Bend me, shape me: Flexible phones 'out by 2013'

Samsung flexible phones prototypes Samsung's new phones use OLED technology, but the firm is also looking into graphene

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Imagine treating your phone like a piece of paper.

Roll it up. Drop it. Squish it in your backpack. Step on it - without any damage.

Researchers are working on just such handsets - razor-thin, paper-like and bendable.

There have already been prototypes, attracting crowds at gadget shows.

WATCH: Inside a Graphene lab developing flexible display technology

But rumours abound that next year will see the launch of the first bendy phone. Numerous companies are working on the technology - LG, Philips, Sharp, Sony and Nokia among them - although reports suggest that South Korean phone manufacturer Samsung will be the first to deliver.

Nokia Morph concept phone Morph is one of the bendable prototypes Nokia has been working on

Samsung favours smartphones with so-called flexible OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode) technology, and is confident that they will be "very popular among consumers worldwide".

Their screens will be "foldable, rollable, wearable and more, [and] will allow for a high degree of durability through their use of a plastic substrate that is thinner, lighter and more flexible than… conventional LCD technology," says a Samsung spokesperson.

Paperless world

There are other technologies that could make your smartphone bendy. After all, the concept - creating flexible electronics and assembling them on equally flexible plastic - has been touted since the 1960s, when the first flexible solar cell arrays appeared.

In 2005, Philips demonstrated the first prototype of a rollable display.

And it may not have been obvious, but a couple of years later, flexible technology hit the mainstream.

Amazon's first Kindle e-reader used a plastic non-rigid screen - known as an optical frontplane - to display its images. The only problem was that the components beneath it required the device to be stiff.

Different display technologies

  • LCD (Liquid Crystal Display): consumes a lot of energy, as every pixel on the screen is illuminated by a backlight.
  • OLED (Organic Light Emitting Diode): each diode is its own light source, switched on when it receives an electric signal. Devices can be slimmer than LCD, better at reproducing colour, use less power, and flexible.
  • E-ink: reflects ambient light from the surface of the display back to your eyes. It has longer battery life than other displays, but is usually black and white. It could be made in colour by placing a filter with red, green and blue tints on top of the original black-and-white display, but the colour is less bright than on OLED and LCD screens.

Like many of the e-book readers that followed, it used e-ink - an innovation developed by a US company of the same name.

The screens are black and white, and work by reflecting natural light instead of glowing themselves, mimicking the way text looks in paper books.

"There are about 30 million flexible e-ink displays in the field today - the oldest working ones are from 2006," says Sri Peruvemba of E-Ink.

"They [are] well-suited for simple phones, memory and battery indicators, smart credit cards, wristwatches, and signs."

But why are most e-ink displays hidden behind a rigid glass screen and not made bendy?

One reason is cost, says Abhigyan Sengupta, an analyst with consultancy firm MarketsAndMarkets, which recently published a global study on flexible displays.

To have a fully flexible finished product, both parts of the display have to be flexible - the optical frontplane and the backplane, where transistors are - as well as the device's battery, the outer shell, the touchscreen and other components.

Plastic Logic screengrab Plastic Logic designs displays using E-Ink's technology and its own

Although Mr Peruvemba says his firm has started manufacturing displays with flexible backplanes in-house, its many partners are also busy researching ways to make electronic paper as flexible as the real thing.

Among them is South Korean firm LG Displays, which has just begun mass-producing fully flexible e-ink screens.

"They could prove a terrific benefit for handsets, where damage from drops is common," says an LG spokeswoman. "Their light weight and thinness should provide huge potential to the future of handset design development."

Another company working with E-Ink is UK firm Plastic Logic.

It uses the US firm's optical frontplane but adds on its own backplane made out of non-rigid plastics, and then sells the part to device-makers.

Last May, Plastic Logic demonstrated a paper-like flexible screen capable of playing video in colour, which is achieved by placing a filter on top of the original black-and-white display.

Concept phone, NEC This prototype was developed by Japanese company NEC

But the colours are not as bright as on other types of screens, and the company's research manager Michael Banach acknowledges the technology at the moment is most likely to be used as a back-up screen which kicks in when batteries run low, rather than the main display.

'Wonder material'

So other researchers are taking a different approach.

Clad in blue lab overalls, Prof Andrea Ferrari from Cambridge University works on future bendy displays using graphene.

LG Displays, flexible display prototype South Korean firm LG Displays has recently started mass-producing e-ink flexible displays

The material was first produced in 2004 by Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov, two Russian-born scientists at the University of Manchester.

Graphene is a sheet of carbon just one atom thick - yet it is stronger than diamond, transparent, lightweight, has great conducting properties - and is flexible.

