What Will Apple Use Flexible Displays For? Everything!

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Apple is working on the use of flexible-glass touch displays. Which products will Apple use flexible displays in?

The answer is: all of them.

When people think about flexible displays, they think about small-screen gadgets like iWatches and curved-glass iPhones. What most don’t realize is that flexible displays can bring some amazing benefits to a device, even if the display itself isn’t curved.

And Apple has patents on all of it.

Here’s how Apple might deploy flexible displays to transform every product they make.

The Job

Apple posted a job listing, which it took down after about a week and a half, for a senior optical engineer to “lead the investigation on emerging display technologies” including “flexible displays” to improve “optical performance.”

Whenever a ginormous company like Apple posts a job listing that appears to seek one specialized employee, the reality is that they’re simply calling for a truckload of resumes. From that long list of applicants, they can hire all kinds of people.

(Besides, we already know the job listing is lying: They specify hours as 40 per week. That’s closer to how much they’ll be working each weekend.)

What we don’t see is that Apple is almost certainly relying on headhunters for the head of their projects and engineering teams. A public job listing is more useful for staffing jobs reporting to the engineering role specified in the listing.

The point is: Don’t be fooled by this ad. Apple has a massive effort that is already working very hard on developing and using display technologies for every major product line they make.

Here’s what Apple could do with tomorrow’s flexible display technology.

Better Desktops

How do you improve the iMac? It’s sleek, elegant, thin, brilliant and beautiful. Sure, you can later up the processor, memory and storage capacity. But how do you make it jaw-droppingly better?

You triple the screen size. But how?

If you’ve got a 27-inch iMac, you know that the screen is already a little too big in one respect: If you want to look at something onscreen near one side, then the other, you need to lean from one side to the other and crane your neck to see it. Otherwise, you’re looking at the screen at an angle.

Desktop monitors like the 27-inch iMac are pushing the limits of straight-on visibility.

By using flexible display technology, I believe Apple will build wrap-around iMacs that could be about 30 inches high and four or five feet across, curving around in a semi circle so that the middle is about the same distance from your face as the edges.

Monitors more or less like this already exist, but they use shitty projection technology. Flexible displays will enable brilliant screens like today’s iMacs, but curved.

There are also some interesting opportunities for true all-in-ones, where the touchpad and keyboard are virtual, and just part of the screen. Imagine a very large monitor where about 9 inches to a foot of the bottom of the screen was flat or nearly flat against the desk, then gradually curved up at an angle.

This idea was envisioned nicely with a pencil sketch posted on a MacRumors forum last year.

A clunky but functioning prototype variant of this idea called the BendDesk was nailed together a few years ago.

These are both rough, incomplete ideas, but Apple designers could make a wonderful all-in-one with this approach, combining touch displays and flexible display technology.

Better Phones and Tablets

Flexible displays could dramatically improve future iPhones and iPads. And not just in the ways some Apple patentsĀ imagine.

For starters, they could end one of Apple’s biggest tech support cost — cracked screens. Flexible glass feels like glass but bends like plastic under stress.

Another advantage of flexible displays is the possibility of building a screen that doubles as a woofer. Right now, the tiny speakers built into iPhones and iPads are sophisticated, but their size prevents them from producing rich sounds. By building speakers behind or as part of the screen, the entire front of a phone or iPad could pump out bass, while the little speakers could produce stereo tweeter sounds.

It’s also possible that flexible glass displays could enable edge-to-edge displays — and beyond.

What’s beyond the edge? The perpendicular edge. Right now, the sides of an iPhone or iPad have physical buttons. These could be replaced with virtual buttons on a screen that wraps around the outer edge of the device. The advantage is that buttons could change depending on whatever app is running.

Flexible display technology could be used for accessories, such as really cool smart covers.

Future displays (we’re talking 10 years out) could have physical buttons that rise right out of the screen — again, app-determined.

Hybrid Gadgets

Flexible displays could also bring about elegant hybrid devices.

Any mobile gadget struggle with a trade-off between the desire to make it small for mobility and large for usability. So imagine an iPhone where both the front and the back are part of one continuous flexible display. You could use it as a standard iPhone, but then open it out to more than double the screen real estate and turn it into a tablet.

In that configuration, the screen would be on the outside of the device.

Another version could have the screen on the inside of the fold. So it can be closed like a laptop, with the screen protected from the elements. Then you open it like a laptop, or keep going and open it all the way up into a very big-screen touch tablet. When in laptop mode, the bottom screen would function as an on-screen keyboard and touchpad.

A prototype One Laptop Per Child mock-up flirted with this idea (but not with flexible screens), so you can see how usable this could be if designed by Apple using flexible display technology.

Oh, and Apple might even make a flexible-screen iWatch. Don’t know if you heard about that.

Think about how extremely Apple has evolved its devices over the years. (And ignore the baloney about how Apple doesn’t innovate anymore — people always say that right before Apple changes whole industries with radical new directions).

Apple’s first real PC (The Apple II) looked like an old-timey cash register.

The Apple III looked like grandma’s TV sitting on grandpa’s Selectric typewriter.

The first Macintosh series looked like a toaster.

The first iMac looked like a giant, fruity alien space helmet.

The iMac G4 looked like a lamp.

And, of course, the current iMac looks like a sheet of glass.

Every few years, Apple utterly transforms the shape of its desktops. We can expect the same from its phones and tablets.

Every conceivable scenario points to the use of flexible display technology to morph and transform Apple’s devices.

Apple knows that, and that’s why they have patents that cover all the possibilities.

I think flexible display technology will form the bendy foundation of all Apple’s future products.

  • urilevy2

    You’re high man

  • lambaline

    Wow, this is quite amazing!

  • aardman

    If the display doubles as a woofer, won’t the image blur whenever a base line is playing?

  • HerbalEd

    Exaggerate much? I have a 30″ screen (even larger than the 27″ you describe) and I by no means “… need to lean from one side to the other and crane your neck to see …” what’s on each side of the screen.

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Mike ElganMike Elgan writes about technology and culture for a wide variety of publications. Follow Mike on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

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