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 83.

    Add wireless re-charging and this will be a winner.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    This is just another techi step forward that will probably have unimagined further reaching effects. For all the "bleeding hearts" out there, i.e.
    52. ferafestiva - without research & development making information available, you wouldn't know much about things like genocide or world hunger, let alone be able to criticise via the internet. Never used a webpage to make a charitable donation?!

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    46 Minutes ago
    Reminds me of that Thunderbirds episode when Brains was talking into his watch, and that must have been nearly 50 years ago!
    What about even earlier...
    Chester Gould gave Disk Tracy a wrist watch 2 way radio in 1946
    Based on "actual" technology of Donald Hings & Alfred J. Gross @ 1937

    Amazing how many "new" ideas,
    are just old ones that can now be realised!

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    I love having a big screen, as most of my "phone" usage is web or email - no facebook its a work tool, but I'm worried about breaking these large glass screens, and find anything above 3" or so, quite large for a trouser pocket, so I'm really looking forward to a simple clam-shell that opens out into one large screen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.


    "Take of the blinkers, you will be surprised"

    Indeed ?!

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.

    True innovation. Not the radius of the curves on a rectangular tablet. Are you listening, Apple?

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.

    17. biasedbroadcastingcorp
    Hey, I still have my phone from about seven years ago, you can make phone calls and send SMSs with it.

    You do realise that when you bought your phone 7 years ago someone could have said - "you send SMS? I still have the same phone from 7 years ago, all you can do is call people. No bumping into people whilst sending SMS".

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    20. BikerJake
    1 HOUR AGO
    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.

    ********************* all we need are reliable service providers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 75.

    A flexible spellchecker would, however, be "largely relevant"

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    I just want to say how cool I think the technology is, and congratulate the R&D people involved for their creativity. This is a testiment to the advances of science and should be celebrated. Imagine what people could accomplish if we were all so bright and dedicated.

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.

    I really can't see the point in a mobile. I'm sure there are great uses for it somewhere but do I really need a bendy phone? I'll go ask Mr Soft :)

  • rate this

    Comment number 72.

    The phone application is just where the money is to be made at the moment but think of car dashboards which could be made any shape you want, linked with a satnav a large readable map for walking, large scale displays for those with restricted vision, take your TV on holiday, large portable displays. Turn the idea around, how about solar cells which you can simply fix like wallpaper.

  • rate this

    Comment number 71.

    I think they need to address the issue of battery life for smart phones. We're leaning a bit too much toward style over substance for my liking.

  • rate this

    Comment number 70.

    Well, I could do with large, cheap, poster-sized wall mounted displays to show status reports for all the systems that I look after. They would only need to refresh once every couple of minutes, and could be black-and-white, but they do need to be light enough to hang on the wall easily, and both low cost and low-power enough to not worry about money when the office is festooned with them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 69.

    I find the negative comments unbelievable. People are talking about funding Aids, cancer, world hunger etc. (all awful)
    I'm sure that all these people are constantly giving to charity. Oh.but wait..they're all on the internet. If only the money spent on this technology had gone on something 'better'. Say their monthly broadband costs were given up to a worthy cause.

    Please people...wake up!!!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 68.

    Hopefully these manufacturers have the sense not to licence this new tech to Apple.

  • rate this

    Comment number 67.

    Pleased to see that the UK is leading this research, but less pleased to hear it is sponsored by foreign corporations. I hope this is not another case of UK ingenuity followed by foreign company commercial success. We need to ensure we protect our developments and licence their use as the US has done to great success.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    It'd be cool to wear one around the wrist as a watch. Possibilities are limitless so let's not get into the rationale for it -- when magnetism was discovered, nobody knew what to do with it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    I think it's cool tech - I don't care what the nae-sayers here think. I don't think it's practical, but I still like it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    I hate these soundbite comments about world problems. We do not live in a utopia, we live in the real world. It may be depressing to some that we care more about phones that bend instead of shatter when dropped or sat on, but that is the price of progress and progress is what cures the worlds ills eventually. Silver blankets, energy biscuits, carbon water filtration all developed for other reasons


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