Flexible OLED screens: what they are, how they work and why you should care

Samsung YOUMSmaller, faster and more affordable components have meant that affordable wearable technology is finally in our reach, and with the success of the Kickstarted Pebble and the recent launch of Samsung’s flawed Galaxy Gear, not to mention the persistent rumours of an Apple smartwatch, there’s every indication that this could be the next big thing.

But while the technology has improved a great deal size is still an issue and many smartwatches and other devices are a little on the large side. Even the relatively low tech Pebble is bulkier than some may prefer.

One thing that could change this is the introduction of flexible OLED screens. And it’s not just smartwatches that could benefit - the next generation of smartphones may look very different because of this futuristic development.

What is flexible OLED?

OLED stands for Organic Light Emitting Diode. It’s a widely used display technology which utilises an organic layer that reacts to an electric current to produce light. OLED does not require a backlight so is thinner, lighter and offers deeper blacks and higher contrast compared to Liquid Crystal Displays (LCD).

There’s a good chance you already own an OLED - the Samsung Galaxy S3, Nokia Lumia range and BlackBerry Q10 among many others use OLED for their screens. It’s also set to be the next standard for TVs as the cost of larger OLED panels drops.

Flexible OLED screens are built upon a very thin and durable substrate of plastic, glass or metal which allows the screen to bend without snapping or causing the image to distort. Flexible displays have been in the works for a long time but OLED, because it does not require a backlight, is the first technology which allows high quality colour displays that can be flexed and twisted. And it opens up a number of interesting possibilities.

Bendy smartphones

A smartphone equipped with a flexible display could be freed from the confines of traditional technology and allow designers to unleash their imaginations.

We might see smartphones with displays that can be rolled out and extended like a projector screen, or flip phones with one big seamless display. Oddities like the NEC Medias W-N05E would look very different if they didn’t require a physical hinge in the screen.

Samsung has been one of the leading proponents of flexible screens on smartphones. Although it wasn’t a flexible screen, the Google Nexus S had a curved display which gave the impression of it being flexed, but the firm is likely to be the first to market with a true flexible OLED phone.

At this year’s CES Samsung showed off its ‘YOUM’ display, and the recently announced Samsung Galaxy Round is the first to utilise this. Based off the popular Note line it features a pronounced curve in its display and advanced motion-sensing features which allow the user to tilt the phone for notifications and function control. Although the Round has a fixed curve it does show that the technology is becoming financially viable to mass-produce, so it won’t be long before the first flexible screen handsets show up.

Unfortunately if you want to be at the forefront of this revolution you’ll need to move to Korea, because presently the Samsung Galaxy Round is only going to be available in Asia.

The next generation of wearable computing

Existing smartwatches like the Pebble and Sony timepieces use standard OLED, LCD or e-ink screens and tend to be relatively bulky and fragile, but the availability of cheap flexible OLED could prove revolutionary.

Aside from reducing the size and weight of smartphones, flexible screens would allow far more freedom in the design so we could have watches that were more like wristbands with a screen that wraps around your arm. And this tech wouldn’t have to be restricted to your wrist, lightweight flexible screens could be made into rings, or built into clothing.

The one major issue holding back some really futuristic wearable hardware is the problem of power. Batteries add a lot of the bulk to these gadgets. Qualcomm’s Toq smartwatch offered a neat solution by mounting the battery on the wristband, but it’s still noticeable.

However, flexible technology isn’t just restricted to displays and there are firms working on ultra-thin bendy batteries. One impressive example is Imprint Energy in California, which has built prototype flexible batteries which it hopes will one day power a new generation of wearable hardware and advanced flexible smartphones.

Modern portable hardware uses lithium ion batteries. This offers lots of energy storage but as lithium is highly reactive the batteries must have sufficient packaging to stop them bursting into flames. Imprint has swapped out lithium for zinc, and because that doesn’t have a tendency to explode when it comes into contact with air they can be very thin. Imprint has also come up with a method of screen printing their batteries which allows the batteries to be cut into any shape.

When will we be able to buy flexible screens?

While the Galaxy Round is going to be available in Korea, and flexible screens have shown up in some form at trade shows for years, we’re unlikely to see any true mass market flexible OLED screen devices until 2014. Once the initial problems with production are resolved and yields increase the costs will fall to a point where manufacturers can be confident of making a profit. 

As well as Samsung, the technology is also being tested by Sony, Philips, LG and allegedly Apple. 

The latter in particular may be the turning point: if the rumours of flexible screens in the iPhone 6 and ‘iWatch’ pan out we’re going to see a deluge of clones appear on the market as Apple’s competitors rush to take advantage of the excitement.

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