What it really takes to make a flexible phone (Smartphones Unlocked? Core

Cornings Dr. Chowdhury stresses that Willow Glass was designed as a substrate material — glass that belongs on the inside of a smartphone — but in its current form, it isnt strong enough to serve as the tough barrier guarding the internal materials from the elements. It wasnt designed to be.

Smartphones Unlockedis a monthly column that dives deep into the inner workings of your trusty smartphone.

Cornings Dr. Chowdhury agrees, partly because vendors havent zeroed-in on what they want. Were trying to commercialize our glass, he said, and when it comes to a fully-functioning device, theres no agreed-upon term for what flexible means. Without that firm definition, theres also a foggy path to how vendors plan to profit from phone flex in their designs.

Had Dr. Dipak Chowdhury known just how accident-prone I really am, he never would have handed over the 0.1-millimeter sheet of glass for me to bend between my fingers.

Conventional lithium-ion batteries, which power todays smartphones, are very rigid, says Mark Juzkow, vice president of research and development for battery company Leyden Energy. They need to be stiff and unyielding in order to last the longest time possible.

Beyond its screen, you can manipulate the entire device, adjusting the sides in order to scroll through content like music and photos.

It may be that the flexible phone of the future comes with some premolded elements.

The good news is, all the materials to make this possible already exist. The difficulty is in assembling all the pieces into a functional design.

But dont get too frothed up yet. Willow Glass isnt the hearty Gorilla Glass 3, Samsungs Youm screens have nothing to attach to yet, and smartphones that sway in the breeze are still years out.

The ideal material for a flexible smartphone or other device bends slightly without losing its original upright form over time, a sort of Lycra for the personal electronics world.

Instead of bending for the sake of it, both the glass and marketing executives see conformable displays finding much broader applications at first, before we start seeing commercial uses for those flexible bodies and screens. Premolded glass structures defy the straight, flat rectangle comprising so many panels in TVs, cell phones, and pretty much every programmable screen, and displays that take on organic shapes and configurations have any number of uses: perhaps futuristic computers that form the walls of your office, or a car windshield you can program to show you a map while you drive.

And perhaps thats the major lesson that bendable screens can teach us at this stage in their development. To be cool, youve got to be flexible.

Its very possible that the first actively bending displays we see will be covered by plastic rather than glass. As always, resilience and durability are concerns.

There will be a compromise there, said Mark Rolston, chief creative director of celebrated firm Frog Design. Its a material reality that anything that conforms will be more susceptible to scratches.

Cornings Dr. Chowdhury notes that some companies have demoed an arching plastic display for several years, but that theres still a long road to commercialization, even for the polymer.

Companies like Samsung, Nokia, and even Apple have been working on flexible smartphone displays for a years, but for the first time, theres enough real research and development in this area to, perhaps, start getting excited.

Luckily for me, the vice president and director of Cornings Willow Glass division is a trusting soul and gave CNET the worlds very first public demo of this glass so thin it can bend without breaking.

One good example of whats possible and what might actually come, is Nokias kinetic device, a working prototype of a lightly twistable handheld computing device that CNET reporter Stephen Shankland saw in London in 2011.

In the middle of all that, Rolston laments, we increasingly cut an 8-inch rectangular hole to put a screen. If we can have that screen instead be part of the material, part of the cars visual language…that would be a beautiful thing.

A rolled-up handset is a really stupid idea, says Mark Rolston, Frog Designs creative director.

These ideas may not be widely seen today, but they arent new. In 2008, Rolston said, Frog Design created a prototype design for HP with a wrap-around screen. It was decorative, rather than for informative, he said, but it made the sides of this mystery device integral in the never-released projects shape.

Theres more that needs to go with the flow than just the display and its glass.

The ct that the smartphone industry has almost wholesale moved from plastic screens to glass is also telling — you dont see a plastic Retina Display on the iPhone 5, after all. Images look sharper and clearer with a glass cover, and its also more responsive and sensitive to touch. (Ive reviewed touch-screen phones without glass covers, and the experience was pretty terrible.)

As for shapely batteries, one only need to look to Nikes FuelBand for a hint of recently broken ground. In the device, Nike placed two curved batteries on either side of the band, covered by a piece of metal goes that restricts that portion of the band from bending.

That doesnt mean a flexible phone is out of the question. Mechanical and design engineers have worked with shaped batteries and flexible printed circuit boards before, even though both are generally rigid.

Yet the cost of a single component less expensively doesnt add up to a product thats cheaper overall. The research, development, sourcing, and manucturing process for new materials doesnt happen overnight, and can wind up being pretty pricey for a new technology.

Ask Cornings Dr. Dipak Chowdhury one of the main benefits of Willow Glass and hell tell you that because it can be made it in a roll, its cheaper to manucture.

