Unbreakable: the arrival of flexible smartphone screens

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Picture it: the first day of our two-week holiday in Italy. My wife pulls out a map from the depths of her bag and inadvertently pulls out her iPhone, which is caught in one of its folds, at the same time. In one of those slo-mo “noooo!” moments, it tumbles to the ground and lands absolutely flat with a short but ominous crunch on the pavement. The front is a mass of miniature shards of glass and only the bottom third of the screen is vaguely usable. Not a great start; we haven’t even had ice cream yet.

So unbreakable screens would be a great idea. But the reality is that smartphone screens are well on their way to being way more than that. Not only are they going to be unbreakable, they’re also going to be flexible too.

Flexible touchscreen technology has actually been around for quite a while – since 2002, in fact – although not sufficiently well developed for the mass market until late 2013. A small company called Universal Display was the frontrunner, and it became the highly successful creator of Samsung’s Galaxy S2 and S3 screens. But it was actually Sony and Philips who took the flexible screen technology to the next level a few years later with their “rollable ink” screens. Seiko even released a flexible E-ink screen on one of their watches.

Nowadays, E-ink is actually quite commonplace, but we just don’t realise it. For instance, Amazon’s Kindle uses it, but you’d never guess that because of course the main body of the device (or chassis, as they like to say in the industry) is rigid, as are most of the components. Research has been carried out on creating flexible batteries and the like, but so far the technology is not sufficiently well developed to make this practical.

As for other technological drawbacks, E-ink screens aren’t suitable for smartphones because the response times are way too slow (so they can’t display video), they don’t display colour very well and they’re expensive. So in fact it’s Universal Display’s “OLED” technology that is going to be leading the way.

The great thing about these screens is that they are incredibly light and thin, and can be twisted around into any shape. Twistable? Wouldn’t that make them easy to break? No – there’s no glass, and you could actually take a blunt tool to them and they’d come off unscathed. That said, running one’s fingers across plastic is not as nice as running them across glass. That’s where Corning comes in – a company which manufactures “willow glass”. As the name suggests, it’s an extremely thin glass sheet which covers the plastic screen, whilst remaining flexible, thus improving the user experience.

Given this remarkable new flexibility, we may well be seeing more ergonomically designed smartphone handsets in the future. What we won’t have is a phone you can fold over like a piece of paper. To me, that’s actually a bit of a shame. I like the idea of being able to turn your smartphone into a tablet by unfolding or unrolling the screen – so turning an iPhone into an iPad, for instance. I don’t know about you, but there’s only so much enjoyment I can get out of reading newspaper articles or BBC News on my 5-inch phone. So it would be a real market winner if it could somehow “unfold” into something larger, like a small magazine.

With the twistable aspect, there are all sorts of other potential ramifications too. We’re already very used to pinching, swiping, shaking and performing various other gestures to carry out functions on our smartphones and tablets. With the flexible, twistable option, a whole host of other gestures will be possible.

While the other components remain rigid, though, this technology can only go so far. But I suspect it’s only a matter of time before all the components become flexible, meaning we can have ultra-bendy and ultra-thin phones which we can simply fold or roll up and tuck away without that bulgy front trouser pocket effect we currently have on a night out when it’s too hot for a jacket.

Samsung are very well placed to be one of the market leaders: their S3 and S4 have given iPhone a real run for their money as it is, but now with their partnership with Universal Display, they will be among the big hitters in the flexible smartphone market. Keep an eye out for LG as well, however, who have recently announced that they'll launch their first flexible smartphone later this year. With an estimated 120 million flexible screens hitting the market by 2015, all the manufacturers are going to want a piece of the $1.2 billion revenue.


by Ashley Morrison

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