On an episode of the alien invasion show V earlier this season, the V princess Lisa gives her human boyfriend Tyler a present—a metal tube with a scroll inside. Except what Tyler pulls out isn’t paper, but a rolled video screen.
Being able to bend or roll up a screen solves every portable gadget screen size problem: You wouldn’t need to decide whether you had enough room for your phone or tablet on your way out the door. You could just roll out as much display space as you needed.
Like many highly desired future technologies, the basics of flexible screens have been known for years. In February 2008, an offshoot company of Phillips called Polymer Vision debuted a prototype eReader called Readius, which had a diagonal rolling screen which used an electrophoretic front plane over an organic thin film transistor backplane. Even with its 5-inch screen, the Readius measured just 2.2 inches wide, 3.9 inches tall, and 0.8 inches deep and weighed just 4 ounces. It never went on sale, however.
Since then, LG has shown off a 19-inch flexible E Ink display for yet-to-be-determined devices, and at CES 2011 Samsung demonstrated a 4.5-inch, 800 x 480-pixel flexible AMOLED screen that curved rather than rolled. Neither company provided an actual timetable for rolling out these displays, which made the products just seem like some especially cool vaporware.
More practical work on bendable displays is being done at the Flexible Display Center at Arizona State University under Nicholas Colaneri, with funding from the U.S. Army. Considering all the armor and gear a modern soldier has to wear and carry in combat, a laptop with a light, flexible, and unbreakable screen is highly desirable.
Making a thin film for display, as LG and Samsung have demonstrated, isn’t the problem—it’s the “substrate,” what the liquid crystals are set on, which needs to be plastic, or thin stainless steel. We’re talking about creating a new class of flexible ancillary electronics, including transistors, power, and other circuitry.
For consumer applications, Colaneri expects larger screens before smaller ones simply because there’s more interest in compressing size. Expect to see flexible screens on portable gadgets—perhaps in the next three to five years.