Bendable phones 'right around the corner,' says Samsung exec

Imagine a tablet computer you could roll up like a newspaper. Or a paper-thin smartphone you could fold in half. As CBC Radio technology columnist Dan Misener explains, tech companies are working on exactly these types of devices — and they might hit the market as soon as next year.

Flexible phones would be more durable, allow for new ways to use mobile devices

A prototype 'PaperPhone,' displayed by Queen's University in 2011. While flexible screens have been in the works for years, a Samsung executive recently said bendable phones are 'right around the corner' for consumers. (Human Media Lab/Queen's University)

Imagine a tablet computer you could roll up like a newspaper. Or a paper-thin smartphone you could fold in half and stuff in your pocket.

As CBC Radio technology columnist Dan Misener explains, tech companies are working on exactly these types of devices — and they might hit the market as soon as next year.

What's the latest news in bendable screens?

The latest news is from Samsung, a company that ships hundreds of millions of smartphones every year. 

At a recent conference, Gregory Lee, the president and CEO of Samsung in North America, said that bendable smartphone screens are "relatively right around the corner."

This comes on the heels of a tech demo they held in May in San Francisco, featuring a flexible display that's almost as thin as a sheet of paper and rolls up like a scroll.

This Sony display, shown in a 2007 photo, is only 0.3 millimetres thick and can bend like paper while showing full-color video. There are still some technical hurdles to overcome before bendable devices hit the market, says one expert. (Sony Corp./ Associated Press)
This type of bendable, flexible screen technology has been around for a number of years. 

But so far, it's only existed in labs. There have been tech demos, and prototypes, but the screens haven't been available as a consumer technology yet, partly because of the cost of manufacturing.

But now, based on what Samsung is saying and based on what we're seeing other companies working on, it looks like we may see this technology finally come to market in the next year or so.

And that could have a big impact on the types of devices we carry around day-to-day.

Why would I want a bendable screen?

Beyond the cool factor, Queen's University professor Roel Vertegaal — who's a Canadian pioneer in this field — said durability is a major benefit.

"One of the big advantages of these flexible phones is that a) they're very lightweight and b) they're made out of plastic, so there's no glass cover," he said. 

"So when you throw them on the floor, they're basically going to fall down like a piece of paper, and you just pick it up and use it again."

Roel also said flexible displays enable new ways of interacting with a device. Rather than simply tapping, swiping, and pinching across a piece of glass, you can actually control a phone by bending it, which allows users to be more expressive when they use a device. For example, bending a phone while reading a book might let you "flip" the pages.

Who's working on this technology?

Besides Samsung, the smartphone manufacturer Lenovo also very recently showed off two concept devices. They're prototypes that use flexible displays.

The first one was a smartphone that can wrap around your wrist. If you remember those slap bracelets that were all the rage in the 1980s,  it's kind of like that.

The other concept device Lenovo demonstrated was a tablet, about the size of an iPad, that could fold in half, down to the size of a smartphone.

Lenovo showed off its bendable tablet and smartphone at its June 2016 Tech World conference. (Peter Hortensius/Twitter)
What's interesting about both of these examples is that they use bendable display technology to blur the lines between existing device categories. Is the bracelet phone a smartphone? Or a wearable? Or both?

Same thing with the larger foldable tablet. It's a full-sized tablet, but it converts into a standard-sized smartphone that fits in your pocket.

I think that if this type of flexible display becomes mainstream, we'll continue to see these types of hybrid devices that straddle the line between existing categories.

What are the technical hurdles to bendable devices?

Roel Vertegaal has been working on these types of flexible, bendable, foldable screens for years. And he said while the screens themselves can be made flexible, there are other parts of a smartphone that still aren't very bendy.

"The circuit boards that run the actual operating system are not flexible. The batteries can be, but the circuit boards are not. So what that means is that for flexible phone form factors, if you put that out on the market right now, there will likely have to be some rigid part to it."

Of course, there are other factors, too — like cost. Vertegall said the goal is to produce thin, flexible screens as inexpensively as we produce paper. But we're not there yet.

When could see bendable screens for sale?

Samsung's "right around the corner" is a pretty ambiguous timeframe. But the company is widely rumoured to be working on a phone called the Galaxy X, which may include a flexible OLED (organic light-emitting diode) display.

Vertegaal said he expects to see foldable phones released in 2017, and fully bendable, flexible displays a few years after that.

The big question, of course, is whether consumers really want flexible displays on their devices. Whether this type of bendy screen actually solves real-world problems, or offers any compelling benefit over the stiff glass and plastic versions we already have, remains to be seen.

Though I have to say, as someone who's had a number of close-calls when dropping my phone, the idea of a screen that's shatter-resistant is pretty appealing to me.


Dan Misener

CBC Radio technology columnist

Dan Misener is a technology journalist for CBC radio and Find him on Twitter @misener.