Stretchable screens will follow upcoming flexible ones

Flexible screens are in our immediate future with products likely from Samsung and LG this year. But what about stretchable screens?

msus stretchable fabric stretched
Kurt Stepnitz / Michigan State University

The smartphone in its current guise has been around for 10 years, and in that time it hasn’t changed form-factor much—a somewhat boring rectangular slab of plastic. Big deal.

Ten years, however, are eons in tech life. Therefore one could ask just why haven’t smartphones morphed their shape in this decade of otherwise spectacular technological advancement? Have we really reached the pinnacle of communications tool design? More likely, a technical limitation.

Samsung, though, is reportedly aiming to launch flexible devices soon, according to the Korea Herald. One of them is a “bendable Virtual Reality device with a flexible OLED display that can be bent to cover a user’s eyes completely,” for example, it says.

Microsoft has recently filed a patent for a folding phone that turns into a tablet. It uses a kind of smart hinge, according to website Mspoweruser. That publication also says that LG is creating a flexible smartphone.

Is flexible good enough though? Don’t we really want morphing, stretchable smart tablets that expand from a strap-hanging, one handed commuter-use form-factor, to lean-back reading and media consumption copious sizes?

Logically, stretchable-size screens would be the successor to the incumbent smartphone in the grand scheme of things—all else is simply an incremental change.

Technical limitations in materials are the problem of course, though.

That will change soon, say engineering researchers at Michigan State University. They believe that a stretchy smart-fabric, that they’ve designed, will be at the root of future screens and devices. And not only that, but that their rubber-band like future devices will be produced for pennies, using an ink-jet printer.

“Stretchable thin-film transistors (TFTs) and integrated logic circuits directly printed on elastomeric polydimethylsiloxane (PDMS) substrates,” are behind the tech, the scientists say in a paper.

Roughly, the way it works is that a smart fabric is created from organic and nanomaterials. The material is then dissolved to turn-out electronic inks. Those inks are used in the simple printer on elastic materials and organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs). Theoretically one ends up with a stretchable e-reader or tablet, or an inexpensive, mass produced flexible wrist monitor, for example. Wallpaper-like screens could conceivable cover expanses of wall too.

“Our work could soon lead to printed displays that can easily be stretched to larger sizes, as well as wearable electronics and soft robotics applications, scientist Chuan Wang, of the university, says in a press release.

“Both TFTs and logic circuits can be stretched beyond 50 percent strain along either channel length or channel width directions for thousands of cycles,” the paper says. All that “while showing no significant degradation in electrical performance.

Thus far, they’ve only gotten disparate parts created. But they reckon that within a couple of years they will have combined stretchable integrated circuits and OLEDs to create foldable and stretchy pixel-display screens.

In my travels I pack two or three screens at least—laptop, smartphone and tablet. Even then I miss my extended dual display monitor from home base. I feel like the poster child for stretchable mobile devices.

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