At the giant electronics convention, CES 2011, Samsung showed off their flexible AMOLED displays to great fanfare. Soon after, rumors ran rampant flexible displays would be available in 2012. The year brought many things, but a flexy Samsung phone was not one of them. Well, if you’ve got flexible phone fever, never fear. Word is we may get a look at these phones commercially in 2013. Maybe.
Why might you want a flexible phone? The flexible part may be the least attractive attribute. What’s best about the materials used to make flexible displays is their toughness—AMOLEDs are printed on plastic substrates that are less prone to scratching and cracking than their glass counterparts. Additionally, AMOLED displays are thinner, consume less power, and provide better color.
The technology itself isn’t particularly new. Samsung already uses AMOLED displays in its Galaxy smartphones. However, though their screens are flexible, these devices must be rigid because the rest of their components are.
So, will Samsung’s upcoming offering pair a flexible display with flexible components (battery, processor, etc.) for a fully bendible phone? It's possible. The technology exists. Graphene, an ultra-thin sheet of carbon atoms arranged in a lattice, is a prime candidate for flexible electronics.
In a BBC interview, Professor Andrea Ferrari of Cambridge Graphene Lab says, “If you think ten years backwards, in 2002, graphene was not there. You know, we didn’t even think about it. So, it’s such a fast moving field that we don’t know where we’re going to be in a few years time.”
The truth is, no one really knows what Samsung or any of the other electronics firms (LG, Philips, Sharp, Sony, and Nokia) rumored to be working on flexible phones are planning. We’ll have to wait and see next year.
But whether we have flexible phones or not is somewhat beside the point. Dreaming down the road a bit, there are larger, more exciting applications for flexible electronics.
Even cooler than phones would be an all-in-one device. Imagine an ultra-thin 40" bendable screen with flexible graphene components—not unlike these 0.3mm thick e-ink newspapers (of dubious value) or this 80 micron Sony OLED display. Such a thin flexible device could serve as a TV that rolls up in the corner or displays your favorite work of art (à la back to Future II) when sitting idle.
Or going a step further, maybe the device folds neatly into a tablet or phone—equally comfortable on the wall or in your pocket. The device has a wireless internet connection and is charged by inductive wallpaper. And no need for a keyboard and mouse, the interface is entirely gesture controlled by motion sensing technology.
Of course, the future itself is flexible and prone to upset even the simplest prognostications. Maybe physical displays will be made obsolete by holographic displays. Or maybe the technology will interface directly with our brains sooner than we think. Maybe all of the above, each one a step ahead of the previous.
A bendy phone seems a touch gimmicky, but the technology itself has great potential. Time to get past the hype already and see some real world applications.