Author(s): Peter Bryer
Three years ago, Nokia demonstrated the Nokia Kinetic device, a phone the user could flex back and forth for input. Bending motion could be used to zoom and select menus and icons. It was an interesting prototype product that proved the smartphone industry didn't have to be so stiff. The day would come when devices didn't have to be flat and black — they could curve and wrap and bend to our will. Form factors were about to change.
However, they didn't, or haven't yet. Smartphones are as solid as ever, and such developments take time. The enabling components have to fall into place at scalable prices, and the usage scenarios have to drive investments. Visionary videos from Corning, Intel, Samsung and others of a world filled with displays folded around everyday objects whets the appetite for a new generation of devices which are more than a flat board.
In 2005, Philips unveiled a rollable e-reader prototype product called Readius. It was a small device which could fit in the palm of the hand, but had an extendable display that could be extracted like magic. It was an exciting indication of things to come. It seemed like the extendable design was coming to an era of sliders and clamshells, but it's been almost a decade since this. The market went flat.
So far many of the more intriguing components that could enable the amazing visions have failed to scale. The complexities of manufacturing displays which are both flexible and durable have kept prototype products in the lab. Device screens need to be sealed from oxygen and moisture. They're sensitive to even a few molecules of potential contaminants. Displays can be permanently curved (as we've seen in the LG G Flex and Samsung Galaxy Round), but we can't roll them away in our pockets and expect them to survive long.
Last month, a start-up called Kateeva began shipping the equipment needed to manufacture flexible screens at scale. It's an enabler of an enabler. Flexible displays at affordable prices are really only a few years off, but then, of course, all the other components are still rather stiff.
The holy grail of handset visions are nanotechnology-based materials. In early 2008, Nokia showed the Morph concept, a vision of a shape-shifting product that could learn, heal and charge itself. It was a phone, it was a wearable and it was a laptop. Morph was backed by research by Nokia together with the University of Cambridge's Nanoscience Centre — not so much science fiction as an amalgamation of the possible. Materials like carbon-based, two-dimensional graphene will eventually enable devices that don't just bend but blend into our lives.
History suggests that bend date is about five or six years away. Perhaps it's a 2020 vision.