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Security and water-resistancy

Chris Cottrell
March 3, 2015

From wearables that can thwart facial recognition software to smartphones that can be doused in water without short-circuiting, DW's Chris Cottrell presents a look at some of the highlights.

Spanien Mobile World Congress 2014 ARCHIV
Image: picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Fernandez

Walking around the sprawling halls of this year's World Mobile Congress in Barcelona, visitors could not overlook the catchy slogans emblazoned on some companies' towering stands.

"Tomorrow never waits," read one. "In search of incredible," read another.

The words highlighted the level of cutting-edge innovation on display here. From eyeglasses that can cloak a wearer's identity from facial recognition software, to invisible layers of repolymerized molecules that make electronics water-resistant - the novelties varied in their levels of utility, but very few failed to impress. Here is a look at some of the highlights:

More smartphones for less money

It was also evident this year that major smartphone manufacturers were keen on expanding their foothold in emerging markets in parts of Africa, Asia and South America.

Internet companies and network providers around the world are working hard to entice more people in developing countries to invest in smartphones to access the Internet.

To increase the number of people online, companies like Facebook and Google have begun experimenting with novel ways to beam Internet signals to remote areas via hot air balloons or solar powered drones.

But as some industry experts noted here in Barcelona, oftentimes the price of a smartphone is more prohibitive than paying the phone or data bill. In response, a number of companies are offering a range of low-cost smartphones.

Elife S5.1 from Gionee
Gionee's Elife S5.1 is the world's thinnest cellphoneImage: Chris Cottrell

Lenovo, the Chinese manufacturer, will release a budget smartphone around September called the A7000. For approximately $169 (150 euros), customers will get a 64-bit, 1.5 GHz processor, a 5.5-inch HD display and 2 gigabytes of RAM.

Microsoft also has some less expensive models, notably the Lumia 435, 532 and 535, which respectively cost 69, 79 and 89 euros.

Microsoft's Nokia phones are aimed at consumers who either cannot or do not want to spend more than 100 euros on a smartphone. The Nokia 215 and 225 are both low-end models that cost $29 and between $45 and $48.

"Those are our emerging markets Windows phones," a company spokesman said

And these aren't the Nokia phones of yesteryear with the pixely green-and-black screens and the game Snake - these phones have Facebook installed right out of the box and allow the user to set up push notifications. (They do not, however, have WhatsApp.)

Acer also had two budget phones on display. The Liquid M220, which runs Windows and costs 79 euros, has half a gigabyte of RAM. The other model, the Z220, runs Android, costs 89 euros but has a full gigabyte of RAM.

Electronics that can get wet

Manufacturers, it seems, have resigned themselves to the fact that users occasionally drop their phones into puddles, toilets or spill all sorts of liquids on them. To protect their devices from short-circuiting, companies have begun making them water-resistant.

Sony, for instance, was showing off its Xperia M4 Aqua - in a glass display case full of water. The device is mechanically sealed, meaning the smartphone's "innards" are protected by frontal and rear covers that are closed with gaskets to prevent water from entering.

Kazam, a British smartphone maker, had a similarly water-resistant model, the Tornado 455L.

But simply making the outside of a smartphone able to repel water wasn't enough for one Belgian company. Europlasma, based in Oudenaarde, can apply a water-repellant plasma coating to every surface within an electronic device. That means water can get inside, but it won't harm the phone's processors.

The nano coating is achieved by adding electromagnetic energy to gas inside a special chamber designed to hold dozens of electronic devices - like a big, high-tech dishwasher. Inside the chamber, molecules break apart into negative and positive particles and repolymerize, sticking to the devices and leaving behind an invisibly thin residue between 50 and 500 nanometers thick. (That's about 1/1,000 as thick as a human hair.) The effect is an object that repels water.

One company representative, Kristof Hoornaert, demonstrated with a tissue that Europlasma had coated with nanoparticles. When held under running water, the liquid just rolled off.

Sony smartwatches are all the rage at BercelonaImage: Chris Cottrell

Privacy wearables

Security and privacy also seem to be growing concerns in consumers' minds and there were a number of innovative solutions to address them.

Qualcomm's new ultrasonic fingerprint sensor uses soundwaves to detect the grooves in your fingertips and works even if your hands are sweaty or dirty. The technology allows for there to be a layer of glass or plastic between a user's finger and the sensor, setting it apart from the iPhone 5 and 6, which require direct contact. A Qualcomm phone with the new technology will be released in the second half of this year, but a company spokesman declined to say which device that would be or what it would cost.

Researchers at AVG have begun tinkering with glasses that can thwart smartphone cameras' facial recognition. Known as "privacy glasses," it's the next step in wearables that cloak one's identity from automated facial recognition software. AVG's prototype uses built-in infrared LEDs to confuse smartphone cameras and obscure the user's face from automated recognition. The glasses are still in the concept phase.

"It's not about being invisible to other people, it's about keeping a level of privacy against automation," said Michael McKinnon.