+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 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.
Samsung’s plans for its ‘Youm’ flexible OLED technology, announced in 2012, were to put the technology into phones later that year.
The 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.
While it may offer marginal weight savings, it is hardly the fundamental change people may be expecting.
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.