Are flexible displays a true innovation or just a gimmick?
Remember the roll-up electronic newspapers from the movie Minority Report? We could soon see something similar used in cell phone, e-reader, and tablet displays. Well, maybe not quite, but companies like Samsung and LG are already producing flexible displays for future products. These displays might not be as bendable as a newspaper, but they will offer some enticing design possibilities for hardware manufacturers.
Prototypes, then progress
Engineers have been working on developing flexible displays for years. But until this year, we've seen only prototypes of bendable screens. In 2008, HP and the Flexible Display Center at Arizona State University unveiled a prototype of an affordable, flexible electronic display that uses self-aligned imprint lithography (SAIL) technology. The paper-like computer displays are made almost entirely of plastic, which makes them durable, movable, and portable. And Taiwan's Industrial Research Institute (ITRI) and AU Optronics teamed up to develop a manufacturing process for flexible e-reader displays in 2010. This team's prototype used AMOLED technology.
Nokia showed off a working prototype kinetic device at its Lumia 800 launch with a real flexible OLED display. To interact with it, you need to hold the gadget in both hands. You can then flex and bend it to perform certain controls. You bend the display inward to zoom in on photos in a gallery app, for example, and you bend outward to zoom out. The music app lets you twist up or down to go through albums. When you want to play a song, you bow the display in. Cool? Definitely. Practical? It's hard to say. It might be good for gaming, but since you must use two hands to operate it, it seems impractical to use in phones. The Nokia kinetic device is just a prototype, though it is an exciting glimpse into how flexible displays might be used in product design.
This year, Samsung announced that it had started shipping its flexible, OLED-based YOUM displays. According to the company, YOUM displays have a standard OLED design, except that flexible polymer sheets replace the glass substrate and encapsulation layers.
LG is mass-producing flexible displays, too, but they're e-ink displays for e-readers. The e-ink displays measure 6 inches diagonally with a 1024-by-768-pixel resolution. Like Samsung's display, LG's e-ink display is made from plastic and does not have glass sheets protecting it.
Atmel, the company behind touch sensor technology for tablets and mobile phones, launched a new touch sensor product called XSense, which is made from flexible film. According to Atmel, the flexible touch sensors can wrap around curved surfaces. Atmel's XSense touch sensors are shipping now, with products scheduled to be available in the third quarter of this year.
Advantages of flexible displays
There are many advantages to a display that bends and moves. The YOUM displays promise to be thinner and lighter as they have fewer layers than the LCD and OLED displays we see on phones and tablets now. An LCD display typically has six layers, two of which are glass, while an OLED panel has four, with two glass panels.
In addition, flexible displays may be more durable than today's phone and tablet displays, since they don't use glass (hence the flexibility). Samsung claims that its screens are "unbreakable," but I'll take that claim with a grain of salt until we actually get a device with one of these displays in house. We've learned in PCWorld's Stress Tests that even the toughest products can break.
Another potential use for flexible displays is that manufacturers can create "wearable" designs. Imagine transforming your phone from a wristwatch/bracelet style to a touchscreen style, and then folding it again to slip it into your pocket. For example, the Nokia Morph, a concept device, is a wearable watch/phone hybrid. The Morph is constructed from fibril proteins that are woven into a three-dimensional mesh, allowing the whole phone—screen included—to move and bend.
The displays we'll see this year probably won't be quite ready to wrap around your wrist, however. They'll be less flexible than you might expect (no roll-out digital newspapers yet!), but you can anticipate seeing e-readers with flexible e-paper displays as well as a few phones by the end of this year, and possibly in tablets next year, equipped with Samsung's AMOLED displays. Jennifer Colegrove, NPD's DisplaySearch vice president of emerging display technology told Wired that though the e-reader displays might be curved, they will be fixed—consumers won't be able to bend and move the displays.
Phone manufacturers have a challenge ahead of them. They must find a way to make flexible displays useful rather than just relying on the "cool factor" that the display can bend. Remember glasses-free 3D displays on phones and tablets? They were heralded as being cool and futuristic, but in reality, consumers didn't have very much use for a 4.3-inch 3D display. Samsung's YOUM display is lightweight and more durable than a nonbendy OLED display. The fact that it is also flexible is really just a secondary feature.
When we get to a point where you'll be able to bend and move a display, manufacturers will have to find other ways—beyond just light weight and toughness—to make flexible displays attractive and useful to consumers. Nokia's kinetic prototype offers an interesting glimpse at how a flexible display might be used, but it still seems a bit impractical. Manufacturers will also have to consider the wear and tear that the gadget must endure. A few thousand flexes on a display could do serious damage to its components.
We're still a long way from that Minority Report newspaper, but flexible displays are coming to an e-reader, tablet, or phone near you. While the first few products might be seen as novelties or gimmicks, flexible displays are definitely a component to watch in the mobile space.