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 103.

    LOL at all the naysayers. They're probably the same people that said that email was never going to come to anything, oh wait. Then the internet, oh wait. Then the mobile phone, oh wait.

    I can't believe there are people using tech to surf an internet message board so they can criticise tech [facepalm].

    Why didn't you just write a letter to the BBC?

    Great tech BTW :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    This is brilliant technology, but its application could also have a substantial affect in the healthcare sector. Research suggests the bonding of sterile coatings onto medical surfaces generally using this technology, could have a considerable impact on reducing hospital aquiried infection. Mobile phones to healthcare; how many other applications might there be? This seems to be just a begining.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    love the people saying that bendy phones are largely irrellevant - most likely these are the same people who laughed at those who had the giant mobiles back in the 80's and said oh that will never catch on - yet now they have their own mob phone! These companies do not waste millions of $ on R&D for products that do not have a demand or use. This tech will be in the future tablet evolution too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    My first reaction was - why? then i thought about it and thought it's actually a really good idea, I hate having to carry around a handbag so this would be great for me. I'm also extremely clumsy and having a phone that doesn't break would be fantastic as I'm constantly dropping mine

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    I hope this means that the Phones are more difficult/ unlikely have broken screens.... Less cost in repairs would be a huge improvement.

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    It doesn't bother me people who prefer older technology - my phone is very basic and Im quite content with it. Its the pride that people have that they dont/cant use new technology, its as if it makes you more important! . Regardless of whether or not you would use a flexible phone is irrelevant; not only does it open up new practicalities for phones its also VERY VERY COOL!

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    To those who cannot think of real world applications for this, really? you cannot think of ANY? Stop thinking just about phones and about other areas where touchscreens or control panels are used, could any of them be improved by having a screen that can bend? of course they can.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    Maybe... but these phones aren't going to become popular in the next few years

    Obvious advantage point. Wear round wrist with no pockets

    But imagine how damaged they would be just by walking down the street, opening doors etc. And i wouldn't feel that comfortable walking about with my phone constantly on display

    I love innovation, but they have a long way to go before they become viable

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    Its all really exciting technology. The fact they are developing cutting edge technologies in the U.K is also wonderful even if it is through foreign investors.
    I am very much looking forward to how the technology will be used in the future.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    Lots of people on here having ago but technology sometimes has strange stepping stones. Criticising people for trying something different maybe a little short sighted. I remember the same sort of comments about smart phones when they started now they are mainstream.

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    3 Minutes ago
    17. biasedbroadcastingcorp
    Hey, I still have my phone from about seven years ago...
    You do realise that when you bought your phone 7 years ago
    someone could have said - "you send SMS?
    1st SMS on a net work(Vodafone) "Merry Christmas" 3rd Dec 1992

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    The new curvy metal seats at Kings Cross seem to have been designed to punish people - like me - who are foolish enough to keep their expensive smartphones in their back pockets. A bendy alternative sounds great to me!

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.

    @86. Jamie Stevens
    Actually, I love tech, and I love this tech. Pity you couldn't see that part of my comment was tongue in cheek. And at what point did I say that people shouldn't spend their money on whatever they like? Please grow up and get a sense of humour. ;-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    I think the mistake that so many people here seem to be making is by calling it a phone. With the advent of smart technology these devices have become so much more than a means of making calls or sending sms. If thats all you want that is fine, but there are a lot of us who utilise the full capability.

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    Wow we can make bendy phones, but still cannot feed over 2 billion of the worlds population,

    By the way i'll rather be a luddite than a moron!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    I wouldn't buy one... there's something disconcerting about bendy electronics. Bought a bendy keyboard a while ago; just couldn't get used to it.

    The concept's awesome though, and low energy use and high durability are a massive step.

    On the other hand, trying to hold a bendy phone could be awkward to those with a strong grip, and I'd be worried about it slapping me every step I took :-)

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    They can easily be bent into an excellent pair of blinkers for those who cant see the future possibilities of this technology.

  • rate this

    Comment number 86.

    @30. It's not up to you to decide how others spend or "waste" their money. Progress is never a bad thing, and advancements in technology, whilst they may not be to your limited taste, should always be encouraged

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    I'm more excited to see where this takes e-readers. I love reading and devour books one after the other. I also love gadgets but, although I see the advantages of an e-reader in reducing paper usage, better use of space and ease of portability, I just prefer the feel of a book in my hands. Make me an e-reader shaped like a book with pages to turn and with the e-reader features and I will be hooked

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    “for sad consumers”, “latest gimmick”. Dear TheMudplugger & biasedbroadcastingcorp, in a few years time smartphones will b diagnosing TB in developing countries, monitoring blood glucose levels and letting Drs diagnose heart attacks on airplanes (see Q4 Tech Quarterly in the latest Economist). I doubt either u or I can begin to fathom what these “gimmicks” will be doing in the future.


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