By Stephen Schenck | October 2, 2013 7:05 AM
It’s actually happening. No more rumors, no more speculation, no more prognostication from industry analysts: next month, Samsung is introducing a smartphone with a curved display.
We’ve been talking about the sort of flexible OLED screens that lend themselves to such uses for literally years now, and while every so often there’s been the rumor that an OEM (usually Samsung) could be nearly ready to debut the tech in whatever its next flagship is, this time the news comes straight from the source, with Samsung’s mobile business head of strategic marketing D.J. Lee confirming the company’s plans to reporters.
I know a lot of you don’t quite see the point of displays like this, don’t understand why we’re so eager to see them enter production, nor appreciate just what a big step this is. Hopefully, I can do a little something to turn around your thinking on the matter, because this is the start of something big, and you’re going to want to be paying attention.
For starters, what good is a curved display? Isn’t “flat” the ideal form factor for a screen? We’re certainly used to them, sure, and flat panels are both easy to manufacture as well as build into devices, but that’s where the benefits stop.
Really, what you want is a screen where all portions of it are equidistant from your eyes. You can visualize the curvature of such an ideal screen as being a section of a virtual sphere, with your eyes at the center. You might have noticed something along these lines at a movie theater, where the screen has a slight curve to it – in that case, relative to the position of the projector. My point here is that we’re not talking about anything stupid like a phone in the exaggerated shape of a C – this is going to be a gentle curve, at best.
Besides being a more ideal screen shape, a modestly curved screen also overcomes a huge problem I have with slate-style smartphones: they’re absolute rubbish for talking. Face it: the human head is not a squared-off box, and a straight line between earpiece and microphone is not an ideal arrangement for phone components. That’s why I still make a lot of my voice calls on an old flip phone, which opens at a lovely 25 degrees. I’m not sure Samsung’s phone will be nearly so curved, but it’s bound to be more pleasant to talk into than flat smartphones.
So, sorry nay-sayers, but even a non-flexible curved display on a smartphone is going to be cool. Oh, but a curved phone will wobble around when placed on a flat surface? So friggin’ what? It will rock back and forth once or twice – and stop. It’s not going to work its way off your desk unless you’re being careless, nor pose any distraction. And when you do go to pick it up, raised edges will make it ever so slightly easier to grip. It’s a win, is what I’m saying.
But that’s just getting started. The crazy sci-fi stuff is yet to come, but you had better believe it – the fact that we’re finally getting started with this tech means that those fully bendable phones are a matter of when, not if. And sure, phones very much require non-flexible components to work, but that’s far from a red flag. Instead, we’re likely to see internal phone layout fundamentally change – not so many chips on one monolithic circuit board, and instead a careful distribution of those unchangeably rigid components throughout a handset, keeping the overall design pliable.
I don’t want to get ahead of myself here – the most impressive stuff is likely still a long way off – but just as this Samsung phone will be the first step, we’ll be seeing a lot of future models push things further and further in their own ways. Probably the next step after this permanently curved design will be something like Nokia was showing off a couple years back – a phone that looks very much like a regular slate design, but with a bit of “give.”
You couldn’t exactly fold that Nokia model in two, but it flexed enough to allow bend interactions to be interpreted as input: bow the screen in or out a little bit to control zoom, rather than covering up the image while doing a pinch gesture. That kind of design could also lend itself to ruggedized uses, where the absence of glass helps take away one of the most fragile components of modern phones.
And eventually, yeah, we might get to a smartphone that looks like two pens stuck together, and when you pull them apart, a screen unfurls like a scroll. There are a million manufacturing challenges to overcome before we get there, but it’s no fever dream – such tech is well within the realm of possibility, and phones like Samsung’s next month are going to pave the road that takes us there.