Samsung Flexible Display Technology

Flexible displays are here, but we still live in a very rigid world

Flat panel displays, from the first plasma screens to the next-generation of OLED (organic light-emitting diode) displays, have been a perennial focal point at CES since their début. In a relatively short period, we’ve seen some major advances in these displays. If you recall, it was only about five years ago that 1080p resolution was the latest advance in this technology, which today is standard on most HDTV’s.

Flat panel technology advances haven’t just been in the realm of televisions. Over the past five and a half years, since the advent of the modern smartphone with the iPhone in 2007, there have been significant advances in mobile displays as well. Almost every smartphone released now has a high-definition display (720p or better), and are using a fraction of the power of their larger HDTV counterparts.

However, one major problem consumers face with mobile displays is that these displays are notably as fragile as they are beautiful. Unlike HDTV’s that are placed into a fixed place, flat panel smartphone displays are subjected to being shoved into pockets or purses, and the unfortunate drops and clumsy accidents (we are all human after all). Companies like Corning are constantly tweaking the chemistry of their Gorilla Glass, now the only line of defense these mobile flat panel displays have between safety and the danger of human beings.

This year at CES, Samsung showed off what they believe is the future of flat panel displays, flexibility. Samsung demonstrated a flexible mobile display prototype with a Windows Phone device, showing that with OLED technology the days of rigid, fragile flat panel displays could be going the way of the CRT monitor. Called XSense, Samsung envisions a world where displays can bend and flex to user’s needs. Could it be that in ten years we could see HDTV’s that curve around a corner in your house, or a computer monitor that offers a 360 degree view? According to Samsung, the answer is yes.

I say not so fast Samsung. While I believe that flexible displays are the future, there lies one huge issue with this whole technology. The actual display itself may be flexible, but what about the boards, processors, and circuitry that power, control, and render these curved images? Even if that issue were solved, there’s still the cases or glass covers that house or protect these displays. Glass, at this point, is rigid, and while advances in plastics still haven’t really brought flexible plastics in the nature that would be necessary to support a true flexible and/or folding display.

This reminds me all too well of 3D TV. Two years ago, 3D displays were all the rage at CES, but now 3D is all but a fleeting thought at CES. This has nothing to do with the technology, which is solid, and has everything to do with the companion technology needed for it to work. 3D displays still rely on uncomfortable, rigid, and over-priced glasses to work, increasing the cost to consumers up front. Furthermore, the lack of mass adoption with major television networks makes the consumer’s return on investment less appealing.

I foresee a similar situation here with flexible displays. The cost to make not only the displays flexible, but the cost to make all the corresponding companion tech that is needed with them would drive prices to a price too high for mass adoption. Most people live in houses with flat walls, and advances in Gorilla Glass and protective cases for mobile devices are making smartphone, albeit still rigid, much more durable.

So while the advances in flat panel displays, especially on the mobile end, are very intriguing, until the rest of the companion technology catches up, flexible displays could certainly go the same way as 3D TV. The jury is still out, but two years from now will we be talking about fleixble displays at CES 2015?