Twisty-Bendy Smartphones, Tablets on Horizon
New flexible and resilient materials are being developed that emit light and conduct electricity. Samsung
For the most part, electronic gadgets are stiff as boards. That's because they're typically made from plastic and glass and have computer chips cut from crystalline silicon. There's hardly a flexible thing about them.
Raghu Das, CEO of IDTechEx, a technology consulting firm, noted that glass has been the go-to choice for electronics because it protects the the fragile liquid crystal that make up LCDs and creates a barrier that's air tight and durable. "The argument for displays is really robustness," he told Discovery News. "So that when you drop your iPad it isn't going to shatter."
But that's all starting to change as new flexible and resilient materials are being developed that emit light and conduct electricity.
These materials are appearing in the display industry. LG, for example, announced that it's rolling out a new flexible organic light-emitting display -- or OLED.
The military has shown early interest in these technologies because they're lightweight. In fact, DARPA has funded some work at Arizona State University's Flexible Display Center to study the possibility of flexible electronics.
But moving from the research lab to the mass market will require that these flexible gadgets become affordable, said Nick Colaneri, director of the Flexible Display Center. "The question is can we make them inexpensively enough to make them mainline consumer items?" he said.
We can only hope so. Because electronic gadgets that twist and bend are eye-poppingly gorgeous. What follows are seven futuristic devices that will make your future more flexible.
Manufacturers are still working to perfect the process for making whole sheets of LEDs cheaply on flexible substrates without defects.NanoLumens
The flexible display already exists in some applications. Probably the most visible is the giant NASDAQ sign in Times Square on New York City.
But manufacturers are still working to perfect the process for making whole sheets of LEDs cheaply on flexible substrates without defects. Joshua Byrd, director of marketing at NanoLumens, which makes large-size flexible displays, noted that beyond a certain size, manufacturing defects creep in.
Even so, techniques are getting better, and there may come a time, he said, when architects can design lighting and displays into elegantly curved walls. Such environments will revolutionize home entertainment. Movie watchers and game players won't sit in front of a flat screen but be immersed in a video "tank" that resembles something like the Holodeck from Star Trek.
Now that's entertainment!
Flexible e-readers could address a number of problems that plague current machines -- namely durability.LG Display
AU Optronics unveiled a version of a flexible, solar-powered e-reader in 2011. The device didn't really catch on, but maybe it was ahead of it's time.
While dedicated e-readers are in some cases being replaced by true tablets, such as the Kindle Fire, a flexible version could address a number of problems that plague current machines -- notably durability.
Then there's display size. People say they want a small device but in reality, small isn't always readable. A foldable or rollable tablet could give them the best of both worlds: a big screen in a small package. But a truly foldable e-reader is some years away.
"We can't make the Harry Potter newspaper just yet," Colaneri said.
The South Korean electronics company Samsung recently announced that it would be producing flexible displays for the handset market in the next couple of years. Erich Strasser / Oled-Display.net
The South Korean electronics company Samsung recently announced that it would be producing flexible displays for the handset market in the next couple of years.
The idea isn't to make a flexible phone but to offer more options for phone shapes. For example, Apple's fourth- and fifth-generation iPod nano has a curved screen tapered on either side. But the curved shape is made of glass and is laid on top of the display itself.
A flexible OLED, on the other hand, would eliminate the need for the glass layer, opening up more room inside the device for electronics that improve service and function.
A flexible solar panel could be shaped to fit around curves.Armin Kuuml Belbeck / Wikimedia Commons
One of the reasons it can be hard to power electronics with the sun is that most solar panels are just that -- panels. Flat and usually rectangular, they don't fit curved surfaces and have to be oriented towards a light source.
A flexible solar panel could be shaped to fit around curves, making it possible to add solar to just about any surface or device. What's more, a solar panel that's wrapped around a surface gets light from all angles without having to turn.
Flexible electronics made from carbon-based materials, such as graphene, could lead to contact lenses that monitor a person's health or provide augmented-reality vision.Travis Ross and Yun Soung Kim, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
When we think about electronic gadgets, we think about phones and e-readers, but what about contact lenses, body sensors or even artificial skin? Flexible electronics made from carbon-based materials, such as graphene, could lead to contact lenses that monitor a person's health or provide augmented-reality vision.
"Developing electronics that are not rigid like bulk silicon and have properties that are more amenable for movement -- bending, flexing, etc. -- seen in the human body will allow some unique applications in the future," said Samuel Graham, associate professor of micro-electrical mechanical systems at Georgia Tech.
For example, an electronic device that can conform to the surface of an organ can sense it's function more accurately than a sensor that relies on stiff electrodes.
One day flexible electronics could even lead to artificial skin.
Clear, flexible speakers can mold to any surface and bring sound to rooms in a unique and unobtrusive way. University of Texas / Ji Won Suk
Recent work at the University of Texas has shown that it's possible to make flexible speakers from graphene. The speakers work by vibrating the air around them when the graphene is heated. And because the graphene is so thin, the speakers are also transparent.
Ji Won Suk, a materials scientist who did some of the experiments, said the sound can be altered by changing the shape of the speaker as well as the amount of current going through it.
Clear, flexible speakers can wrap around any surface and bring sound to rooms in a unique and unobtrusive way.
Flexible devices will need bendy batteries.Samsung
Flexible devices will need bendy batteries.
To that end, the Korean Advanced Institute of Science and Technology announced it had developed a flexible, thin-film Li-ion battery connected to organic light-emitting diodes. The technological advance represents a flexible display and battery on a single plastic substrate. And bending the battery does not interfere with the flow of electricity.
Another company, LG Chem, which is a division of LG, recently developed a lithium-ion battery shaped like a cable and that can be tied into knots.
In short, bendable electronic devices of the future will conform to your world, instead of you conforming to them.