Researchers believe that graphene may in future replace silicon and revolutionise electronics as we know it.

"We are working on flexible, bendable and transparent displays and surfaces that could in future be part of flexible phones, tablets, TVs and solar cells," says Prof Ferrari, who is working with Finnish phonemaker Nokia.

"Samsung is really quite advanced in this field, but we here in Cambridge have done some great work on Nokia's prototypes as well."

He says that graphene will complement and highly enhance the performance of OLED-type flexible phones, because in theory, even a handset's flexible battery can be made out of this material.

Whatever the technology, it seems certain that very soon our phones will be not just smart, but bendy too.


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  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    This is an actual innovation for once.

    Finally we can get back to the same durability we had 20 years ago with Nokia bricks, while still having all the cool features.

    The days of the iPhone are numbered, because we all know that they won't change their "cool" glass phone.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    This is a good step forward as screen research.

    However, I don't understand why these companies are trying to push the technology to market as gimmicky mobile phones. If more than 10 sane people buy any of the phones pictured above, I'll eat a shoe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    And what's the point of this exactly? They already make phones that bounce when dropped. Everyone's strapped for cash and they bring out a 'bendy' phone. A money making gimmick for those thta 'must have'

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    Oh dear the luddites are here.

    What is the point?, Widen your thinking, look out of the box. What benefits can you see in this technology?, I can see many, medical, military etc.

    Less energy consumption = win win situation.

    Flexi screens open up more acceptance/research in the Nano technology fields, another NEEDED asset to the human race.
    Take of the blinkers, you will be surprised.

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    I think it's a good idea as it will make it easier to keep your phone in your back pocket, next though they need to work on bendy debit/credit cards. I go through loads of them due to damage as my wallet spends its life in my back pocket

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    I think there is good potential for a wider application of bendy display technology. The phone perhaps is a bit more gimicky though. And who knows perhaps bendy electoronics is a small step away.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    Well, another reason for sad consumers to change their phone model every five minutes. Hey, I still have my phone from about seven years ago, you can make phone calls and send SMSs with it. I don't need to shuffle down the street bumping into people because I'm a sad Facebook addict. I don't even have a Facebook account!

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    I'd like to see phones made from that super bouncy rubber they made balls from when I was a kid. Then when I argue with the ex wife I won't kill my phone.

    It is a good idea though, pretty soon are clothes will come with computer devices embedded into them using this technology.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    They should try to make a colour phone display the can be read in bright sunlight, that would be of greater use than this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    If this makes phones much less prone to damage when dropped, and if they make them waterproof too, this is a big step forward in general phone durability

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    Bendy phones? Meh... Flexible Displays to replace paper!? Now that's the winner right there! Not long before it happens as well!

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    This technology (flexi paper) will eventually be the saviour of the newspaper and print industries in many ways- people will be able to buy a digital newspaper or book and have the contents downloaded onto it. The only issue will be how to make money once you have sold a flexi- thingy because I can't imagine disposable ones are possible given the materials needed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    There are many variables which would make this a great success or a big, literal flop. For example. Battery life would be just awful. The resistance of the components, thin enough to flex, would drain the battery. Plus an important factor is HOW bendy you want the phone. I mean, if you hold it up to you ear and it falls over like a sheet of paper then obviously its gunna be *naughty word*

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    In terms of computational power this would be a backward step. CPUs don't bend. I see this technology being integrated into other materials rather than a traditional handset. A curved semicircular monitor would be one obvious enhancement to gamers. But these are early days for this tech so who is to say where it will be in ten years.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    why? just why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    What is the purpose of a phone? It is to send and receive messages and for me, the critical aspects are a) being able to make/receive calls, b) send texts and c) not have to charge it up every 5 minutes because of the fashion accessories.

    Whether it bends or not is largelly irrelevant.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Er, what exactly is the point of this? What benefit will a bendy phone offer? Sorry but I can't really see the point of it!

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    I carry my (£10 pay as you go) phone in my pocket so I can see the advantage. The trick will be to make it bendable enough to go in a pocket but rigid enough to actually use. I don't fancy trying to text on something that flops around like jelly!

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    But will they be edible? I'd prefer mine to be strawberry-flavoured, so when I'm peckish and lunch is late…Brave new world? Or, stop the world, I wanna get off?

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    Flexi screens are a good thing moving forward. I see allot of potential for this including reducing foresting for the likes of newspapers etc.

    The sooner we can embrace modern technology and focus our energy/resources on that rather than war the better. Augmentation is another interesting one which integrates technology into natural biology systems. Deus Ex era Hurry up!.


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