New smartphone models are released at a breakneck pace, yet the reality is, each new handset model is always shades of the same—with slightly better tech specs. In this furious race for faster, better, smarter does anyone stop to consider whether the average user actually needs more megapixels in their camera or an incrementally faster processor?
The creators of YotaPhone contemplated this exact quandary when developing its revolutionary dual-screen phone. Awarded an Innovation Lion at Cannes this year, the YotaPhone may look like a major strike in the features arms race but, in fact, the phone’s new functionality is designed to be a more human response to the current state of the mobile user experience.
As CEO Vlad Martynov tells it, a few years ago, his team at Moscow-based company Yota Devices held a brainstorming session to tackle what they didn’t like about the experience of mobile phones. "We quickly realized that technology today has changed our behavior, the way we communicate with others, and the way we behave on a daily basis. It makes us less human, less emotional, even less social, despite the fact that people spend a lot of time on social media."
The now-common and distracting habit of routinely waking up dark screens to check for updates, which Martynov says phone users do on average 150 times a day, was cited as the most intrusive activity normalized by current smartphones. The brainstorming session also articulated how device-led communications strip messages of their emotional intent. "The way technology has developed is changing our communication but not it the right way. It’s possible to bring it back. It’s possible to make those messages more emotional and make check-ins less disruptive," he says.
It was from this insight that the YotaPhone was born. It’s designed to minimize the time spent actively engaging the phone and maximize the human connection—and it promises to vastly improve battery life, the most universal grievance among mobile users. How? By providing two distinct screen types that are optimized for distinct activities—a traditional LCD screen on one side for video and dynamic content, and an electronic paper display on the other for reading, photos, and real-time feeds—yet interact seamlessly and allow users to customize how to display the content most relevant to them. With the swipe of two fingers, content that’s displayed on the LCD screen is moved to the e-paper screen, where is stays without going dark.
A family photo can be constantly on display, or customized information—such as email, a calendar, news, or twitter feeds—can be always on and updated in real time. This eliminates the need to actively check your phone, says Martynov, proposing that a simple, discreet glance is favorable to obviously waking up a phone for updates. Important messages require action before they disappear so that they don’t go unnoticed. Phones can be personalized with rotating images on the back display. And a total dream for those constantly struggling with low battery life: Whatever image is on the e-paper screen remains there even once the battery is completely dead. So if you’re rushing through an airport with low power, swipe your boarding card to the back screen and there it remains.
Martynov says the development process started by researching existing technologies that could address the issue of too-short battery life "right now, not in the future when there’s a new technology." The company’s philosophy, he says, is to "look at the problems people have with devices, look at the available tech that can solve this problem right now, and bundle together the technology in the device that provides the experience to the consumer."
Electronic paper display proved to be an intriguing option because of its low power consumption. The YotaPhone battery life is four to five times longer when reading on the e-ink screen. From there, the company started tinkering with the well-established navigation of smartphones. Built on Android, the OS is largely untouched, except for apps built specifically for the e-ink screen (such as the one that allows images to be displayed even when the battery is sucked dry).
The most noticeable difference from any existing smartphone is the lack of a home button. Martynov says this came from a desire to make the user experience more akin to how people actually communicate. "Humans use gestures when we communicate. We don’t use buttons; when we talk, we don’t press any buttons. Our philosophy is that it should be as close to natural human behavior as possible." Instead, the bottom portion of the phone (where a home button would be) uses gestural navigation. And, as mentioned, a double-finger swipe sends text-based information from the LCD to the e-paper screen.
While the YotaPhone’s design was built on existing technology, getting the complex device to work within a casing similar in size to an iPhone5 was a challenge. "We had to figure out where to place all the components to make the device reliable," Martynov says. "Because it has a metal part around the surface, we needed a unique antenna design for good reception, despite the metal behind the display." The design conundrum was dealing with the heat given off by the phone. Where normal phones usually send it to the back of the device, since the back of a YotaPhone is another screen, it’s designed to distribute heat around the phone.
Still, the biggest problem wasn’t in design or manufacture, it was in selling the concept to investors and component suppliers (all of which are A-listers like E Ink, Gorilla Glass, Qualcomm, and Epson). Martynov says, "When we explained the ideas around the phone to people, they were like, "Tell me again; why the hell do you need a second screen?" It wasn’t until they created a functional prototype that the concept clicked.
It was a prototype that also won over the Innovation jury at Cannes. Prompted to enter YotaPhone into the festival rather last minute, Martynov says they didn’t really have time to prepare a polished presentation (the new awards category requires entrants to present their ideas live). Instead, Martynov and COO Lau Geckler walked down and sat with the jury to demonstrate its groundbreaking functionality.
The true potential for new user experiences won’t come until the phone is actually in the hands of consumers. The YotaPhone will be released in Russia in Q4 this year and will be priced "about 10% lower than premium models," but a North American release is dependent on the slow and reluctant will of carriers (though phones purchased in Russia will be unlocked). Once the phone is released, the company plans to make its API available to developers. "The most interesting innovations will be in seeing how the E Ink side is used," says Martynov.
He envisions the phone will bring entirely new experiences and suggests that it will allow marketers something that most mobile marketing does not: emotion. "As a platform, YotaPhone opens new ways for companies to engage with consumers. Imagine instead of getting a boring text from a coffee shop to come and visit, you get an image of a nice cup of coffee or a muffin on the backside of the phone. You’ll be more motivated to stop and have a coffee because this emotional piece makes a bigger impact on consumer minds when you’re promoting the product."
YotaPhone’s aims are nothing short of revolutionary. Touting the product as the first major innovation since the iPhone (though not without critical support like the Innovation Lion and a Best of CES win), Martynov believes this is just what the mobile tech sector needs.
"What we’re trying to do is change the trend in the industry, because we think it’s wrong. People spend tons of marketing money trying to brainwash us that a 24-megapixel camera is better than 12. The big brands do the tech spec race, but this is not what people need. Sometimes you reach a certain camera resolution that your eye can’t tell," he says. "This is not what makes us happy when we use the device. We need a much better battery or much better user experience. The amount of content we consume for smartphones doubles every year. We need a better way to consume this so that we are less distracted."