AH Primetime: Are Flexible Displays the Future of Tech?

Samsung announced the Galaxy Round about four weeks ago in South Korea. It was the world's first smartphone with a curved display. Not only is the display curved, but it is also flexible. LG followed shortly after that by announcing the G Flex. Both of these devices are major steps forward for the smartphone industry and for the tech industry in general. We've been using flat panel displays on our phones for a long time. Curved, flexible display panels could change not only how we interact with our devices, but also how we wear them. Smartwatches, wristbands, even rings are possible with touchscreen surfaces now that OEMs have flexible technology.

We've seen some version of curved displays before in devices like the Nexus S. The Nexus S had something called a "Contour Display" that was supposed to make it more comfortable when talking with the phone held up to your head. The Galaxy Nexus had this same contoured design. Those Nexus devices are different from the G Flex and Galaxy Round, though. The glass on the Nexus S and GNex is slightly curved but the display itself isn't flexible. The AMOLED panel in both of those phones is still flat.

Samsung showed off a prototype Flexible display called "Youm" at CES 2013 back in January. The Youm prototype had a curve on the right side where it could display content like emails and text messages. When Samsung unveiled the Galaxy Round, they took a slightly different approach to what we saw at CES. The Round has a roll feature where you can check the date, time, and notifications like missed calls by slightly rolling the phone towards one edge or the other. The screen will light up and show you a preview of battery status or unread emails, whatever notifications you have it set to display. This feature is the same as the Quick Glance feature built into other Galaxy smartphones. Quick Glance is activated by waving your hand over the proximity sensor on your Galaxy device. The rolling feature uses the accelerometer on the Galaxy Round instead.

 

There are some distinct advantages to having flexible, curved displays on our smartphones and tablets. Flexible displays can be made much thinner than current devices because the flexible display panels available now are only 0.4mm thin. Flexible displays don't require a layer of glass on top of that digitizer either, so smartphones won't weigh as much. In place of glass, a plastic substrate is used. This makes devices more durable. There's also less glare because the plastic doesn't reflect light as much as glass does. Seeing our displays when we are outside will be much improved.

Manufacturing devices like the Galaxy Round and G Flex require more complex production methods, which adds cost to the process. Samsung and LG are not likely to produce millions of units of these smartphones, like they do with their other flagship phones. The Galaxy Round won't even be sold outside of South Korea. LG is bringing the G Flex to the U.S. and other markets. Even so, both of these phones will be used more to test the current smartphone market and see how consumers react. The form factors of these two phones can have some value, but consumers might be hesitant to purchase them because it's different than what they're used to seeing in smartphones.

Samsung also showed us 2 concept videos at CES earlier this year, demoing two devices that could make use of flexible displays. The first device was a small tablet that could be folded. Once closed, it became a smartphone. The second concept device was about the size of a pen case, with a slide out display. Both concepts could be released as consumer products, but for we haven't heard anything about them since CES.

The challenges in releasing devices like these are multi-faceted. Manufacturing is much more complex and costly, and marketing would have to be ramped up to support the new ideas. Consumers can be fickle about new form factors for tried-and-true devices. Battery life may also be a challenge because there could be more screen real estate to support, and less space inside the device for the battery. We may be looking at the beginning of the flexible display resolution, but batteries are not flexible yet.

Other companies will begin getting in on flexible display technology as well. Several smartwatch concepts have surfaced that would need a flexible display in order to become reality. This is just the beginning of curved, flexible display technology. Will consumers grab hold of the concept and spend their money on devices like the Galaxy Round and LG G Flex? What do you think?

 

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About the Author

Jeremiah Nelson

Staff Writer / Podcast Host
Jeremiah Nelson has loved Android since the OG Moto DROID. He spends his free time listening to metal and flashing new ROMs.
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