Flexible, e-ink mobile to rival smartphones in coming years

Researchers from Queens University presented a flexible, e-ink display at the Computer Human Interaction conference that they believe could one day replace smartphones. Called the Paper Phone, the device isn't much thicker than a few sheets of paper and uses the same type of display found on the Amazon Kindle and other popular e-readers.

Since it's flexible, bending the device controls its actions.

"That means we can use the types of metaphors you find when reading or working with paper documents now working with computers," said Roel Vertegaal an associate professor of computer science at Queens University. "If you want to turn the page you simply bend the top right corner and you go to the next page."

Vertegaal and his team warned though that bending the device too much could damage the display. They're working to make the screen more durable.

"It's taken a long time to get the point where we have these very thin film displays because it's very hard to print these electronic ink droplets onto a flexible substrate and then run wires that power the individual pixels."

They also want to untether the device from the computer that runs it. On the left side of the phone is a bulky piece of plastic that connects the phone to an Apple computer that runs the software, creates the display and makes the actual phone calls.

"It doesn't need to be tethered, we just didn't focus on that," he said. "We simply tethered it so we could do the study and get this done."

The plastic connector also limits the number of gestures to 10. Once removed, Vertegaal said it could then recognize about 16.

It might take some time for users to learn the new gestures. Rather than touching the display as users are so used to, bending a corner would flip a page or bending two corners could select an item.

Vertegaal thinks that flexible displays are the gateway to making computers invisible.

"I think on the paper computer side we're going to see Windows disappear off the desktop on your computer onto your real desktop, which means you can now have a display for each window. If you want to stack them, toss them or make a bigger screen you can do all that."

The conference continues through Thursday in Vancouver.

Nick Barber covers general technology news in both text and video for IDG News Service. E-mail him at Nick_Barber@idg.com and follow him on Twitter at @nickjb.

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