LG hopes to release an OLED smartphone with a flexible display in late 2013

After years of promises and endless prototype demos, 2013 may finally be the year you get to stash a smartphone in your back pocket without breaking it. Well, at least without crushing the screen anyway.

Yoon Bu-hyun, vice president at LG’s mobile division, recently said the company plans to release a smartphone with an OLED flexible display during the last three months of 2013, according to The Wall Street Journal. LG Electronics and LG Display will work together to develop the phone, Yoon said; LG Display began mass producing flexible displays for e-readers in early 2012.

While the promise of a smartphone you can roll up and slip in your bag sounds enticing, LG’s initial flexible display offering will likely be more modest.

Samsung demoed a prototype smartphone with a flexible display in January.

A Samsung prototype shown off during CES in January is probably closer to what LG’s first flexible phone could offer. Samsung’s Android demo handset featured a screen with one curved edge that could display text alerts in a ticker style even when the phone was off.

More companies interested in flexible displays

Beyond LG and Samsung, other companies have plans for devices with flexible displays in the works.

During Mobile World Congress in February, San Jose-based Company Atmel was showing off a flexible touchscreen technology that wraps around the sides of a device. Such a display could provide touch controls instead of side buttons for functions like volume control and power.

Atmel
Atmel's concept of its flexible screen for smartphones

Atmel said it was working with Asus to produce a tablet using the flexible display tech, but the first round of devices wouldn’t extend the touchable area to the sides of the device.

Atmel’s story is typical of the current state of flexible display technology: it promises a really cool future for handsets and tablets, but no one really knows when that future will arrive.

Problems for flexible phones?

The Journal reports LG’s goal to produce smartphones with flexible displays in 2013 may run into problems since production yields for this next-generation tech are still low.

Glass producer Corning, which offers a flexible glass called Willow (shown in the image at top and discussed in the video below), says devices using its technology are still years away since current manufacturing plants aren’t built to handle glass that comes in rolls instead of sheets.

There’s also the question of whether flexible displays can add much value to smartphones at this point. Having text roll down the side of your phone is a neat idea, but it’s little more than a novelty for the everyday user.

Nevertheless, there are practical reasons for adding flexible displays to an otherwise rigid device. Flexible displays, especially those made from polymers, are more durable than glass. They also tend to be lighter than glass displays, making it possible for devices to shed a few ounces in weight.

You may not be able to roll up your smartphone and stash it in your shirt pocket just yet but, for now, a handset with a more durable screen would definitely be a plus.

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