Flexible technology from a number of firms (including beleaguered Nokia) is making a bit of a splash in the tech media at the moment, but unlike some of the more far-fetched technology concepts shown in future-predicting videos, bendy tech has a good chance of arriving in real products you can buy inside a year or so. The big question is if it'll be something of a fad, such as 3-D TV seems to be, or if it'll be a permanent and pervasive part of our future.
Nokia's attracting headlines with its upcoming Windows 7 smartphone—it's bold, it represents a great hope for both the Finnish firm and Microsoft, and it's differently designed in a world of very similar tablet-form devices. But Nokia's also showcased a future design this week that has everyone a-froth: The Kinetic. Disposing of the tried and tested rigid-body meme for portable devices, the Kinetic has a flexible body that demands you physically twist and push at it to interact with its menu systems.
The idea is not to replace the touchscreen, but to augment the ability to interact with your phone--for example, if it's in your pocket or you're trying to use gloved fingers on a touchscreen. There's also a degree of intuitive design here, because we relate to nearly every other object in our daily lives in a physical way, and some of the interactions that have been imagined for the current touchscreen man-machine interface are kludges of real-world gestures. Plus there's less risk of snapping, say, the double glass faces of your precious high-end smartphone by sitting on it while it's in your rear jeans pocket if it were flexible.
Nokia's tech uses a strong but flexible chassis and screen, and presumably if such a design ever came to market it would embrace bendy tech fully and incorporate flexible electronics, except for a few key components and battery systems too.
Samsung's Bendy Display
Early in 2011 Samsung showed a flexible OLED display prototype at CES. To the unaided eye, it would seem to perform pretty much exactly like a traditional rigid display. Now the Korean firm has said that in 2012 it's definitely targeting flexible display systems in 2012—and will actually incorporate it into smartphones at first, then tablet systems at some point later on.
This is a sign that Samsung has developed and optimized the technology, and researched use cases that have taught it there is a need to productize and market portable gadgets with this never-before-seen system as a part of their design. And considering how transformative a bendy screen is, it's likely to be a key part of the design.
E-paper has some characteristics that mean it's simpler to make it bendy compared to other display tech, and there have been numerous innovations...but AU Optronics from Taiwan has taken the technology and pushed it to its logical conclusion: The Unplugged Flexible E-Paper Display.
It's an e-reader, with an 800 by 600 pixel screen that is entirely bendy. But it also has a flexible photovoltaic battery built into its body, meaning it's effectively a free-standing light-powered device. The tiny battery is just 0.3mm thick, and 132 by 212mm on the side and can generate 1W of power from sunlight (although in its current form it doesn't have the efficiency for indoor lighting).
If a real e-text reader was made using an evolution of this technology it would have a number of benefits: Sporting the sunlight readability of e-ink, the positive "closer to ink" PR image the tech has earned from its implementation in devices like Amazon's Kindle, a flexible e-reader could be flipped onto a desktop like a regular book or newspaper, dropped into a bag or handily rolled up while you switch trains on the metro during a commute.
Fad Or Future?
We've seen display revolutions before, and we're right in the middle of one: 3-D. Tech companies and film studios are trying to push the technology on us from a huge array of angles, from 3-D HDTV to handheld gaming devices to, perhaps, future phone devices. Some of this technology is glasses-free, but most of it requires you to wear spectacles that create the stereo 3-D illusion in the eye of the beholder.
It's highly touted, and just as controversial...it's not proven if it helps boost sales of TVs (and recent maneuvers in the TV market suggest the opposite) and while Nintendo's made it a big part of its DS refresh, that's not necessarily helping promote the platform—it's not necessarily enough of a draw by itself for consumers.
Skeptics faced with news about bendy displays could be tempted to say it smacks of being another fad. By promoting devices with the line that they're "different" or "unique," firms like Samsung or Nokia could try to capture sales among a persuasible public. But you could argue that ultimately we'll settle back on rigid bodies and displays for most of our devices—just as 3-D isn't going to unseat 2-D TV as the norm yet—because they're familiar, reliable, solid and in some cases a rigid format is actually preferrable.
The thing is, we've all broken a screen or two on a smartphone, or we've all bashed the corner of an e-reader, laptop, or similar device by dropping it on an unforgiving surface. Flexible systems would survive such abuse where our solid gizmos wouldn't. And as in the case of a flexible e-newspaper reader, it's arguable that it's acutally better to have it emulate real paper more closely.
But flexible displays are here to stay despite all these arguments...just not in the most obvious format. The video of Samsung's system gives the game away really: Flexible screens will probably become part of our lives in a permanently, or perhaps semi-permanently, bent format because it means you can drape a display over a curved surface in ways you can't do for a rigid one. That means actual curved-screen smartphones that fit the sweep of a touching finger better, advertising displays that wrap around building columns, and so on.
[Image: Flickr user oskay]