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Roll Up Screens: Foldable Phones Have Finally Arrived

What do hippie scientists have to do with foldable phones and roll up displays? Good question…

Electric flexible displays go back to the 60s and 70s when hot pants and bell bottoms were suitable for work. Televisions took up half the room and a mobile phone had the same dimensions and weight as a breeze block (costing as much as VW Polo). 

The 60s brought us the Etch-a-Sketch, a fun little drawing toy. In a nutshell, it works through the use of aluminium powder which sticks to its glass screen due to an electrostatic charge. Oddly enough, the manufacturer replaced the glass screen, deemed dangerous for children, for a plastic screen. Now they even make an Etch-a-Sketch with an LCD display.

The E-Ink Revolution

In 1974, Xerox PARC demonstrated the first concept of E-ink with an E-Paper called Gyricon. A black and white, flexible display with huge pixels, it could be written on and erased thousands of times.

This was the start of a new idea for display technology. Xerox discovered that you can make digital pictures with oil-filled monochromatic beads. One side of each bead is white, one side black, controlled by electrostatic contacts. Far ahead of its time, the flexible screen was the only flexible thing about it. 

It wasn’t until the start of the new millennium that car manufacturers started to beat down the sharp corners of their cars, and design vehicles that had a curvy, fluid feel to them. Electronics devices followed suit.

The First Macintosh

The first Apple Macintosh was a hideous box, as with all computers, until the introduction of iMac G3 at the end of the 90s. The end of 2000 was a wake up call to get with the times; after all, nothing in nature is square. Manufacturers saw Apple hit the jackpot, having discovered consumers were more than happy to pay more for something that looked more organic and aesthetically pleasing. It also made little difference to the cost of manufacturing, so why not?

It would take 30 years to reignite interest in E-ink. Sony came out with the first E-Reader. The E-Reader was a tight piece of kit, boxy, but at least is was covered in chrome and aluminium. You could read an e-book on the monochromatic screen even while listening to Mp3s. Amazon later adopted the tech for its Kindle device.

FOLED & Foldable Phone Screens

The biggest leap forward this millennium is the development of Flexible Organic Light Emitting Diode. FOLEDs were intended for use in the first foldable phones back in 2008 with the Nokia ‘Morph’. The Nokia wrist phone also showed promise with great styling, but never went into full production. 

In 2013, Samsung showed off their YOUM concept, a phone that looked nothing like the battery pack with a floppy screen that they ended up showing at CES. People were becoming fed up with the years of pre-hype, believing that a rollable phone would never hit the market.

Snapable Phone Screens

It is an understatement to say that there were slight issues with the soft release of the first folding phones. Companies making rival products to the Samsung Galaxy Fold wanted to see how tech reviewers would treat it before launching their products. Consumers were plopping down huge sums of money for phones that snapped a few days after buying them.

Although there have been some hiccups, foldable phones and devices will change everything. In a world that is now so dependent on media having even more convenience will be a game changer. Devices can go back to getting smaller again. The tablets people now carry in their bags will be easy to pop into their pockets. The most recent developments even show promise for foldable computers with Lenova debuting the first foldable PC.

pOLED

The pOLED uses a plastic, instead of a glass, sandwich for the OLEDs, so the panel can be less than half as thick as the more conventional Glass flexible screens popular with Samsung. LG is a forerunner of pOLED tech and has signed up to supply Mercedes Benz with the Flexible display technology. The manufacturer also has a long-running relationship with Volkswagen and Toyota, so you can expect to see those screens installed in future concept cars.

Samsung has said that they will be working with BMW on an FOLED-based cockpit. Wind mirrors are being replaced with a camera and internal FOLED monitors mounted to the door. Instrument displays and passenger side information will be laid out on a single screen spanning the entire dashboard.

Rollable Phones & Foldable Televisions

The current folding designs are very uninspiring, merely two phones stuck together. This will change fast. LG has demonstrated its rollable signature OLED 55” TV that will start from $2,500 up to a 77” for $13,500 (same as a VW Polo).

In the same way, mobile phones and LCD TV’s were pricey at the start. Popularity and improved manufacturing will make them better, cheaper and ultimately, more accessible to the general public. 

This year Nubia showed off their bracelet concept phone. This is a flexible phone, like LG’s, that has been in development since 2009. This Design may actually improve reliability, since the phone only needs to be slightly bent around the wrist.

Lenovo, owner of Motorola, has demonstrated its expertise in flexible screens with their own bracelet phone, and would seem intent on using Motorola’s Razr brand to reintroduce a folding clam shell phone.

This approach makes the most sense. Developers should make a phone as small and convenient as possible. Samsung did back in 2006, when introducing the OLED for the first time its mobile phone, the Ultra Slim X820. It was simple and it had a great screen.

Graphene Tech

In 1859, British chemist B C Brodie discovered a form of Graphene after he noticed paper-like foils in his experiments. These “folds” ended up being several layers of Graphene.

A long time passed and then in 1962 Hans Boehm achieved the first observation of Graphene. Another development in graphene happened in 2004 when Andre Geim won a Noble prize for his production techniques of Graphene.

Graphene, as a material, is a 2-dimentional crystalline carbon structure, essentially, a hexagonal sheet 1-atom thick. Samples of Graphene have been made by applying sticky tape to a pencil-graphite-mark to separate the loose layers until all that is left is this 2-D superconductive lattice. Now, billions of dollars and tens of major industry leaders have been trying to cash in on this potentially lucrative market.

Currently, Graphene is a material looking for a home. We know that it has the potential to make the perfect battery. Electronic components using Graphene’s superconducting capabilities would use very little power. The sheer strength of the material – up to 200 times the strength of steel – would make it perfect for the kind of abuse a mobile phone goes through in the course of its life (or a couple of weeks with a tech reviewer).

Graphene Screens

Samsung has been trying to roll out (no pun intended) the foldable screen for a decade. Rollable screens may have come a bit closer with the advancement in Graphene Tech. The design based on the Etch-a-sketch and E-ink principle only produces a monochromatic image, but still, it is an amazing leap forward. In the past, new technologies have taken decades to reach the consumer. This time around, the technology and appetite for such a screen have meant that money is available for real research. 

An entire screen made of Graphene would be an ideal solution. It uses little power and it is extraordinarily strong. If you had to put money on it, an updated version of E-ink is the way to go. If the device is playing a static picture it uses no power. Think of the cost savings and efficiency. A screen made from this material would be fast, durable and a static image will not require constant power.

Wrapping It All Up

Even with the bumpy start of the Samsung Galaxy Fold and high price tag of the Huawei Mate X, manufacturers have shown that fold-able screens work. That said, they are not particularly reliable (yet) and the designs leave something to be desired. Motorola has a nice premise with the Razr foldable screen, but it would seem the pOLED screens just cannot cope with repetitive, small radius bending.

Perhaps the current designs are a little ambitious and it would be better to have a screen partially bent around a wrist (as with Lenovo’s design). Until Graphene screens hit production, it would seem likely that pOLEDs are going to be limited to rollable screens and curving dashboards.

1 thought on “Roll Up Screens: Foldable Phones Have Finally Arrived”

  1. Nice article I’m looking forward to the next wave of foldables would be great to have a tablet that fits in my pocket there would be extra space after paying for it with my wallet being empty I suspect.

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