Syl Chao, the Chinese architect turned phone creator and Turing Robotics Industries CEO, is bored with these dull, rectangular slabs we call smartphones.
“Architecture is all about challenging the impossible,” Chao says. “When the Empire State Building was built, the elevator didn’t exist at the time — Not until they built it. Pushing the limit is what we architects do. Smartphones are one of the hardest things to build, and we wanted to build something different, because every phone looks like every other phone these days.
“I’m sick of them. I want something that suits my character — And this is a really good representation of my character,” he concludes, holding up one of the three Turing phones from his silver brief case.
Updated on 08-27-2015 by Malarie Gokey: Added news of a December 18 ship date and a new version called the Dark Wyvern.
Preorders ship to first backers on December 18
The Turing Phone will go up for preorder on July 22 and invites will go out in September. Chao announced in late August that the Turing Phone will finally ship on December 18, which is the same day that the new Star Wars movie premieres. Foxconn is now the official manufacturing partner for Turing Robotic Industries. Chao also showed off a new design called the Dark Wyvern.
Chao says there’ll be just 10,000 to start, but more will come. The 16GB version costs $610, the 64GB version will be about $740, and the 128GB will be $870. You’ll also get a pair of Turing Gaming Bluetooth earphones, the Turing Imitation Key USB Key Krypto TIK8215, and the Wallaby Magstream power cable and adaptor in the box.
Chao told me that there’s even a crypto currency Turing Coin inside the phone that will be activated one day soon, and may even increase the phone’s value over time. Like almost everything else about the Turing Phone, that would certainly be a first.
A design legend for every phone
The Turing Phone is like no other. It’s an asymmetrical slab with a wild design in multiple colors on the back. It has a frame that’s made from Liquidmorphium, a liquid metal. It looks seamless and sleek, like a futuristic sports car or a spaceship, as Chao calls it, tongue in cheek. He’s entirely aware of how bizarre and intriguing this strange phone looks next to the iPhone 6 Plus that’s recording our conversation.
He also describes it as a poor man’s Vertu: “It has the build of a Vertu, but for one-tenth of the price. It’s just different from a $300 phone,” he says.
“We were drawing relations between the invention of liquid morphium and the pyramids, as the evolution of innovations.”
Each version of the Turing Phone has an origin story — a legend, if you will — that inspired its design. The first is the Beowulf, which takes its inspiration from the old English epic, in which a man named Beowulf destroys an evil monster named Grendel and its mother to become king.
The back is made up of a series of cutouts in geometric shapes: one part has scales and is a dark blue-gray-green, the top and bottom are a purplish brown to represent Beowulf’s village, and there’s a tiny pop of gold above the camera module that sits like the crown on Beowulf’s head.
“The scales represents Grendel’s mother,” Chao explains. The dark blue is “the ocean where he fought the monsters, and the gold represents his status after he defeated the monster and became king.”
The next Turing phone is called the Pharaoh, and it was inspired by Ramesses the Second, one of the Egyptian pharaohs who built a number of temples and buildings. The cranberry red, cherry red, navy blue, and golden yellow match the colors that would have been worn by the pharaoh.
“We were drawing relations between the invention of liquid morphium and the pyramids, as the evolution of innovations,” Chao explains. “There’s a natural evolution of all these technologies over the years: You have the pyramid, then you have the usage of metal, fireworks, all the way to the 19th century you had Charles Babbage, the first AI creator, and to Alan Turing, who created the mind for machines to think. Those are some of the innovations leading up to liquid morphium.”
The third Turing Phone we saw was the Cardinal, a red and white phone that draws inspiration from a comic book villain. The fourth design for the U.S. is called Black Dragon, but Chao wouldn’t show us that one – yet. The Dark Wyvern design debuted in August with a sleek black and gold color scheme.
“Wyverns are careful to be silent when flying and keep their shadows unseen,” Chao wrote in a blog post. “These traits give the Wyvern the ability to be stealth so its foes are unaware of the creature.”
He’s also had requests for a gold-plated version from Dubai’s rich and famous – he wouldn’t say who, but told me the request came from the “prince level.”
