By Brian Albright, Field Technologies
Samsung may be on the verge of unveiling new foldable screen technology that would allow users to combine a tablet with a smartphone – and switch from one mode to the other by unfolding the smaller device to convert it into a larger tablet.
The company has investigated flexible designs for its devices for several years, including creating “artificial muscles” that can push/pull smartphone components into different positions to prevent damage.
According to a report in Bloomberg, the company is planning two new smartphone models that can bend or fold, including one with a 5-inch screen that could be opened into a tablet as large as 8 inches.
“This product could be a game-changer if Samsung successfully comes up with a user interface suitable for bendable screens,” said Lee Seung Woo, an analyst at IBK Securities Co. in Seoul. “Next year is a probable scenario. Their biggest obstacle was related to making transparent plastics and making them durable, which seems resolved by now.”
The bendable phone initiative is code named Project Valley, and the phones could be exhibited as soon as February.
Last year, Lenovo displayed a similar concept product that would allow users to wrap a smartphone around their wrist. Lenovo’s CPlus flexible smartphone/smartwatch and Folio foldable tablet/smartphone were made in partnership with another manufacturer (possibly Samsung or LG Electronics), and although described as prototypes they were close enough to a finished product that company allowed journalists to use them during a trade show.
In addition to folding, the user interface on the devices actually changed to fit the form factor as they got larger or smaller.
Moxi Group in China is also developing a flexible smartphone. The Moxi device could be rolled into a bracelet, and was set to sell for $765 per unit. The initial device was initially to be releaed with a black and white screen.
Flexible mobile computers and phones will likely rely on OLED screen technology, which is based on a thin film of organic compounds that produce light from an electric current. They don’t require backlights and filters, which is the case with LCD screens. Samsung is the largest global suppliers of OLED panels, and displayed bendable OLED screens at CES in 2013.
However, it is still challenging to create a device that can fully bend because all of the components (including the battery) have to also be bendable. The circuits in smartphones are also delicate and prone to breaking under relatively light stresses. One possible solution: printed electronics.
If these types of foldable mobile devices do come to market, they could potentially provide a solution for companies that currently use both tablets and smartphones for their field employees. Instead of two devices, users could simply fold/unfold the devices and switch modes as they move from data collection/entry to voice operations.
A foldable tablet would also be easier for field service/sales employees to carry with them. One reason some companies have opted for handheld devices over tablets in the field is that the lager devices are ergonomically awkward for many applications. Being able to fold the device down when not in use could make it more functional for highly mobile workers.