Though Cornings current Willow Glass formula can deeply arch, it can still also puncture and snap.

When thinking about a bendable phone, theres also the problem of the phone material itself. From a design perspective, you dont want the body to be too lax or too rigid, says Rolston, Frog Designs creative lead.

New battery technology in early development is moving in the direction of the thin, flat cell, but these arent the right solution for a bendable phone, either,new york escort Juzkow says. First, they use a solid state electrolyte to generate power-yielding reactions, and that takes longer to charge. Second, their energy output isnt enough to run a power-hungry phone for very long.

Even if you get the screen technology and the glass to flex, theres still the matter of the other internal components. What do you do about the battery, the processors, the camera module, and the NFC circuitry — all currently static wafers, bricks, and chips?

Flexible phones and other devices may have a place in the world, but Rolston thinks they wont show up until the bending of glass and other components is really mature.

However, even if a Willow Glass cousin does grow fortified enough to top a phone and maintain its bend, breakage is still a worry.

One of the biggest challenges with a flexible phone is getting the cover glass to bend — and its a common misconception that bendable glass is unbreakable.

Flexible printed circuit boards for example, were at one time ubiquitous in the humble flip phone, connecting both halves of the clamshell as it folded.

Rolston, for one, keeps coming back to the car dashboard, waxing poetic in the charming way that designers do about the aesthetically driven humanistic form of a sculpted car dash and the effort that designers put in to create luxury finishes using metal, wood, and carbon fiber.

A bendable screen is nice in the lab, but it will take more than flexi-glass to get your phone to touch its toes.

Flexible glass and flexible screens have been a hot topic for some time, culminating with nre at Samsungs demo of its curvy Youm OLED display at CES.

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Between Rolston and Chowdhury, there are plenty of other examples that we can expect in the near future across a variety of industries, some of which we already see budding today:

InWhat it really takes to make a flexible phone (Smartphones Unlocked? Core other words, if the phone bends, will it snap back to its original shape. There is such a thing, it turns out, as a phone that is too flexible.

How much would the average consumer pay for a bendable phone? Sure, its a neat idea, but after the novelty wears off, how practical would a bendable phone really be compared to a traditional stick-straight device? Put another way, how much extra would you pay for your phone to conform to the shape of your pocket?

You have to build in limits. You can use a flexible plastic, but can [the body materials] also stop the movement at the end of the flex?

Shankland reported that some of the devices Nokia demoed that day contain carbon nanotubes in an elastomer material, a specific type of rubbery polymer. Stressing one side of the device while compressing the other created the physical interaction to make images advance and music to forward.

The question is the memory of the material, says Robert Curtis, Core Frog Designs executive director of product development. How much does it hold if its bent or unbent? Memory, in this case, refers to the materials ability to return to its original shape, the antithesis of memory foam.

Theres one shape we can cross off the list when drafting the flexible smartphone of our dreams: a device that rolls up into a circle or a scroll.

In case youre wondering, it would in ct be possible to place a thicker, shorter battery to one end of a device, Juzkow concedes, so that the phone flexes while the battery does not. Makers of small flexible products, like smartphones, could also insert a series of smaller batteries along the length, leaving room for the device to bend between these static slugs. Theres just one major problem with the latter: smaller batteries generate less charge and die off ster than larger batteries.

Glass is also better at being impermeable to oxygen and water, two compounds you want as r from a phones electronic guts as possible, to keep them from damage and aging.

Rolling and unrolling a phone defies the behavioral element of a phone, he added, stating that people want to pull their device out of your pocket and use it right away.

When chemists and industrial designers talk about strength, theyre not just talking about massive cracks and shattering. It is true that flexible glass can withstand drop tests with less damage than some rigid glass, thanks to its undulating ways, but it may not be able to rebuff the scratches, gouging, and long-term wear patterns that make screens vulnerable to breaks.

Yes, a substance similar to the bowed Willow Glass could undergo a similar chemical strengthening process as Cornings more mous Gorilla Glass, the substance that makes up the outer layer protecting many of todays phones, tablets, and laptops.

Just think of what a bendable smartphone could do: curve with your bodys movement so it sits more comfortably in a pocket; drop from a height and flex on impact, rather than shatter; pack into any number of compartments without having to triple-swath it in bubble wrap.

Jessica DolcourtJessica Dolcourt reviews smartphones and cell phones, covers handset news, and pens the monthly column Smartphones Unlocked. She started at CNET in 2006, where she spent four years reviewing mobile and desktop software before taking on devices.

Todays conventional batteries work best as a brick.

If we do see bendable designs with plastic screens, theyll likely top reference products and concept designs, or very early niche models, rather than mature, mass-market devices.

God, thatd be cool.


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