Why it’s time to get pumped about flexible screens

Gadgets can be stubbornly rigid, but the days of cracked screens and chunky cases will soon be over: welcome to the flexi-tech revolution

Tablet and smartphone touchscreens might seem advanced, but displays have even further to go. While we’ve been stubbing our fingers on glass, scientists have been cooking up the tech needed to make ‘flex-to-zoom’ a reality, with the billions now being pumped into graphene research a major catalyst. But why would you need a fold-up iPad? And how long before we’re reading paper-thin digital rags on the train?

The reason today’s gadgets are annoyingly rigid? Their guts are mostly made using materials that don’t bend. At all. That’s why most have a sandwich-type structure, with front and back covers and rigid components between the two.

Bendable gadgets require totally new materials and manufacturing techniques – but as you’re about to see, such materials and techniques are at a more advanced stage than you might think. Make no mistake: flexi-tech is a question of “when” rather than “if” – but before we delve into the how, what about the why?

Folding is all well and good – but what’s the third stage?

The holy grail of flexible tablets is a fully rollable tablet whose every component bends to your will. But it requires further advances: the processors that currently drive your tablet are built on hard silicon wafers, so scientists are working out how to create processors from different materials. Or, more likely, remove the number-crunching circuits from their wafer-bound existence and place them on to rubbery, stretchable bases.

“Because of their thin dimensions, once they’re off that wafer, they’re inherently flexible,” explains materials scientist Professor John Rogers. The good news is that it’s possible; the bad news is that it’s likely to be 2020 before they’re fast enough to power a respectable device. It’s a similar tale for the rate of progress with memory, too. Batteries? They’re an even bigger problem because their capacity is dictated by volume: make them thin enough to be flexible and they barely hold any juice.

Instead, researchers believe devices will need more than one power source. “For that reason, we’re looking at wireless power,” concludes Rogers. That amounts to pumping energy into devices through the air via radio waves, relying on the science of magnets to harness power in the device.

The future is bright – and bendy

The future of tech is most certainly bent, and we’re already seeing the first signs of this pliability. Bendable screens are now a reality, but the inflexibility of gadget innards means those from the likes of Plastic Logic will initially act as secondary displays in the form of e-readers and watches. These will be quickly followed by folding, book-style tablets, which will use the OLED tech shown recently by Samsung Youm. But it’s the European Commission-powered acceleration of graphene that holds the key to true roll-up tablets. If all goes well, by the end of the decade we can expect it to produce wafer-thin, colour-display tablets that you’ll be able to pocket – if you can bring yourself to stop using them, that is.

Words by Jamie Condliffe