Apple wants to embed stretchable displays in your clothes

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One of Apple's stretchable displays could be built into your sleeve.
One of Apple's stretchable displays could be built into your sleeve and function as an external screen for your iPhone.
Photo: Apple

It sounds like science fiction, but Apple has created a method for making stretchable displays. This means that, instead of your computer being in your pocket or on your wrist, it could be made into your shirt.

Phones with flexible displays are expected in the next year or so, but these are just intended to be foldable. The screen Apple is just received a patent for could be wadded up into a ball.

The basic design starts with a stretchable substrate. Embedded in this is thin-film circuitry. Mounted on the substrate is an array of crystalline semiconductor LEDs connected to the circuitry.

Military and civilian applications for stretchable displays

Although it was just awarded today, this patent was filed with the USPTO in 2016. That’s not long after Apple and several other companies teamed up with the Pentagon to create the FlexTech Alliance. The goal of this public/private partnership is to create stretchable electronics for the military.

But there are civilian uses as well, of course. There’s little need for a smartphone or smartwatch when your sleeve is your computer. Or a piece of clothing could function as an external display for an iPhone in your pocket.

Of course, there are surely still technical obstacles to overcome. Apple’s patent says nothing about resolution, and early versions are likely to offer low pixel densities. Also, there’s the paired questions of ruggedness and cost. No one will pay $500 for a shirt with an embedded display that can’t ever be washed.

Real-world applications of Apple’s stretchable displays are likely years away.  Still, they carry the potential to revolutionize computing as much as the laptop or smartphone did.

The full text of Apple’s “Electronic devices with soft input-output components” — Patent # 10,026,721 — is available on the USPTO website.