Picture a device that starts as a transparent smart phone much like Tony Stark’s futuristic hand-held machine in Iron Man. But this screen is bendable so you can wrap it around your wrist to make a smartwatch. It’s also stretchable like taffy so it can expand to the size of a tablet or shrink to form around your ear. And don’t worry about battery life, it’s powered by the sun.
Nokia, the now struggling phone manufacturer, dreamed up this device in 2008 when it was still at the top of its game, and called it the Morph. It may sound far-fetched, but all of these futuristic features are in development.
‘The concept video is brilliant, though, every so often resurfaces online with people wondering exactly when it’ll all come to fruition. Watch it again:
We broke the Morph’s features down into four major attributes — bendable, stretchable, transparent, and solar displays — and asked experts how long it will be before a Morph-style device is even possible.
1. Bendable Displays
The difference between bendable screens and stretchable screens is big. We already know about the the static version of bendable screens from curved TV displays to Samsung’s Edge devices. Bendable screens take that same concept and allow it to flow as if it were a piece of paper.
Stretchable screens on the other hand, actually change the dimensions of the screen by pulling or pushing the display (more on that below).
Displays that bend are coming fast. A Chinese startup called Moxi Group is shipping 100,000 units of its new flexible, rectangular phone that also folds into a wrist watch later this year, according to Bloomberg.
In January at CES in Las Vegas, LG showed off an 18-inch, less-than-one-millimeter thick display that can be folded like a newspaper. It’s not clear what the benefit is there but it’s a great proof of concept.
Samsung is highly invested after performing a live demo of a cellphone-sized bendable screen at CES in 2013 and following that up with a concept video for a wallet-like phone that folds to be both a phone and a tablet. Business Insider predicted just such a device would be announced in January, but that hasn’t materialized yet.
2. Stretchable Displays
Whereas bendable screens are the most developed idea from the Morph phone concept, stretchable screens still have a very long way to go.
Other videos have imagined a phone that extends out in whatever direction you want like the gif above, but the original Morph video is more subtle. Nokia imagined how the “nanoscale structure” of the device would stretch to wrap around a user’s wrist and the “mesh of fibers” would control how the device is folded.
Qibing Pei, professor of material sciences in UCLA’s engineering department, worked on research to stretch a few OLED pixels by just a few centimeters, and that wasn’t even a full display. An organic light-emitting device, or OLED, is the same technology used to brighten many smartphones and displays. So, it stands to reason that if UCLA researchers can stretch a few pixels, they may be able to scale it up. Pei seems to think so, but there’s little funding for such an endeavor.
“It ultimately depends on how many resources are available and directed to this effort,” Pei tells Inverse. “If the resources are made immediate I think it could be done in three to five years.”
He sees uses beyond creating cool hand-held devices citing applications in medical and robotics fields as well.
3. Solar Charged Displays
Sunpartner Technologies](http://sunpartnertechnologies.com/smart-surfaces/) already offers screens and surfaces that give personal electronics an extra boost of battery using the sun. But, you can’t power your whole device that way.
Gregory Winter, vice president of sales and marketing for Sunpartner Technologies USA and Europe, tells Inverse that its solar powered, transparent touch screens can give a smartphone an extra minute of battery life for every three minutes it’s exposed to the sun.
He says today the technology serves more as a “safety feature” or a fall-back option when there’s no outlets around.
“The dream of having a smartphone that is continuously charged by solar cells, I think is still far away and a bit too futuristic,” Winter says, adding it could be five to 10 years before that kind of technology hits the market.
However, there’s a bigger promise and interest for this technology in smartwatches and other wearables, because the smaller screens and limited uses mean devices use less power. The company claims is can extend the battery life on wearables by 50 percent depending on the conditions. That means Apple Watches might get two days of use, but Pebble smart watches could get close to a full year.
He says there is already current research into putting these solar power collecting cells in flexible screens, but that could be another 20 years out.
4. Transparent Displays
This is another technology that is already relatively advanced now considering companies such as Panasonic are demoing extremely impressive invisible transparent TVs such as the one above. These transparent displays could be used in retail, in museums for augmented reality learning experiences, and as a navigation kiosk in buildings and around cities.
But Jennifer Davis, vice president of marketing and product strategy at Planar, tells Inverse, transparent screen might not be good for phones because those private moments and conversations will be more visible for people to see. Planar Systems told Inverse it’s thinking big with its screens imagining a world in which the very infrastructure of our buildings are made with screens, some of them transparent.
Still the technology is advancing rapidly and could be shrunk down to phone size in in a few years — if that’s something consumers want.