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The flexible screen is throwing its hat in the ring

By Brian S Hall / November 27, 2013

The next battleground in the global smartphones war may be staring right back at you. It’s your screen, and recent innovations in display technologies—particularly their shape—reveal an industry on the cusp of a new design revolution.

Earlier this month, Samsung launched the Galaxy Round, a 5.7-inch smartphone with a curved display. The unique bend of the device feels more comfortable in the hand and allows for enhanced viewing angles, but that barely scratches the surface of this reimagined mobile apparatus.

The Galaxy Round also contains what Samsung touts as the “Roll Effect,” which lets users check time, date, missed calls and notifications simply by jiggling the phone when it’s laying flat on a surface. This could prove especially useful for people who keep their phone on their desk throught the day and their nightstand while they sleep.

The flexible screen in the Samsung Galaxy Round

Around the same time Samsung was launching the Galaxy Round, LG introduced an “unbreakable phone” with a curved screen they call the G Flex. LG says the six-inch device will hit US shelves in early 2014, and priced at $1,000 (off-contract), it’ll probably be out of a lot of people’s price range. However, those who can afford a four-figure phone will be rewarded with less glare, a self-healing finish and a few more perks you can only get from a bent display.

Flexible screen benefits

In the near term, flexible screen devices offer limited, yet attractive advantages. For one thing, the bowed design creates a larger viewing area than you get with flat handsets of the same size. The curved nature of the device should also reduce screen glare and make a more comfortable fit in your pocket.

Then there’s the unprecedented durability. Arches are one of the strongest shapes known to man, and the designers behind rounded phones like the G Flex clearly know it. No matter how much force you apply to a face down G Flex, it will not break. Okay, someone out there can probably elbow drop it with enough velocity to cause some damage, but that person should be dropkicked for purposely breaking a $1,000 phone.

Perhaps the most attractive aspect of flexible screens is their potential. Imagine smartwatches that are little more than a connected display that wraps around your wrist, or a computing device that can be spread out over a conference table and then folded up to fit inside a purse or briefcase. Someday, there could even be screens that roll up and stow away like a yoga mat. There are plenty of possibilities, and they all start with the flexible smartphone.

The future is near

These are not fantasies. According to a report in The Wall Street Journal, Samsung has filed patents for a tablet computer that folds in half. The publication also quotes the senior VP at LG as saying, “curved [displays] are a preliminary step toward the [full] realization of flexible displays.” The key to these LG innovations is “plastic substrates,” a material that could effectively be viewed as a semiconductor per pixel.

As bendy screens start getting rolled out by more and more manufacturers, new forms of gaming, reading, displaying information and interacting with data will follow suit. On a big enough surface, you may even be able to do all of those things at once. Smartwatches, wearables and pocket-sized devices that literally fold out to become the size of a television set are all in development.

Industry leaders are moving closer to this vision. Last summer, Samsung filed a patent for a screen with a rounded edge designed to offer new modes for displaying, sorting, receiving and interacting with various forms of visual information.

Samsung flexible screen patent

At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, Samsung debuted its “Youm” flexible screen technology, showcasing a smartphone where the screen wrapped around all sides of the device. This enables select information, like texts or incoming calls, to be displayed along a single edge of the screen while you do something else on the device, like watch a movie or play a game.

Samsung and LG appear to be in the lead on flexible screen development, but they aren’t the only players. In 2011, Apple filed a patent for a flexible wraparound display “configured to present visual content at any portion of the transparent housing.” According to the patent application, which was only made public this year:

It is believed that, up until now, glass materials have never been used as a structural element providing substantially all of the structural frames, walls and main body of a consumer electronic device, and more particularly an enclosure of a portable electronic device, such as a media player or mobile phone.

As Engadget notes, an iPhone that is essentially all display may already be in development. Such a device could include a “detection mechanism, such as a camera and facial recognition software, which would determine how much of the screen you can see, so that power is only sent to the parts that are in view.”

An iPhone that is all display

App developers prepare for the next smartphone revolution

Since the arrival of the iPhone, most smartphones have looked and operated essentially just like their competitors (full touch screen, display size between about 3.5 and 6 inches, an app-centric user interface, etc.). Flexible screens could change all that. The next great computing revolution is almost certain to take place at the display level.

Our mobile devices are used for a variety of functions and each of these will have to be optimized for flexible screens. If you’re a developer who’s still waiting to see if curved phones are going to take off before brainstorming your first app, you’re already behind. Everyone from game engineers to business software designers are experimenting with ways to get the most use out of these uniquely shaped displays.

With flexible screens, apps are no longer limited to smartphones, tablets and PCs. The potential for information delivery, new modes of data presentation and game play all become radically expanded. The demand for creativity is exciting for both ambitious developers and the users who can’t wait to see what they create.