mi-300-paperphone-queens

For now, the PaperPhone does have some non-flexible parts such as chips and a battery that are mostly enclosed in a rigid handle on the left side. (Human Media Lab/Queen's University)

A plastic smartphone as thin and flexible as a laminated sheet of paper has been invented by researchers from Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

The user doesn't rely on a touch screen or buttons to make calls, play music, zoom in to maps or flip through e-books on the prototype phone. Instead, the phone can be bent in different ways — such as dog-earing a corner to bookmark a page or flipping the corner the other way to turn to the next page.

Roel Vertegaal, director of the Human Media Lab at Queen's University, first came up with the idea of using such "bend gestures" as new way of interacting with computers. He envisioned a device that would feel and behave like a sheet of interactive paper, so he named it the PaperPhone.

"The point was to show what the phone of the future will look like," he said.

Vertegaal will be demonstrating the prototype — and the bend gestures used to control it — at the Computing Machinery's Computer Human Interaction conference in Vancouver May 10.

In the past four years, a number of companies have unveiled thin, bendable full-colour video displays, including Sony, HP and Plastic Logic.

However, Vertegaal bills his as the first "interactive paper" computer.

Upcoming interview

Roel Vertegaal talks to Quirks & Quarks on May 14 at noon on CBC Radio One.

Vertegaal said the bend gestures have advantages over touch screens because you can feel the device changing shape as you bend it: "You can do this while driving."

The phone has a flexible black-and-white display that measures 9.5 centimetres across the diagonal and based on engineering by E Ink Corp., making it similar to screens found on e-readers like the Kindle.

Other aspects of design and engineering, such as the incorporation of sensors that detect bending, were handled largely by students at Queen's University and Arizona State University.

Sensing its shape

The team is also working on devices that can automatically switch to different modes depending on what shape they're in. For example, they have developed a wearable computer that bends to wrap around a user's wrist.

It can also be removed so the user can write on it with a stylus.

"It knows what shape it's it. It knows it's no longer on your arm," Vertegaal said. "Now you're using it as a notepad, so it changes its functionality to be a notepad."

Vertegaal sees lots of possibility in devices that can automatically switch modes and functions depending on their shape.

"I think there's a whole design space out there that's been completely not explored."

For now, the device does have some non-flexible parts such as chips and a battery that are mostly enclosed by a rigid handle on the left side, but Vertegaal says most of the technology now exists to make a completely flexible device possible.

Next, they hope to work on similar smartphones and tablets that can display full-colour video, and multiple displays that can interact with each other.

He expects consumer devices similar to the PaperPhone to hit the market in five to 10 years, but said he personally is not working on developing a consumer version.