Google's Project Ara made be dead, but the dream of a modular phone lives on.
Motorola has snap-on Moto Mods that work only with its phones, but a new product promises smartphone modularity for any mobile device, even iPhones. Due out this spring for a starting price of $149.99, Moduware's Modpack is an accessory that connects to your phone via Bluetooth LE and holds up to six hot-swappable modules such as sensors, LED lights, speakers and Flash storage.
I had a chance to spend a few minutes with the Modpack at CES 2018 and was intrigued by its potential.
A medium-sized rectangle that's about the size of one and a half phones, the Modpack comes in your choice of black or white. Under the hood, it's a portable power bank with enough juice to charge a typical phone two to three times. The Modpack connects to your handset via Bluetooth LE for most use cases, but if you want to transfer files to the storage module or charge your phone, you'll need to plug into its USB port.
On top, there are six slots that you can pop the modules in or out of. The initial, $149.99 Modpack will come with a few basic modules, including a speaker module, a thermometer module, a colorful LED light and a 32GB USB storage module that you can use for transferring files to and from your phone.
Unfortunately, the speaker module doesn't have a microphone, so you'll need to keep the device near your phone if you want to make a call. A Moduware representative said that a far-field microphone module may be coming in the future.
Some of the other modules you'll be able to buy are a hotkey module that you can configure to perform different tasks with a press, a laser pointer, a laser distance sensor and an air quality sensor. I was particularly impressed with the distance sensor, which projects a red dot on anything in front of you and then tells you exactly how far away that is.
Moduware has a hardware-developer program and is actively recruiting companies to make and sell modules through its online store. A Moduware rep said that the cost of simple modules could start at $10, but might be much more for complex sensors.
You can control the various modules using the Moduware app on your phone. The main menu screen shows tiles for all the currently available modules. If you yank a module out or plug one in, the app adds or removes the corresponding tile in real time.
The software also lets you control the brightness and color of the RGB LED module or see the results from sensors like the air-quality sensor or the distance sensor.
The Modpack is just the first piece of Moduware's larger ecosystem. According to the company's website, there will also be a Modcase that goes directly on your phone and holds three modules.
If you get some of the more interesting sensors, the Modpack could become your modern-day tricorder, like the "Star Trek" handheld tool that could sense and diagnose a ridiculous number of things instantly. However, the Modpack's success really depends on the quality of its module ecosystem and the willingness of consumers to pay a high premium for modularity.