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Plugged In

5 cool features of the next wave of smart phones

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Nokia Morph

Five years ago, the features of today's smart phones seemed the stuff of science fiction. Functions like voice-activated controls, high-definition cameras and video calls were largely considered geek daydreams, but the breathtaking evolution of the devices has turned them into reality seemingly overnight.

That's what makes the future so exciting for smart phones. No dream is too big. The better question, now, is when some kooky new feature will become reality. And in a lot of cases, it might not be too long.

Some of the features and functions of future smart phones are pretty obvious -- longer battery life, 4G connectivity, more immersive games, etc. -- but there are bigger, broader plans out there. Here are five that have caught our eye.

Wearable phones
A lot of the assumptions about the future of smart phones are based on the devices maintaining their current form factor. Maybe thinner or with slightly larger screens, but still maintaining the rectangular shape that has come to define the modern piece of mobile tech.

Some companies, though, are imagining a different kind of device, one that takes advantage of flexible screens and future advances in miniaturizing technology to turn the smart phone into a fashion accessory.

It's less Lobot (Lando Calrissian's aide from The Empire Strikes Back) and more wrist-based. One of the more elegant prototypes is Nokia's Morph, which marries flexible materials with clever design that could, for instance, allow you to wrap your phone around your wrist.

Augmented Reality
While the 3DS has failed to light a fire in the mobile gaming space, the handheld's augmented reality feature has continued to intrigue owners. A few smart phone apps have taken advantage of AR already, but analysts say they expect the feature to become much more prevalent in the years to come -- a billion-dollar business.

The tech will deliver some practical uses (finding a coffee shop or bathroom will be easier than ever), but it could bring about a new genre of gaming as well, one that incorporates real-world locations into its storytelling. Imagine, for instance, a shooter where instead of pushing a button or touching the screen to take cover from incoming fire, you simply duck behind a real-world object. Scary cool.

PC-comparable processors
Comparing the processors in a smart phone to those in a laptop or desktop PC is, in a word, unfair. Variables, such as the amount of on-board RAM, make it a fruitless task. Still, there's no arguing that the A5 chip in the iPad 2 and iPhone 4S is a powerful piece of hardware to scrunch into a mobile device.

And it's only going to get fancier. Earlier this year, nVidia gave us a peek at the roadmap for its Tegra line of Android chips. It's startling, impressive stuff. The Tegra 2 is used in many of today's smart phones, and while it's no longer the most powerful chip on the market, it's hardly a slouch. By 2014, though, the company expects to release a successor (codenamed "Stark") that will be 75 times faster.

PC processors will continue to advance, of course, but smart phones are quickly making up the gap. For gamers, that means more graphically advanced offerings with smarter AI. Infinity Blade, it seems, was just the beginning of console-quality gaming on your phone.

Gesture control
The gyroscope inside most of today's smart phones is woefully underused. Analysts believe as the smart phone industry matures, we'll see manufacturers incorporate the technology into more than just games.

Imagine not having to press a button to answer a call, but rather just putting the phone to your ear or shaking the phone to undo an action (kind of like a high-tech Etch-A-Sketch). A game-changer? Hardly, but it's still pretty cool.

Wireless payment tech
One of the features some observers were expecting Apple to reveal during the iPhone 4S unveiling was the inclusion of near field communications (NFC) technology. It didn't happen, but it's widely believed to be on the drawing board for all smart phones.

Essentially, NFC will allow you to use your smart phone to act as everything from a payment device to a car key. It's a technology that's already in use today, most famously with Speedpass — a small fob that you can wave in front of a gas pump or cash register reader. Payment is instantaneous and you never have to dig around for cash or your credit card. While that could prove problematic -- lose your phone and you could lose some funds -- it's still quite compelling.

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