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
    +2

    Comment number 143.

    Can't Beilive in 21st centry there is still so many naive and ignorant poeple are around.

    Really you can not see how much does this technology improve our life? it is not just a bendable phone! it is a world without paper. a paper which the text and images on it is changing instantly without need to bin it when you don't need it anymore. yo don't need to destroys jungles and trees and ...Why!!!!!

  • rate this
    +4

    Comment number 142.

    8.What we do defines us
    To you maybe but to someone like me who uses his smartphone to take bookings and is almost at the point where he can run his business on a phone the idea is wonderful. Especially the folding idea imagine being able to run full size spreadsheets on a light portable device, bye bye pads and laptops.

  • rate this
    +10

    Comment number 141.

    Phones for many of us are no longer simply to make calls and send texts. Times have moved on.

    I also use mine for iplayer, email for work, play music, sat-nav, to use public transport across the world, find and book restaurants, show the news or weather, take photos, budget, save shopping lists, translate in real time, flight check-ins, find constellations in the sky. Amongst other things.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 140.

    What a great idea. As a less than mobile (ha ha) old lady I can never find my mobile and would love to have one I could wear as a wristband so it was always with me. The only problem would be having to take it off to charge it. Also my arthritic fingers aren't too adept at small touch keypads, could I have an version with a large foldable keypad.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 139.

    chocolate teapot?

  • rate this
    +8

    Comment number 138.

    What's the point? If all the decision making was left to people like this, we'd all still be living in caves.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 137.

    A mobile phone that you can wear on your wrist. Do the people who don't see the point of a flexible phone remember the pocket watch?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 136.

    While I applaud the advances in technology and the potential benefits that it could bring, I'm not too fussed about having a bendy phone. As long as I can actually hold it to my ears and make phone calls then I'm happy! Hats off to the researchers though, I think it's cool technology.

  • rate this
    +6

    Comment number 135.

    116. Graphis
    80% of people on HYS are retired. So expect lots of grumpy old folk muttering about the good old days of having to find a (working) phone box on the corner, and whatever happened to trams...
    __

    Trams are still on the go where I live. No corner phone boxes though. As for the new bendies, I wants one, even at my advanced age. Too good for youth, I say.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 134.

    I'm sure this tech will have many useful applications, but for phones and tablets etc. it will just be a faddy gimmick.

    A flexible screen might seem like a great idea, but a flexible keypad? I'd guess functionality would be lower - much harder to type on at speed. You'd be constantly looking for something rigid to rest it on...

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 133.

    What a superb innovation Not only does it look awesome. but it will be more practical. And it should save you money on insurance and other phone costs. And im glad Apple arent leading the way!

  • rate this
    +27

    Comment number 132.

    @ biasedbroadcasting

    You're such a faddy consumer!

    I don't even have a phone. I send all my messages by horse courier, you can send letters and parcels with it. The same reason I use wax discs to play music and watch puppet theater instead of the shallow 'modern' equivalents.

    Not only that, but I am strangely proud of my refusal to keep up with the times, as if that were a badge of honour

  • rate this
    -1

    Comment number 131.

    Dear Jim F

    How sad.
    When did you last put pen to paper and write to your auntie ethel ?

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 130.

    Trouble is, people often can't see past their noses so slate what doesn't fit with their narrow field of vision.

    This is likely to be applied to phones as it's easy for people to access the tech and it will undoubtedly help reduce future costs (if it's widely accepted).

    This tech will no way be limited to just phones. It has huge potential.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 129.

    124. Scaramanga
    3G? hell I'd settle for having faster than 0.3Mbps on my home broadband!

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 128.

    'accessories for the ladies'

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 127.

    @112 I agree, lets get rid of the word "phone" from these devices and offer nice cheap mobile phones for those of us who just want to make calls and text people. Hard not to like the idea of flexible mobile phones/devices though!

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 126.

    Why?

    What is the purpose of a flexible phone? Who is funding this research or is it a case of "let us see what we can achieve"

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 125.

    I do find it amusing all these people complaining about 'trivial' new technology...when they're LEAVING COMMENTS ON THE INTERNET VIA A COMPUTER! If your bitching was through the medium of cochineal scribble on parchment rolled up and posted to the BBC via carrier pigeon your point of view would carry a lot more credibility! ;-)

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 124.

    Wish they could improve the networks as well as the handsets, 3G coverage in Scotland is rubbish, lets not even mention 4G.

    We're embarrassingly far behind other countries in broadband and mobile networks, on my last trip to Germany I couldn't believe how much better 3G was....it was actually usable.

 

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