In an era when our most important personal tech devices are all starting to merge into one hardly distinguishable, super-powered glass slab, smartphone makers will do anything to stand out. They’ll ship flexible displays. They’ll boast about faster screen refresh rates. They’ll peddle nostalgia.
They’ll even make camera lenses disappear. That’s the approach Chinese smartphone brand OnePlus is taking with its new prototype phone, the OnePlus Concept One. OnePlus is working with British automotive manufacturer McLaren to take the same glass technology found in high-end car sunroofs and aircraft windows and use it in a smartphone. The camera lens on the back of the phone sits under this special glass, the tint of which changes when the glass is triggered by an electrical signal. The effect is that the camera lens appears when you open the camera app, then vanishes from sight whenever the camera app is not in use. OnePlus plans to show off the concept phone at the annual CES electronics bonanza in Las Vegas next week.
The Concept One is exactly that—a concept—and OnePlus says it has no plans to ship it anytime soon. But according to Pete Lau, the OnePlus cofounder and chief executive who spoke with WIRED via video chat, the phone represents a “bold exploration for OnePlus and is also a representation of overcoming a lot of [engineering] challenges.”
“With this approach, we’ll be able to produce smaller amounts of the product and, with feedback from a small group of users, look at the possibility of making a device that’s available for users more widely,” Lau said.
Even if you didn’t know McLaren was involved in the design, you might think the Concept One has a distinctive race-car aesthetic. The phone model I saw at a briefing in San Francisco last month had a papaya-orange leather back, with visible stitching along the edges and a thin spatula of black electrochromic glass running down the center spine.
The OnePlus Concept One has the same rear camera specs as the OnePlus 7T Pro McLaren phone: a 48-megapixel main camera with a 16-megapixel ultra-wide-angle camera. The difference is in the electrochromic glass on the Concept One. It effectively shrouds the camera from sight, so that the phone appears lensless when the camera app isn’t open. Flick open the camera app and a hint of a camera lens appears on the back of the phone. You have to look hard for the edges of it, as though you’re searching for something in a dark room.
This is the same electrochromic glass technology that’s available inside the optional sunroof on the McLaren 720S supercar, provided you can shell out an extra $9,100. (And if you’re buying a $300,000 sports car, yes, you can afford the electrochromic glass. This vehicle is not for mere mortals.) The special glass tech was also an option in the 2018 McLaren 570GT. To hear OnePlus’s Lau tell the story, the company’s creative director, Xi Zeng, saw the glass on a 720S while touring McLaren’s headquarters in Woking, England, and wondered whether it could be applied to smaller personal devices. The company was intrigued enough to dedicate a group of engineers to the idea starting at the end of 2018.
The experience of seeing it in person is a little anticlimactic. When you think “disappearing camera,” you might envision some sort of magic act, or a more pronounced physical transition. This is just a camera you can barely see. On the upside: There are no bumps.
Lau says they faced a few challenges in building a smartphone that included this strip of glass. The electrochromic glass involves adding another material on top of the glass that typically goes on the back of a high-end phone, so thickness was a concern. Ultimately, it added only a tenth of a millimeter to the overall thickness of this concept phone in its current design, Lau claims.
The electrified glass relies on power to shift from opaque to translucent, so OnePlus had to consider how, in an everyday phone, the technology could be tweaked to consume as little power as possible. Speed is a concern as well—if the glass’s transition from tinted to clear causes you to miss a critical snapshot, then its benefits are moot. The electrochromic glass windows on a Boeing 787 Dreamliner can take several seconds to shift from transparent to opaque to tinted. Lau says that on the OnePlus Concept One phone, the camera lens can go from “off” to “on” in just under a second.
Finally, there’s the reliability factor. Ask any smartphone maker that regularly tries to push the envelope (see: Samsung) how crucial it is to get things right for the initial rollout of a product (see: Galaxy Fold). Lau says OnePlus is working to ensure that the overall build quality is up to the company’s standards.
Andrew Dent, the executive vice president of research at the New York City-based consultancy Material ConneXion, says there have been some problems with longevity when it comes to electrochromic glass. (Dent says this is true across a number of applications, including architectural use cases, and isn’t specific to smartphones.)
“If you’re constantly switching modes, over a certain number of years it will degrade. You might get spots where it’s not completely transparent or experience a weakening of the switch,” he says. The glass isn’t always easily replaceable, because it’s not a single layer you can peel off but instead includes both glass and polymer layers.
Dent also notes that electrochromic glass is expensive, but that in the case of a small personal device, you’re likely using only grams of the material per device. And OnePlus emphasizes that it’s not making many of these concept phones right now, so the production cost isn’t a big concern. Lau believes that as the technology matures, the cost will come down.
Now You See It
OnePlus has a reputation for bringing notable technologies to the phone market ahead of some of its larger competitors, whether that’s a frosted glass back, a pop-out camera lens that automatically retracts when you fumble the phone, or a 90-hertz display refresh rate. But OnePlus, which says it shares resources with the much larger Chinese phone maker Oppo, can claim only a single-digit percentage of the global smartphone market. That means these kinds of concept phones and “disappearing design” features might not make waves until some of the larger players start to implement them.
Still, there’s plenty of evidence that this design philosophy—which Lau refers to as “burdenless design”—is about to become the philosophy du jour. “A core tenet of this philosophy is having a focus on purposeful design … a total uninterrupted screen experience,” Lau says. Lenses, bumps, buttons, speaker grills, and even ports could start to fade away on personal electronics. (We may never recover from the death of the 3.5-mm headphone jack.)
Newer Samsung phones—and rumored upcoming ones—include in-display fingerprint sensors and camera pinholes so small you’d never notice them with the right phone wallpaper. According to well-known Apple analyst Ming-Chi Kuo, Apple may eliminate charging ports entirely in its 2021 crop of iPhones and start to require its glass slabs to be charged wirelessly.
Gadi Amit, founder and chief product designer at New Deal Design in San Francisco, says these cycles in technology product design are not new. Technical requirements at first dictate the placement of certain buttons or knobs or ports, Amit says, and over time designers try to push for a more streamlined design. He points to the first mass-market TV sets as examples. “When TVs first showed up in mass quantities in the '60s and '70s, there were lots of knobs in front. Eventually we entered an era of design where TVs became a magical black box with no obvious features on it.”
But Amit also warns of disappearing designs that end up creating more of a burden for people, either because the product becomes less usable or, even worse, less accessible for people with impairments. “For instance, let’s say that the benefit of a protruding camera is that you know where it is, it’s tactile, and you’re not going to put your finger all over it by mistake,” he says. “It can be a double-edged sword, creating this nicer or more harmonious design.”