There are any number of cases promising to protect a smartphone from drops, bumps and scrapes, but an idea floated by Honda in a video promoting its new line of small cars adds airbags to the list of potential smartphone protection options.
Honda isn't really making a smartphone case, of course; the video at the end of this article is a fictional story about an inventor who is inspired by the new Honda Motors N line of small cars to solve the problem of fragile smartphones using airbags. While the video is part of a clever advertising campaign, the smartphone airbag case – although impractical in its current form – is real.
The guts of the Smartphone Case N are exposed in the photo above. There are a series of six small airbags placed around the edges of the smartphone, which are deployed when the case perceives it is being dropped. In the rear of the case is a computer-controlled accelerometer that keeps track of the level of peril to which the smartphone is subjected at any given moment.
Judging by the video, the computer is looking for something like an extended period of free-fall, as when the case is dropped, the airbags deploy after about 3 ft (90 cm) of falling. (Note to self: Do not take this case along when skydiving.)
Once the computer triggers the mechanism, the inflation valve is opened electrically, releasing gas from a CO2 cartridge into the airbags, which are then fully inflated within 0.2 seconds. When it hits the ground, it bounces around gently for a moment, then rests unharmed on the airbags. The airbags remain inflated at this point, however, it is unclear if they can be deflated and repacked, or if each smartphone rescue would require replacement airbags.
Like everything else, the Smartphone Case N concept has pros and cons. On the pro side, it does appear to perform its basic function effectively, in that the smartphone in the video survives. Arguing against the case is the enormous size, the probable high cost of the case, the probable high cost of resetting the airbags after use, the lack of protection if a phone is dropped screen down onto a pointy object, and the danger of tripping while having the case (or a smaller version thereof) in your pocket. This may be a concept that isn't quite ready for prime time.
But will it get there someday? Amazon's Jeff Bezos thinks highly enough of the basic idea that he patented it for Amazon, with Greg Hart as co-inventor. The Amazon patent, filed in February 2010, covers just about any method you might think of for protecting a fragile thing from drops, including reorienting the thing while it falls, so that it lands on a less-fragile part, and using air jets to seriously slow the rate of fall.
If size and cost can be controlled, together with the danger level for accidental activation, some such method for protecting smartphones and tablets may well appear on the market. Someday.