Skinny-jeans-proof bendable smartphones remain in future


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Apple Inc. iPhone 6 smartphones stand on display during the sales launch of the latest Apple Inc. iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus devices. Apple Inc. iPhone 6 smartphones stand on display during the sales launch of the latest Apple Inc. iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus devices.
Apple Inc.’s new iPhone 6 Plus has embittered some early buyers because their expensive new gadgets may be damaged when carried in the pockets of their pants.
In what’s being referred to as Bendgate, some social-media users and media outlets have reported that the phone -- Apple’s largest, with a 5.5-inch screen -- can become bent if sat on or put under too much pressure. While Apple says the bending is “extremely rare,” and it has only received nine complaints, the phenomenon raises the questions: Why can’t phones be flexible, and how long before we get devices that more easily bend to a body’s curves?
The short answer: maybe not anytime soon, because of the technology underlying the screens. While new production techniques have helped increase their definition and size, the fundamental technology, liquid crystal display, is all about uniformity, and that requires them to be flat. LCD is built on brittle materials, and the crystals’ ability to represent images changes when viewed from different angles. Each cell also needs to be attached to a light source.
“Display is a big part of it,” said Vinita Jakhanwal, an analyst at market researcher IHS. “It’s primarily glass, and that doesn’t give itself to being flexible.” She also cited the enclosures and batteries of the phones as challenges to flexibility.
Even with new models from LG Electronics Co. (066570) and Samsung Electronics Co. that have curved screens, the important elements of the display have probably been built on a flat surface and then peeled off and attached to a curved surface. If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is -- and the process has resulted in a very slow rate of production or high failure rate, both of which are expensive.

OLED designs
The main tool that could enable more flexibility or curves is another technology, called organic light-emitting diode. OLED doesn’t require back-light illumination like LCD, allowing for much thinner, more energy-efficient and sharper displays.
OLED has been around for more than a decade and has appeared in phones from makers such as Samsung. (005930) The problem again is the difficulty and expense of making the screens, meaning that the technology hasn’t become as widespread as some projections.
Even when displays are made with the latest technology and production, there are limits to how far the screens can be twisted around without causing fundamental damage.
Before the advent of roll-up screens that science-fiction movies have shown us, developers need to come up with new ways of translating the data that the computer inside a phone wants to display. Companies are already moving on that, and once working concepts are shown off, innovation tends to gather momentum, Jakhanwal said.
Still, the industry is already getting closer to a phone that won’t snap if you leave it in your too-tight jeans. LG Electronics’ curved, flexible G Flex is one attempt to produce a handset you can sit on. Still, even that device’s pliancy has its boundaries.
“The flexibility of this product is limited,” the company’s website says. “Do not bend inward or twist.”

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