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On Wednesday, October 16th — a day that came close to living in infamy — I stood on a New Have Line station platform and, luckily, thought to check my email. I was on my way to a luncheon presentation for a large New York financial advisory group that wanted me to speak on the present and future of flexible displays, and answer questions about where the investment opportunities might lie.

Instead, I checked my phone, saw an urgent request to call my contact, and found that the threatened Congressional refusal to raise the debt ceiling had required the folks who would otherwise be attending my presentation to busily help clients navigate their ways through a volatile market. So, meeting rescheduled.

The interest in flexible displays goes far beyond the investment group I will eventually address. A quick look around the Web will show lots of interest from the investment and consumer electronic communities. Despite the intense interest, it seems many people don’t realize that using a flexible display doesn’t mean the end product will be flexible. The Samsung Galaxy Round, introduced last week to the Korean market, is a perfect example.

The Samsung Galaxy Round curved phablet was introduced to the Korean market on October 9, 2013.  (Photo:  Samsung Electronics)

The Samsung Galaxy Round curved phablet was introduced to the Korean market on October 9, 2013. (Photo: Samsung Electronics)

The┬áRound uses a flexible 5.7-inch, Full HD, Super AMOLED display, which is used to enable a product that curves gently around a vertical axis. The curved case, however, is every bit as rigid as comparable flat cases. Indeed, Samsung seems to have struggled to figure out what a rigid curved case night be good for. Reportedly, this rather large phablet, fits comfortable in a user’s hand, thanks in part to the curve. Samsung has also designed the software to respond to the case being rocked when its curved side is lying on a flat surface. (When the device is rocked in sleep mode, basic information appears on the home screen.) LG Electronics has also promised a curved phone for 2014.

Why is the Round being offered only in the Korean market, at least at first? We can speculate that Samsung wants to work out any bugs while volumes are relatively small, or that manufacturing capacity is limited, or that manufacturing yield for the flexible display is low. If capacity or yield (the two can be related) is low, why might that be? One possibility is that flexible OLED displays require flexible moisture barriers. Effective flexible barrier films have been expensive and may not be available in large quantities. However, the fact that this flexible display is of the “bend-once” variety may allow the use of a simpler barrier-film structure.

When many people think of a flexible display, they think of the “flex-many” type, which could be rolled up inside a small cylinder and unrolled whenever you want to use it, assuming the particlar design was could be rolled to a very small radius curvature multiple times with deterioration of performance . Although we have seen technology demonstrations of such concepts, there are no commercial products now and probably will not be for some time. When we do see the first flex-many products, they will probably have limited flexibility, such as the concept shown in the graphic.

Samsung Round, end view  (Photo:  Samsung Electronics)

Samsung Round, end view (Photo: Samsung Electronics)

Cambrios flexible phone concept  (Graphic:  Cambrios)

Cambrios flexible phone concept (Graphic: Cambrios)

What is delaying the introduction of flex-many products? The answer is: almost everything. Not only must the display itself (including the backplane and barrier film) be flexible and not deteriorate over many flexing cycles, but so must the other components of the device, including the touch screen, circuit boards, and battery. Hard switches and buttons must either be eliminated or designed to work with a flexing substrate and, perhaps, case. None of this is easy, but solving the problems are where the product and investment opportunities lie. That is what I will be discussing with the New York investment group when the current economic tensions die down.

Posted by Ken Werner, October 17, 2013 10:04 AM

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About Ken Werner

Kenneth I. Werner is the founder and Principal of Nutmeg Consultants, which specializes in the display industry, display technology, display manufacturing, and display applications. He serves as Marketing Consultant for Tannas Electronic Displays (Orange, California) and Senior Analyst for Insight Media. He is a founding co-editor of and regular contributor to Display Daily, and is a regular contributor to HDTVexpert.com and HDTV Magazine. He was the Editor of Information Display Magazine from 1987 to 2005.