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Goodbye Boxy: Why Future Gadgets Will Be Curvy

In the natural world straight lines are a fairly rare thing. Yet we humans love imposing the hard angles on our constructions and, of course, our gizmos. In the near future this will change, our gadgets will all be curvaceous and sleek—here's why.

Boxiness used to make a lot of sense for machines, it's easy to manufacture objects in flat sheet-shapes and fasten them together into a 3D box-shaped object. Machining a boxy shape is easy, can require less material to manufacture, thus making the final item cheaper, or more profitable. The traditional PC case is a great example: design and manufacturing restrictions on the motherboard's shape and size point naturally to a flattish, squarish shape for the case it'll go in, with expansion slots, drive housings and power supplies all falling into the rectangular format. Sliding an expansion card into a flat-square laptop makes similar design sense: a simple box sliding into a simple slot in a larger box.

Sure gadget manufacturers throw in curved edges to the cases of their gizmos—slipping a smooth-curved cellphone into a pocket is easier and more comfy than for a hard-edged one, for example—but inside the circuitry and electronics generally form a box-shaped structure.

There are several reasons for this. Circuitry inside our devices has been generally cheaper to make flat and rectangular, and circuit boards are rigid. Hard drives with their spinning platters work well in rectangular boxes that are sturdy. Conventional batteries are cylindrical, but stacking them together forms a natural box-shape, and even lithium-based rechargeables inside gadgets are simplest to manufacture in flat box shapes. Display screens for our mp3 players and computers have also required sturdy flat shapes to function and resist damage, from CRTs right up to OLED panels.

But Samsung's flexible screen shown at CES points one way forward. It's a completely flexible display, and frees up designers from the straitjacket of rectangular-shaped screens. Scroll-shaped cellphones would be possible with this tech: you'd just have to unroll the screen.

Similar technical advances are being made with flexible circuitry—circuits and electronic components can now be mounted onto substrates such as polimide and PEEK film that are resilient and can flex without affecting the function of the circuit. There are even advantages to flex circuits over traditional solid ones: There's no need for complex wiring when the board itself can be bent to act as a connector. Simultaneously systems-on-a-chip architectures reduce the component count needed to make gadgets, enabling smaller, simpler circuit board designs. And wireless tech means two components of a gadget need not be colocated or wired up.

With its new 17-inch MacBook Pro last week Apple showed that by designing a lithium battery especially shaped to fit the machine's innards, there are significant battery life and weight improvements possible, versus a traditional box-shaped user-swappable battery. Meanwhile fuel cells, of course, can have even more unusual shapes.

And Sony, ever with its eye on the future of gadgetry, showed a suite of concept gadgets at CES that embrace the curvy, flexible, natural design meme. The concept notebook PC it demoed included a flexible OLED display and would be made from the particularly Star-Trek-sounding "flexible bio plastic," letting you flip it all the way open or close it like a book. The concept Walkman bracelet wraps all of the electronics of a PMP around your wrist: It's about 3cm across, designed to open and close around a wearer's arm without needing a clunky catch, and it's entire surface is touch-sensitive, accepting input contol gestures.

And that's actually why our gadgets will ultimately end up chock full of curves. Our bodies and environment are just curvy. And as the technology arrives, you can expect curves, bumps, and natural shapes to follow it into our gadget's designs: It's simply easier than shaping our bodies to deal with an artificially flat and boxy world.