Large Screen vs Compact Device: Bendable Phones Could Be the Answer

Bendability would be a new trait in smartphones — improvements in recent years have focused on larger screens, better cameras and speakers.

by Wendy Lee, San Francisco Chronicle / June 20, 2016
Screenshot taken from Youtuble/Lenovo Tech World

(TNS) -- YouTube star Meghan McCarthy had a conundrum.

“I’m wearing a supercute dress today, but it doesn’t have any pockets,” McCarthy told her audience at a San Francisco technology conference this month. “Where am I supposed to put my phone?”

In the next breath, she crunched the smartphone in her hand into a bracelet that wrapped around her wrist. Presto! Problem solved.

The device, from Chinese smartphone maker Lenovo, isn’t available yet. But phones and tablets that fold or bend may join the next wave of electronics. Lenovo and and its Korean rival, Samsung, are exploring ways to make devices more flexible, so that people no longer feel they need to carry a bulky, brick-like phone around. But the science remains a challenge.

“We have to be able to take everything you would put in a traditional phone and figure out how to put it in a device that bends,” said Daryl Cromer, a Lenovo vice president of research and technology device innovation.

Lenovo said it is working on two concepts that test the boundaries of flexible devices. The CPlus, demonstrated by McCarthy, is an Android smartphone with a display slightly smaller than the height of a Coke can. It has more than 20 joints, or bend points, that allow it to turn into a bracelet. The Folio is a slightly larger Android smartphone that unfolds into a 7.8-inch tablet.

Bendability would be a new trait in smartphones — improvements in recent years have focused on larger screens, better cameras and speakers. Such devices could bring a spark to the nearly $432 billion worldwide smartphone market, which has seen growth slow as more people buy them and have fewer reasons to upgrade, according to research firm IDC.

“Each of the manufacturers really have to push to find hardware or software features that actually provide a new experience that really isn’t commoditized,” said Jennifer Kent with Dallas consulting firm Parks Associates.

The concept of flexibility is not new. Television screens have been curved for decades, and Samsung and LG already sell smartphones with curved screens. But the ability to fold a device, to make it smaller (or, conversely, to make a small device larger), is a new focus.

People may like the size of their phone, but “there is a time when you want the additional screen real estate of a tablet,” Cromer said.

Already, several manufacturers, including Lenovo, sell laptops that can be folded into a tablet.

But bringing the products to market can be challenging. For Lenovo, just arriving at a working prototype was complex.

It started on its bendable-phone project more than a year and a half ago. During the process, it sought feedback from a small group of consumers in the U.S. and China. People said they wanted the smartphone to have a large enough display, and they weren’t keen on a bigger version of the foldable tablet because it couldn’t fit in their pockets.

Others, including Samsung and Chinese company Chongqing Graphene Tech Co., are also looking into flexible devices. Samsung CEO Oh-Hyun Kwon said at an investors event in 2013 that in the years to come, “We’ll deliver the foldable device so ... you can carry handsets and tablets in your pockets.”

A Chongqing Graphene Tech executive told Bloomberg in May that it will sell a bendable smartphone that cost $765 in China this year. The company did not immediately respond to The Chronicle’s questions.

Plenty of kinks still need to be worked out. Companies will need to figure out how to engineer the phone so it doesn’t break as a user checks their phone and repeatedly crunches it into a bracelet.

It’s also hard to find items like processors on the phone’s motherboard that are flexible, analysts said. That may cause the smartphone’s circuit board, where the processor and other chips are located, to be placed on one end. That could affect how the weight is distributed on the device, and how thin it can be.

Some analysts say a foldable phone or tablet will not tempt buyers in the absence of other advances. There will need to be killer apps and additional features that would push shoppers to use the CPlus over existing devices on the market, according to Ramon Llamas, a research manager for IDC’s wearables and mobile phones team.

“The fact that the CPlus can be that ‘smart’ to adjust to what you’re doing, that’s a reflection of where technology is today,” Llamas said. “What can this do that current phones do not other than flex?”

But Roel Vertegaal, a professor of human-computer interaction at Queen’s University School of Computing in Canada, believes there is enough demand for flexible devices. Just as people use different glasses depending on the wine poured, he said, they may one day choose the type of smartphone they’ll use depending on their activities.

For example, someone out running may want a phone to wear on their wrist, if a smartwatch is insufficient.

Vertegaal, who has worked on prototypes of flexible devices, said he thinks companies will take “baby steps.” Perhaps what will come first will be smartwatches that don’t require a phone to make calls — still an unusual feature these days — instead of the reverse, a phone that can fold into a watch.

“I don’t think we’ll have a paper-thin device immediately,” he said.

©2016 the San Francisco Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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