Phones for Lego lovers: New OtterBox case lets you add, remove accessories

OtterBox's modular design lets smartphone users remove and replace components, suggesting the potential for more customizable personal tech in the future.  

OtterBox Symmetry Series is marketed as a more stylish version of the ultra-protective smartphone case. OtterBox's new modular design lets smartphone users remove and replace components to the device, suggesting a possible future of more customizable, less disposable personal tech.

The personal smartphone itself has changed modern life, but until now, the updates have been less revolutionary – especially for the humble smartphone cases. Now, OtterBox has announced a line of super-durable cases with a modular design that allow users to add and remove devices to the phone with a single snap.  

OtterBox's new Universe Case System not only highlights the problem of iPhone cases, which limit use of expansion features, but it also suggests that personal technology devices could become more flexible during their lifespan. 

At first blush, OtterBox is trying do what all technology companies try to do: solve a problem. Carrying around a palm-sized computer has always been a delicate endeavor, but while adding a case is a no-brainer for extending a device's lifespan, it can interfere with fashion and function. Typically, the more protective the case, the more that functionality is sacrificed.

A shift away from this one-size-fits-all mentality has already begun. Google has begun experimenting with a modular design that lets users replace and add parts without sending the phone back to the factory or purchasing a single-purpose screwdriver. Called Project Ara, it promises a modular Android smartphone with certain parts that can be replaced when broken or simply swapped out, Jacob Kleinman reported for TechnoBuffalo. 

A modular OtterBox phone case expands some of that flexibility to Apple, as the Universe case can play nicely with other devices.

"One of the most commonly asked questions we get here at Olloclip is, 'Will the lens fit over my OtterBox?'" Tim DeBrincat, marketing director of a company that makes smartphone lens attachments, told CNET. "So it's fantastic to partner with them as a category leader."

The add-ons may threaten the selling point of the OtterBox phone case, however: its durability.  The OtterBox Armor Series for iPhone 5, for example, "shields against a 10-foot fall on concrete, two tons of force, and the idle fingernails of a preschooler just learning how to play 'Scratch Mommy's iPhone,'" Edgar Navarro of Chicago's Cell Phone Repair told The Christian Science Monitor in 2013. 

An iPhone 6 Plus case costs $59.95, and adding features without bulking up could mean sacrificing some of the trademark indestructibility. OtterBox's partners insist these costs won't be a problem, however, and could lead them all to sell more, David Carnoy reported for CNET.

"We believe there is value in the versatility the system provides and expect users to be inclined to purchase more add-ons than they would with a traditional case that limits their usability with only one integrated feature," Rick Case, the CEO of one of the partners for the new system, Nite Ize, told CNET. "This concept allows freedom to affordably expand the functions of a mobile device."

The system offers 15 compatible products including card readers, tripods, and batteries, and lens enhancers, Engadget reported. The list of products it short now, but it has to potential to alter the whole concept of smartphone cases. OtterBox and its nine new partners (so far) could ultimately take advantage of the grown-up Lego phenomenon. If it works, the enhanced flexibility will mean users actually start buying more products because they can attach and use them more easily alongside the device they already own.

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