Start talking about flexible displays, and what they could mean for smartphones, and the imagination quickly jumps to some pretty extreme examples: what about something like a flip phone, but that unfolds to expose one large, seamless screen? Maybe that's a future we'll see one day, but flexible screen technology in consumer electronics is about to start getting very real, very soon, only it will most likely arrive in designs that are just a bit more low-key. If we're not talking about super-durable screens we can fold like they're made of paper, what's the big deal, then?
Out With The Glass, In With The Flex
Let's look at where the technology is now. Samsung, for one, has its YOUM design, which replaces the glass sheets used in traditional OLED screens with a flexible polymer. We might even see displays based on this process arrive in consumer devices later this year, if some of the rumors we've been hearing play out.
Doing away with that glass has some immediate benefits: a lighter, thinner display that's less prone to cracking during rough handling. We get all of that without even talking about bending the screen. That's important, because even when there's the potential to make flexible displays when constructed in this manner, there's a lot more engineering that needs to take place before they become durable enough.
Of COURSE There's A Catch
After all, it's not just glass that can break; there are millions of tiny circuit paths coursing through displays that need to stay intact to deliver signals to the diodes themselves. These connections can fatigue when bent and re-bent, or simply break, creating dead pixels. We've seen demonstration units at trade shows that seem to do quite well at avoiding this issue, but holding up to a few days of demos is nothing compared to surviving the day-in, day-out abuse our smartphone see over the months or years we use them.
If really durable flexible displays are still a tricky proposition, then are we left with nothing more than slightly thinner, less shatter-prone screens? Well, just because durability can be an issue doesn't mean that we can't take advantage of this flexibility in other ways.
Curved Screens, Done Right
When the Nexus S came out, Samsung made a big deal about its "Contour Display", slightly curved for ergonomics. Well, that's the way it might have looked on the outside, at least, but a tear-down revealed the component to be little more than a flat display panel adhered to a curved sheet of glass: that's just added space and weight. Using OLED screens made with these polymer sheets, we could have full-on, properly curved displays.
Obviously, we wouldn't want models with some overly-exaggerated screen curvature, but even a gradual bend could free-up a few extra fractions of a millimeter at the top and bottom of a phone, exactly where big components like camera sensors often desperately need just a little more room.
That's not nearly as impressive as a phone with a screen that rolls up like a scroll (oh yeah, they're working on those, too), but it still marks an important step forward in display evolution, and will give phone designers some new freedom in what sort of layouts they could come out with next.