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Eyes, perfected by Mother Nature, are matchless display systems. Every other man-made display has some problem or the other—battery life, heat, glare, image quality and what not. However, humans never give up on their desire to out-do or, at least, match nature. And so, manufacturers and researchers continue attempting to improve the current display systems. They continue making these smaller, more flexible, power-efficient, panoramic, etc.

Moreover, ubiquity of devices has also led to the need for displays that are flexible and have a smaller footprint. Mobiles, wearables, augmented reality (AR) workspaces, immersive games and other applications throw challenges at the display industry to match their speed of travel into the future. What will the future displays look like? In this story, we dig into a few off-beat and futuristic research projects that give us a few clues regarding what displays might be like a decade from now.

Ole! Time to bend, roll and tango

Organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs) have been around for quite some time now. Having started their career with mobile devices, these are now beginning to be used in high-end large-size televisions, too. Made of organic materials that glow when subjected to electric current, these screens have laudable energy savings, resolution and form factor. More attractively, these organic materials are more flexible and make flexible displays a reachable goal.

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Conceptual smartphones with transparent and flexible display

Manufacturers like LG and Samsung are especially keen on bendy displays. A few years ago, Samsung demonstrated YOUM, a flexible active-matrix OLED (AMOLED) display that uses polyimide as the substrate material instead of glass. Polyimide is a polymer with high resilience and flexibility. Although Samsung has used this technology in a few of its curved phone screens, the impact has not been felt much. It was because most of these displays have been encased in toughened Gorilla glass.

However, it is clear that the company is keen on flexible displays and hopes to use it to make jaw-dropping devices. A patent filed by Samsung and published by the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) last November (Link) focuses on such scrollable, foldable smartphones and tablets. It describes a device that can be folded in half like a book, and another that can be rolled up into a cylinder.

The patent also hints at what the foldable device could possibly do in open and closed states. When in closed state during a call, the device would show the face of the caller and call-related options like recording, keypad and mute, while the open state will additionally have the contact list opened in the other half of the display. Other applications like messaging, images, etc, are also shown using the flexible display. Some images also suggest notifications being shown on the back of the screen when folded on the sides, or the corner.
LG is equally keen on flexible display tech. They showed off some beautiful tech at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2016). Apart from a 45.7cm (18-inch) flexible display panel, they showed two smaller versions, one that was transparent and another that could be rolled up into a 3cm-radius cylinder.

LG claims that their new OLED displays are flexible enough to curve around walls or be used seamlessly inside cars. These are also thinner, lighter and break-resistant; so light that a thin magnetic strip is all that is needed to stick the 4mm-thick television screen to the wall and so convenient to peel off and stick somewhere else, as required.

The display produces its own light, so there is no backlight to add bulk to it. According to an announcement by LG, they plan to develop a 152cm (60-inch) ultra-high-definition (ultra-HD) flexible and transparent OLED panel with a transmittance of more than 40 per cent and a curvature radius of 100R, by 2017.

Of course, no race is complete without Apple in it! In 2015, Apple was awarded a patent (http://tinyurl.com/zsjoea4) by the USPTO for flexible, foldable electronic devices with force gesture control. According to Apple Insider, the patent describes a portable device, like an iPhone, that can be flexed, bent, folded or otherwise deformed without negatively impacting the sensitive internal components contained within. What makes this patent exciting is that it also describes flexible external parts, such as the chassis and cover glass, with pliable internal parts like batteries, circuit boards, displays and other electrical components.

Not only that, it also hints at an exciting new user interface using force sensors. Say, for example, users can squeeze the device to activate a command.

The patent also mentions bi-stable flex regions. This means the device can have two or more standard configurations. So what would Apple make with this technology? A phone that folds up like a hanky or maybe a phone that has displays on both sides? Well, we might have to wait for a few years to find out.

Self-repairing screens

Users with toddlers racing around the house would readily vote for this technology. Last year, a team of chemists led by Duncan Wass of Bristol University, England, revealed a technology that would enable smartphones and other screens to heal themselves.

Inspired by the way the body forms scabs to protect wounds, this new technology involves adding a healing agent, basically a chemical formula, to materials used for developing display screens, or even other products like nail varnish or wall paints.

This healing agent is made of different carbon based chemicals and produces a sheet of millions of microscopic spheres. When there is a crack in the display screen, it breaks apart these hollow microspheres, and a liquid is released that moves into the newly-formed gap. A subsequent chemical reaction causes this liquid to harden and seal the crack automatically, without any intervention from the user.

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Fig. 1: Foldable device shown in Samsung’s patent

At a top-level, it looks as if including this technology into existing products would only involve a small manufacturing tweak, of adding the healing agent to the material used. However, experts feel that new challenges might crop up when one starts delving into the details. The tech, for example, might require some adaptation to fit into cutting-edge flexible displays. However, it is definitely a good start and would save users a lot of money in replacing broken screens.

Display that touch you

Displays seem to be incomplete without touch technology these days. As more and more devices fill the world, people want more natural forms of interacting with these. Since the past few years, there has been a lot of interest in haptic touchscreens, that is, screens that give you some form of sensory feedback.

Senseg is one of the pioneers in the field. Although not yet mainstream, their technology is lauded by experts and is constantly evolving. It lets the user feel reactions. Was the button-click accepted? Was there an error? Is the call going through? All this can be felt through pulses or pressure exerted by the screen on the fingertips. Senseg is promoting the technology for use in automotive applications, where getting haptic feedback will reduce the necessity for the driver to look at the screen, thereby reducing distraction.

Bosch’s haptic display, Neosense, apparently goes a step further, according to professional reviewers who tested it at CES 2016. According to reviews, Neosense lets you feel textures. Assume a system that has buttons designed with different textures, namely, coarse, silky, ribbed, etc. By moving your fingers over these, you can feel the different textures or patterns. This means that you can identify the required buttons simply by touching these.

Neosense also uses a vast array of pressure sensors to accurately differentiate between an intentional button press and brushing of fingers across the screen while searching for the right option.

Well, displays that let you feel textures would be a boon, especially for developers of learning systems and e-commerce portals. Imagine the day when customers can feel fabric on the screen while shopping for clothes!

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