The amorphous liquid morphium metal that frames the phone is an alloy that’s tougher than titanium or steel, and the entire phone is IPX8 waterproof, so you can take it underwater and swim with it, if, like James Bond, you need to make a quick escape.
High-end tech inside
Of course, good looks only get a phone so far. The Turing Phone has high-end specs and special security feature to make it stand out from the crowd.
The liquid morphium frame encases a 5.5-inch screen with a resolution of 1,920 x 1,080 pixels, which looks sharp and bright. The phone’s thick body makes room for a fancy, next-level fingerprint sensor on the side of the device, which adds another level of security to the phone. It’s got a MagSafe charging port that snaps on magnetically, and is more secure than the Micro USB most phone makers use.
High-end specs and special security features make it stand out from the crowd.
Of course, all these special features make for a bulkier, heavier phone. The Turing phone measures 151.80 x 77.10 x 9.05mm, and the weight is unspecified, but it was hefty.
It’s powered by a Snapdragon 801 processor and 3GB of RAM, which is a reasonably good setup, matching and exceeding the power of a 2014 Galaxy S5. There are 16, 64, and 128GB storage options available, and the Turing phone has NFC, Bluetooth 4.0 and a 3,000mAh battery. A 13-megapixel camera is on the back and an 8-megapixel shooter is on the front.
The Turing phone runs Android 5.1 Lollipop with Turing’s own special security-focused UI on top. The UI isn’t finished, and we didn’t see more than a short demo of it, but we sure heard a lot about what makes it different.
The first Cipher phone
From the NSA and beyond, there’s no denying that security is a real issue, and that our data isn’t safe from prying eyes. Depending on who you are, keeping your digital life secure and private may be more or less important to you. Turing is betting that it will be of vital importance to everyone in the future, even if most are blissfully unaware of the dangers now.
That’s why the Turing Phone is filled with incredibly futuristic security software and protection. The unfinished software acts as a secure space in which Turning phone users can love their digital lives. It has email, messaging, and even its own social network. The normal Google Android operating system lives beyond the Turing security wall, though, which means you can use the phone like most normal, trusting folk do — if you’re not too concerned with privacy and security.
“People endorse the idea of offline end-to-end security,” Chao says. “Even big guys like Google and Apple are looking into it — This is definitely a trend.”
For those who are protective of their data, all of it is encrypted and stored on the device, so it stays secure. Turing’s built its own end-to-end encryption, which involves a public key and a private key. The company’s goal is to protect its users from Internet supervillians.
“The private key is close to unhackable because it’s always offline, as opposed to the public key infrastructure that imposes a certificate of authority or a private key generator issues a key,” Chao says. “Those were at the root – they’re the poison — of cybercrime.”
Hackers would have to specifically target your device to crack the Turing code.
Of course, Chao’s not delusional – He recognizes that Turing is untested, and one of its phones could very well get hacked – but at least the rest of the phones would be safe. Hackers would have to specifically target your device to crack the Turing code.
“Everything is hackable. It’s [more about] the price you pay to hack something,” he says. “With our device, a hacker would have to hack them one by one, as opposed to when hackers hit servers, and maybe millions of records are lost at once.”
Chao says that Turing has been well received by some security experts, even though most are still using third-parties to authenticate users’ identities, a method that is unsafe, he points out.
“We’ve submitted our framework to the International Telecommunication Union, and we are now ISO 29101-5 certified,” he says. “It’s security from the future. Every Turing phone has a public key matrix and a private key. That public key can create up to one quindecillion keys — 10 to the 48th — that’s a lot of keys.”
While the security aspect of the Turing phone may make your head spin, it’s important to make your device safer, Chao says. If you’re wondering how an architect came up with high-end security platform, Chao says he’s “an apprentice to a master” of security. Admittedly, this cryptic explanation sounds more mysterious and super villain-ish than anything else Chao’s said, but he insists he and his team know what they’re doing.
“I have no training in security or mobile, but that’s the advantage,” Chao says. “That’s how we got here — We’re able to think outside the box.”
“Being trained in architecture is an advantage, too, because architecture is about fitting people in space,” he continues. “You have to touch every aspect of human habitation before you build a building – same thing with the Turing phone.”