2013 is the year of the bendy smartphone

This year promises to bring flexible screens to smartphones, and you won’t be able to resist their bendy ways

Flexible screens – the Taiwanese connection

We’re sitting in a small room above a factory in Taoyuan Hsien, a satellite town about an hour’s drive from the centre of Taiwan’s capital city, Taipei. On the table is a strip of plastic. It doesn’t look like much. In Blue Peter’s heyday, it might have been attached to the side of a washing-up liquid bottle with some double-sided sticky tape to make a toy robot. But it’s actually the gateway to a much more realistic vision of the future: flexible smartphones. It’s anisotropic conductive film – and a technological revolution waiting to happen.

Flexible screens – Nokia Morph

The idea of making a flexible smartphone (or a flexible tablet, monitor or TV) isn’t new. In 2008, Nokia – a company still bullish about its prospects in the mobile phone game – prepared a concept called the Morph. Using a three-dimensional mesh of fibril proteins (based on the physics of a spider’s gossamer silk), it promised a future of mutable form factors that could be worn on the wrist or clipped to a pocket.

Flexible screens – who’s making them?

In 2011, the Finns came up with a working prototype called Nokia Kinetic, but there was little evidence the device would ever make an appearance outside an R&D lab or trade show. More progress has been made with E Ink technology, where an image can be maintained without power, but despite Philips trotting out a couple of prototypes, the limitations of this kind of display mean that while you can buy your daily paper at breakfast time and keep it for the day, it won’t update itself in the interim. Old-fashioned isn’t the word.

Next big thing – AMOLED flexible displays

The real future – the future that’s coming in 2013, according to industry soothsayers – is flexible AMOLED touchscreens that can turn smartphones and tablets into the shape-shifting gadget panacea we’ve been waiting for. But it’s baby steps for now. Although Lee Chang-hoon, Samsung’s divisional VP for displays told the Wall Street Journal the company is creating test samples for customers, his boss JK Shin says “there’s a long way to go before flexible display technology matures.”

Flexible displays – now and the future

In fact, what we’re likely to see in early 2013 are robust plastic displays that’ll take a bit more handling to break than the current crop of relatively fragile glass-fronted smartphones. But that doesn’t mean the flexible display future envisioned by sci-fi writers and Hollywood futurists won’t happen. The revolution may, it seems, be televised on a foldaway screen.

Flexible screens – back in Taiwan

“Flexible displays will be coming to the market maybe in a year or two,” he tells us. “Sasmsung and LG are devoting a lot of resources to flexible displays. I think Samsung has a good chance of being first to market. From what I hear, it is devoted to that concept.” And it doesn’t stop at smartphones and ereaders. Todd thinks flexible photovoltaics (solar panels), RFID shop tags and biometric medical bracelets will be commonplace.

2013 – year of the bendy screen

Okay, we’re unlikely to remember 2013 as the year bendy screens really changed our lives, but we’ll see the seeds of our flexible future sown so we can prepare ourselves to reap the rewards in 2014 and 2015. And that’s excitement enough for us.

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