Flexible Displays Finally Arrive

The explosion of tablet computers has demonstrated that consumers and businesses are eager for devices that let people access files, media and other content on the go. But these systems have one intrinsic drawback: they?re difficult to hold, handle and transport because they?re rigid.

This may soon change. After years of anticipation about roll-up displays, they could be arriving at a smartphone or tablet near you within the next several months. It?s rumored that Samsung will introduce flexible active-matrix organic light-emitting diode (AMOLED) display technology in watches and phones in the second quarter of 2012.

Other manufacturers also are close to manufacturing flexible screen devices, according to industry sources. LG demonstrated a 9.7-inch color e-paper display and a 19-inch flexible e-paper display in 2010. The technology could be used for e-newspapers or e-magazines. Another company, PlasticLogic, has already introduced an ?electronic textbook? for school children in Russia. It features a 10.7-inch shatterproof display that looks like actual paper and can hold up to 40 books.

The U.S. Army is also getting into the picture. In February, the Los Angeles Times reported that Hewlett-Packard would deliver a working prototype of a lightweight, wearable Dick Tracy-style wristwatch that will let soldiers in the field view digital maps and other information on a flexible plastic screen that won?t crack or shatter.

Market research and consulting firm DisplaySearch estimates that sales of flexible displays will swell from $85 million in 2008 to $9 billion by 2018. So far, the difficulty in getting flexible displays to market has mostly centered on manufacturing issues, including affixing thin transistor arrays to a flexible substrate. A high number of defects has resulted in high manufacturing costs.

But it now appears that flexible displays are about to be seen in a big way. According to Nick Colaneri, director of the Flexible Display Center at Arizona State University: ?You can start thinking about putting electronic displays on things where you wouldn?t ordinarily think of having them.? The list includes clothing, shelf labels, walls and roll-up e-readers that could supplant today?s Kindles and iPads.