friday interview, hear birds, frogs and insects
  • mini satellites
  • military tank navigation

Smartphone applications are designed and programmed with special software tools to make development easier.

  • AppInventor – from MIT * App Inventor – developing mobile apps * App Inventor tutorial (video 5:49 ) – Getting started – TalkToMe app – Text to Speech is surprisingly fun. Find out for yourself with this starter app that talks. * App Inventor library – Everything you need to know about App Inventor: reference docs, tips, troubleshooting.

What’s the problem?

  • Ask – If you were responsible for coming up with new ways to use a phone, how would you do that?
  • Imagine – Do you know of other interesting uses for smartphones? What are some of the “best” apps that you know about? Can these little computers be used for other big projects?
  • Design, Build – What would you need to know to be able to use a smartphone for other uses?
  • Improve – What would make a smartphone better?

That’s engineering

Engineering ideas

  • communication, cellular, computation, storage, camera, video, recording

Do it
Now it is your turn. Here are some challenges for you to work on…

  • Paper Apps – using printed templates to create ‘paper apps’ – excellent skill to build before advancing into real app development in the future, explore ideas and start thinking about user experience, no expensive technology is required at all.
  • Digital Camera Projects – Digital cameras in phones are excellent tools for enhancing writing and/or other artistic projects and activities. Pick one of these, or come up with one of your own.
  • $10 Smartphone to digital microscope conversion (video 4:41) – build a stand for about $10 that will transform your smartphone into a powerful digital microscope. This DIY conversion stand is more than capable of functioning in an actual laboratory setting. With magnification levels as high as 175x, plant cells and their nuclei are easily observed! In addition to allowing the observation of cells, this setup also produces stunning macro photography.

Learn more…

  • Seamless Mobile Health (app) aims to reduce hospital readmissions following surgery and save millions in medical costs – With Seamless Mobile Health, patients receive reminders about care instructions on their smartphone or tablet; some hospitals may lend post-surgical patients mobile devices so they can use the app. These prompts let patients manage their recovery more independently. Patients can also complete health questionnaires and submit photos of their surgical incision for inspection. Depending on the information they provide, they may receive additional care measures and, only when necessary, get referred to hospital.