LG and Samsung are set to launch folding TVs and smartphones, and everyone from Apple to Xiaomi has patents and prototypes in development. Here’s what you need to know
Flexible display technology is on the cusp of becoming a Very Big Deal in the tech industry, in marketing and research terms, if nothing else.
Samsung’s leading the field when it comes to PR buzz, but flexible display maker Royole was the first company to get a folding phone into the hands of the tech press, Xiaomi has just teased its new prototype and LG’s all set to launch a high-end TV that rolls down into a box built into its base, which doubles as a Dolby Atmos sound bar.
Manufacturers obviously think flexible is a fantastic idea, but the pressing question is how much real-world appeal the hardware really has.
Matthew Cockerill, creative director and head of studio London at Swift Creatives, says that, beyond the obvious benefit of putting bigger smartphones in our pockets, “with a nascent technology there are always more questions than answers. This technology is an innovation trigger for brands and designers who have to work out what the value of these products are for users.”
The real challenge, he says, is to make folding tech viable once it’s no longer a novelty: “In a plateauing smartphone market, it certainly offers an opportunity to reinvigorate the category.”
Ron Mertens feels that public demand is a big question and that user appeal will probably depend heavily on the price and on the actual device in question, although the basic concept has legs: “If your phone could easily open into a tablet, while still retaining its form factor, price and performance – I think everyone will want that, right? But this could take some years to achieve.”
On the TV front, Luke Miles, co-founder and creative director at New Territory, says that, “in terms of our living spaces, there is an opportunity to create a whole new category of objects that are more empathic to these environments. TV’s have always been thought of as traditional, black boxes that hang from the wall or sit on a stand, but folding screens would allow us to develop them, so they blend more elegantly into an interior. “
Even if the first generation of TVs, like LG’s 65in Signature OLED TV R, just roll away neatly into their bases, it’s a look that’ll appeal to fans of minimalist or unobtrusive decor, as well as meaning that there’ll be fewer concerns about accidentally knocking over a large and fragile screen when it’s not in use.
However, the limited production capacity for flexible displays, along with the relatively disappointing sales performance of its most cutting edge devices means we’re probably not going to see a folding iPhone in the immediate future.
Ron Mertens breaks it down: “I don’t think this company will release an extremely low-volume, high-end product. Samsung could release a Galaxy Fold with a price tag of $2,000 and hope to sell a few tens of thousands of pieces (or hundreds of thousands, maybe). It will enable them to test the technology, see market acceptance and get more experience with foldable screens. But I don’t see Apple doing that in the next few years.” More