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David Zax

A View from David Zax

Are Bendable Smart Phones the Future?

Do we really need a new kind of mobile device interface? Nokia seems to think so.

  • November 1, 2011

Do you ever get tired of the simplicity and sensitivity of your smart phone’s touchscreen, or the elegance and intuitiveness of the now-standard pinch zoom? Do you want a way of interacting with your phone that requires two hands, and an element of brute force? If so, then this Nokia concept–a “kinetic device” that receives input by being bent or twisted–might be for you.

A CNET reporter spotted the device at the Nokia World show in London recently, and took a video.

CNET says that while the device and its OLED display were real enough, the device isn’t even quite a prototype yet. Nokia wasn’t very forthcoming on how the technology works, though it may have to do with the way electrical resistance changes in a bundle of carbon nanotubes when stretched (this was true of another device at Nokia World).

Nokia representatives offered a few scenarios in which you might want a bendable phone. Almost none of them, though, seemed to offer advantages over current technology (with one exception, the ability to work the interface when wearing gloves). At one point, a Nokia rep said that bending the phone could operate a camera, and the reporter protested that bending the phone would cause unwanted motion at just the inopportune moment. “Image stabilization advances will take care of that problem,” the Nokia rep said.

If I’m reading this correctly, it sounds as though Nokia intends to create a problem that doesn’t need to exist, because other technological advances will arrive to solve that needless problem.

Though the flex-to-input concept clearly seems misguided to me, other companies have been working on it to, so there must be some hidden reserves of genius in the idea. Canadian researchers earlier this year created a “PaperPhone” prototype that also had a flexible display. “There have been only three display revolutions,” one of the researchers told PCMag. “The first was CRT, the second was LCD, and the third is flexible displays. When I first got wind of them, I realized they were going to change everything.” He added a prediction that “Everything is going to look and feel like this within five years.”

Samsung, meanwhile, recently said it planned to debut flexible screens next year. Sony, too, has been dabbling in the technology for at least two years, in prototype. This video highlights durability as a key feature of flexible displays. That makes good sense, of course–it’s largely the idea of the bendable interface that seems misguided.

The bendable screen prototypes out there may simply be the first step, though, of something that could become truly great a few iterations down the line. Writing for CNN, Pete Cashmore says, “The ultimate dream for these flexible displays is that they could roll up: Imagine a phone-sized device that could unfurl to be the size of a tablet,” he writes. “Perhaps it would be like an ancient scroll, a tube that unrolls to create a full 10-inch screen. Or perhaps a phone display could expand in two directions, making it useable both when collapsed and when unfurled.”

If the bendable screen concept ever truly gets to that stage–where the screen is as thin and agile and flexible as a sheet of paper–then Nokia, Samsung, and their competitors might indeed be on to something.

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