Flexible displays: Beyond the hype


QDOTS imagesCAKXSY1K 8+Plastic Electronics magazine editor Dan Rogers will present at the upcoming printed and organic electronics industry event LOPE-C on the reality of flexible displays. +Plastic Electronics looks behind the hype about bendy phones

Samsung's flexible display concepts have been around for some time, but encased in glass Samsung are gearing up to produce flexible, unbreakable mobile phone screens that can be bent, twisted and even folded up and put in your wallet. The South Korean tech giant reportedly has the flexible screens in the final stage of development and will be ready to ship them next year.’ Daily Mail, December 2012

Headlines about bendable phones and flexible displays have been in plentiful supply in 2012-13, as OLED developers Samsung and LG have duelled for the leading position in next-generation consumer electronics screens.

Announcements about bullish plans to launch products based on flexible OLEDs have attracted interest not only from the plastic electronics industry, but have generated excitement in the mainstream and among consumers too.

The concept of folding or rolling up a smartphone and putting it in your pocket, or wrapping the whole thing around your wrist, may seem futuristic – or far-fetched, depending on your outlook. Yet media reports are not averse to predicting such devices being in the pockets or on the wrists of consumers as soon as later this year.

These reports seem to have lost sight of the detail. Samsung and LG are indeed planning to launch new and improved OLEDs in the near-term. And some upcoming innovations in flexible displays will indeed change the face of consumer electronics. But the changes in the coming years will be steps – albeit significant ones – on the road to fully flexible devices.

Announcements

Samsung’s plans for its ‘Youm’ flexible OLED technology, announced in 2012, were to put the technology into phones later that year.

Flexible displays are in development, such as this one from the ASU, but are not near to full commercialisationThe jump from a stated plan to implement Youm, to assuming that bendy phones would appear on shelves in 2012, was made by a number of media outlets (including UK newspaper the Daily Mail – see quote above). In the end, neither was true. In November 2012, a Samsung official exclusively informed +Plastic Electronics that the manufacturing process was not yet ready. In April 2013 the company added that issues with the encapsulation technology (essentially, the flexible alternative to a rigid glass protective cover) were causing delays.

In reality it is likely that Samsung will, at best, launch a smartphone that forgoes the need for a glass cover to protect the screen. Like Youm, the plastic OLED will offer a lightweight and robust alternative to the rigid, glass-based displays that are prone to cracking – as anyone who has dropped an expensive new smartphone or tablet will know only too well.

LG has also attracted plenty of headlines for its announced intentions to launch a phone using a flexible OLED in 2013. However what LG showed at the recent Society for Information Display event in the US was a plastic display that still needs to be encased in glass.

Future

While it may offer marginal weight savings, it is hardly the fundamental change people may be expecting.

Plastic Logic is one company producing flexible displays today, using E Paper,There are options for industries wanting to enjoy the benefits or functional, bendable and shatterproof displays today. UK start-up Plastic Logic produces flexible transistors that can drive a flexible display – at the moment using e-paper (which is compatible in terms of flexibility). E Ink has also released a flexible e-paper display, called Mobius. Flexible e-paper would be a functional choice for everything from displays in smart bank cards to digital signage.

And certainly, there are lots of promising signs regarding the development of flexible displays. The encapsulation technology needed to take OLEDs out of their rigid glass covers is progressing. Once these can be introduced to manufacturing, high-end smartphone makers will boast of the benefits of a lightweight handset and shatterproof screen.

Will the glass-free OLEDs on the horizon graduate to screens wrapped round the corners of a device? And, eventually, a phone you fold up and put in your pocket? That depends not just on technology development but also on whether consumers truly want the ‘bendable phone’ that many media sources excitedly report. Just don’t expect to get one for Christmas 2013.

Dan Rogers, managing editor of +Plastic Electronics magazine, will speak further on the topic of flexible displays at LOPE-C on 11-13 June in Munich, Germany.

Are Legal Battles Ahead for Samsung & LG and Will That Give the Edge to Apple in OLED’s?


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Apple Flexible OLED

The reports from the industry already have suggested that Apple with indeed be the first to commercially release a product featuring flexible OLED displays, and although they are certainly not without their own legal disputes with various electronics manufacturers, could this be their window of opportunity to get in first?

Before assuming these reports are accurate – there are suggestions that reports aren’t entirely telling the whole truth about this “raid”.

A spokeswoman from Samsung, Jun Eun Sun is quoted as saying “We have no reason to steal other companies’ technology, as we have the world’s best OLED technology.” LG itself has said that it didn’t report anything to police in connection with the investigation with their spokesman, Son Young Jun saying “The latest investigation is related to large-sized OLED TV panel technology, but the police have made the allegation themselves.”

Of course legal battles alone most certainly do not halt the research, development & production of such technology, and has indeed been the cause of disputes between the companies historically, but it may just be enough to allow Apple the edge. Recently they posted a job advert for a “Display Specialist to lead the investigation on emerging display technologies such as high optical efficiency LCD, AMOLED and flexible display to improve overall display optical performance.”

Flexible being the operative word here, and coupled with their patent for a new shaped iPhone with a “wraparound” display, suggest they are not just on the heels of the two South Korean giants, but firmly in the same race. Indeed they have been for some time – the public release of the Apple patent belies its date of inception – September 2011, way before Samsung’s Brian Berkeley demonstrated and announced their new flexible display. For the record, Apple pulled the job advert fairly quickly, but not before it was noticed by the tech media.

Let’s not also forget that LG are going full-steam ahead to be first to market, with plans to release their first AMOLED flexible display device in the second half of 2013. With all this cloak-and-dagger reports it really would take a company insider to tell the world the reality of what’s going on behind the scenes in the world of flexible OLED tech, and oledflexible.net never like to jump the gun on announcements, but the volume of reports coming out of Asia on a daily basis can only mean that something reasonably big will be announced soon. The burning question is – which company will be the one to make the announcement first, and which product will have the most appeal to the public?